Zhou Bo: China, India and the Indian Ocean power play

  • Zhou Bo is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.

    Is the Indian Ocean India’s ocean? However absurd this question might seem, the answer is probably yes if you talk to a Hindu nationalist who believes in Akhand Bharat (“undivided India”).

    According to this concept, not only is the Indian Ocean Hind Mahasagar (an ocean of the Hindus), the geographic expanse of the ancient Bharat extended as far as modern-day Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

    When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he said in a 2012 interview that Akhand Bharat should be seen in the context of cultural unity. 

    Yet this notion of a Greater India persists and is probably one reason for Delhi’s habitual “big brother” attitude towards its smaller neighbours. Prime Minister Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, introduced at the beginning of his first tenure in 2014, sought to change that. But the policy has not gained traction among India’s subcontinental neighbours and Delhi’s own actions are to blame.

    Consider the example of Sri Lanka. In 2014, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, triggering fierce opposition from India. Then, in 2017, New Delhi was widely believed to have pressured Sri Lanka into rejecting a request from China to let a Chinese submarine dock in Colombo for resupply.

    When Sri Lankan announced on July 12 this year that it would permit a Chinese research/survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota Port for replenishment, India protested, saying it has a bearing on “India’s security and economic interests”. This caused Colombo to ask Beijing to defer the arrival of the Chinese ship. 


    In response to Indian media reports about the Yuan Wang 5 being a ‘spy ship’, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the vessel was conducting scientific research “in accordance with international law” and “does not affect the security and economic interests of any country”.

    Although Colombo set aside New Delhi’s protests and eventually allowed the ship to berth from Aug 16-22, it is alarming that India has time and again objected to replenishment of Chinese ships by another state exercising its sovereign rights.

    This prompts a question: could China and India coexist on the Indian Ocean?

    Obviously, India, which vows to become a “net security provider” on the Indian Ocean, is not happy with China’s growing influence in the region. The deadly brawl between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in 2020 only added to India’s resentment. Some Indian strategists believe that China wants to encircle India from the sea. But such an analysis is an indirect form of self-praise of India’s importance and is off the mark in its reading of Beijing’s priorities; China has more pressing business. At a time when China has to contend with actions from a hostile United States, which sees it as its top strategic competitor, it would be too busy to encircle India.


    But that is not to say the Indian Ocean is of no interest to China. It is. Ninety per cent of global trade goes through the sea route. As the largest trading nation in the world, China is naturally concerned over the security of international sea lanes. Besides, China has huge investments in South Asian countries, including India. In 2021, China-India bilateral trade hit a record high of US$125.6 billion. This explains why since the end of 2008, the PLA Navy has been sending naval flotillas non-stop to patrol in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, it established its first military base in Djibouti to facilitate counter-piracy operations.

    To safeguard its ever-growing interests in the Indian Ocean, the PLA, which has the largest navy in the world, has to maintain or even strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean. Chinese and Indian naval vessels are bound to meet more often at sea.

    It is only a matter of time before a Chinese aircraft carrier strike group shows up in the Indian Ocean. How will India react then?

    Or, in the worst scenario, could China and India clash one day in the Indian Ocean? Such a likelihood is low, but not zero. In 2017, China and India nearly went to war in a face-off that lasted 73 days in Doklam, a disputed area between China and Bhutan.

    India’s military planners traditionally believe that although the country may have a disadvantage along the China-India border, it certainly has an advantage over China at sea in the Indian Ocean, given India’s geographic proximity.

    But there is no guarantee that the Indian Navy will prevail in a potential conflict. India does not have the material capabilities to engage in a zero-sum game with China. China’s economy is almost five times larger, and its defence spending four times larger than that of India.


    And what role would India play in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy of containing China? India is a member of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) – a US-led club of like-minded members that also includes Japan and Australia. Whether it might evolve into an anti-China club in the future depends very much on India since the three other countries are already allies. So far, India is cautious. The only military component of Quad is a naval exercise in Malabar in the Bay of Bengal. Recently though India and the US announced plans to hold a joint exercise in October, less than 100km from the line of actual control between China and India.

    With China-US competition expected to intensify, India’s importance to the US will surely grow. But India’s national interests are best served by avoiding China-US rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Should the rivalry between China and US intensify, India’s room to manoeuvre in the Indian Ocean will be reduced.

    If India truly believes in “Neighbourhood First”, perhaps it should consider how to live in amity with its more powerful neighbour first. Pressuring its smaller neighbours on their relations with China will only drive them closer to Beijing.

    (This article was first published on The Straits Times on Aug. 20, 2022.)

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