Exploring the Sino-Indian Maritime Rivalry

In this article, the author explores China and India’s maritime rivalry in context of the recent skirmishes between the two nations in the South China Sea.


By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 10 Jan, 2012

In the dying embers of 2011 the sentiment between China and India regarding maritime activities became increasingly antagonistic. China explicitly warned India from any interference in the South China Sea, India demonstrated its increasing naval capability with the induction of its second aircraft carrier – two years ahead of schedule – and China beefed up its physical presence across the Indian Ocean. Emboldened by a sense of strength and necessity both nations are expanding their capability and presence beyond their immediate periphery, directly into the others ‘backyard’. What is the naval security state of affairs between Asia’s rising powers?

Competing claims to Asia’s waterways

As emerging Asian powers, both China and India’s vital security interests have dilated towards regional concerns. Their interests, particularly lie in the Indian Ocean. The strategic focus on the region is predominantly due to its proximity to the energy rich Persian Gulf, a vital transport route for Asia’s energy and commercial interaction with the world market. Specifically, it is the desire to ensure security over vital shipments that has dictated the growing Chinese naval presence in the region. This, in turn, stimulates India’s proactive response of increasing its naval capability whilst projecting their presence in the South China Sea. These parallel policies signal an overlap in their strategic spheres, as both nations aim to stretch their strategic footprint across coastal Asia.

Beijing’s rationale derives largely, but not exclusively, from energy security, as China’s energy import dependency leaves her vulnerable across volatile transport routes. To this extent, the Malacca Dilemma constitutes a potent threat perception. In the event of heightened Sino-Indian tension, India (due to its proximity to the Malacca Strait, of which 85% of China’s energy needs pass through) can physically blockade China’s energy supplies. This narrative is used to justify the Middle Kingdom’s proactive presence expansion into the Indian Ocean. However, Beijing’s expansion also serves to stifle Indian attempts at exercising domain dominance. India, by a coincidence of geography, is the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, the region constitutes India’s sphere of influence wherein New Delhi widely sees that its task is to be the steward of the waterways, safeguarding transit vessels. It is this vital responsibility that many consider to be India’s breakthrough into the global elite of nations. As both nations aim to ensure their national interests, they are increasingly drawn into a competition for supremacy.

The China Threat: String of Pearls

Beijing’s interests in establishing a quasi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean are contextualised through the narrative of energy insecurity. The desire to express self-determination is an essential characteristic in China’s ‘peaceful development’. Accordingly, China has employed mutually enforcing tactics to facilitate its policies. Firstly, to strengthen its presence, it is taking tempered measures, which consist of diplomatic, economic and military engagement across the ocean’s littoral. Described as the ‘String of Pearls’. Secondly, Beijing is continuing a traditional naval buildup to fully utilise and protect their growing interests.

The String of Pearls strategy has been used to describe the physical manifestations of China’s interests within the Indian Ocean. These ‘pearls’ consist of: the building of container ports and deep-sea facilities in Chittagong, Bangladesh; assistance in constructing Pakistan’s deep-water port of Gwadar; support for the projected construction of a twelve-hundred-mile oil and gas pipeline from a port near Sittwe in Myanmar; and the controversial investment in the construction of Asia’s own Suez Canal that would cut across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, subsequently bypassing the Malacca Strait.

Supplementing this is a methodical and patient naval buildup. In August 2011 Beijing’s naval ambitions were significantly boosted as China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, completed its maiden voyage. This is noteworthy as aircraft carriers denote strategic importance and subsequently improves China’s maritime deterrence and combat capability. This significant moment is a watershed in the process of developing a capable navy, one that will be able of projecting and defending the Middle Kingdom’s interests.

Such advancement has not gone unnoticed by India, as with any augmentation of military strength and presence expansion comes greater suspicion and acts of counter-balancing. Despite official Chinese rhetoric professing that its actions serve only to safeguard its national security, it does little to alleviate New Delhi’s perceived threat. China’s actions are viewed with suspicion and are widely described within Indian military circles as antagonistic and provocative.

However, from the Chinese perspective the advent of the String of Pearls strategy is itself misleading as it attempts to construct a narrative of the China threat to justify retaliatory and often aggressive means. Beijing claims that it is not in search of any permanent presence in the region and that it wants to ensure security of its energy supplies. Nonetheless, China’s geopolitical intentions cannot be naively overlooked. Beijing may be attempting to exercise power through ensuring its presence across the Indian Ocean. Supplementing this is also the desire to curtail the naval reach and capability of India, suggesting that China deems India a long-term adversary. In essence, Beijing may be exercising a policy of ‘nipping India’s navy in the bud’.

India’s manifest destiny

China’s encroaching presence in the Indian Ocean is cause for Indian ire. India’s interests in Asia’s waterways are a manifestation of its geographical reality; it is the central territorial feature of the Indian Ocean. This feeds India’s inherent naval desire to exercise dominance and hegemony over the Ocean. In an attempt to achieve this, India is consistently upgrading its naval fleet, which last month witnessed the advent of its second aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and is soon to be followed by the third. This demonstrates how seriously India takes it perceived role by not limiting itself for future options of force.

Furthermore, India’s augmentation of its naval capability is not pursued exclusively unilaterally. Recently, New Delhi has actively participated and hosted naval exercises with Singapore, Australia, Japan and the US, tentatively signaling the formation of a democratic bloc alliance. Not only does this energise India’s aspirations but it is also intended to act as deterrent to the ever-watchful China. Certainly, a substantial part of India’s naval surge is undoubtedly responding to the perceived reality of the China threat. The China threat was first raised in the 2004 The Indian Maritime Doctrine claiming explicably that China poses a maritime challenge to India. It highlighted China’s “determined drive to build a powerful blue water maritime force” and the “imperative for India, therefore, [was] to retain a strong maritime capability in order to maintain a balance of maritime power in the Indian Ocean, as well as the larger Asia-Pacific region”. This indicates that not only has the China question has been an active defence consideration for some time but also effective measures are being taken, and have been taken, to address the concern.

Additionally, India has moved to balance China’s creeping influence with its own strategically targeted maritime presence in the South China Sea. This firmly locks them both into an intense zero-sum relationship, or put rudimentarily, a tit-for-tat encounter. New Delhi’s Look East Policy, a similar strategy to that of Beijing’s, is becoming critical for strategic deterrence against China and sustained presence in the South China Sea is a crucial national security imperative. The establishment of closer ties with Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam ensure that India holds some power of deterrence whilst enabling their military to project its presence into the heavily disputed Sea. Whilst China is frustrated with India’s newfound strategic relationship with all these nations, the most troublesome of late has been Vietnam. This is largely due to the increasing tenacity with which China is pursuing its disputed territorial claims, an issue it vehemently warns New Delhi should steer clear of.

As both nations aim to outmaneuver their rival in order to secure national interests by manipulating Asia’s waterways, it is clear that both are jostling for strategic space across Asia’s littoral. The active-reactive nature of the maritime rivalry between China and India dictates that the emergence of interests in opposing strategic zones increases the likelihood of confrontation; especially considering patrol boats and strategic relationship from both nations expand their Asian footprint. The wider implication of this rivalry is that it severely effects the fragile security situation across the continent, by engendering fractious responses to any future incidents.


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