IPCS Discussion

China and US in the Indian Ocean

30 May, 2014    ·   4475

Rheanna Mathews reports on the proceedings on the discussion

Opening Remarks
Prof P R Chari

Visiting Professor, IPCS

Four sets of questions can help set the stage regarding Sino-American relations vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean.

• Is the Sino-American relationship in the Indian Ocean only an extension of the same in the Pacific? Is it a continuation or are there differences?

• Are US interests in the Indian Ocean primarily strategic and are Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean primarily economic? Are both trying to reduce their dependence on the Indian Ocean? And is it a possibility that China and Russia might come together in oil and gas trade?

• What is the future of Sino-American relations after the ISAF and US withdrawal from Afghanistan post 2014? Will they have a cooperative relationship to stabilise Afghanistan? Will they work with each other to prevent Pakistan from self-destructing?  And will they cooperate in dealing with Islamic terrorism that is becoming a growing problem for China, especially with regard to Xinjiang and the possibility that it might draw in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)?

• How will Sino-American relations in the Indian Ocean impinge on India, especially in the Modi era? What are the implications of the National Maritime Authority proposed in the BJP manifesto? Will the positioning of air-sea assets along the coastline enable India to meet and neutralise to an extent China’s advance into the Indian Ocean region?

Prof Paul Kapur
Department of National Security Affairs, US Naval Postgraduate School

Looking at China’s possibly inevitable emergence in the maritime domain of the Indian Ocean entails examining the challenges and possible synergies between India and the US. For the last decade, the US Department of Defense (DoD) had been focused primarily on the Middle East, Afghanistan and the War on Terror. But a number of years ago the DoD began to realise that this was not really ‘the big game’, and strategically shifted its focus to this region due to the tectonic geostrategic event that was happening, i.e. the rise in Chinese power.

US focus is increasingly shifting to this region also for a number of realist strategic reasons. The first is that there is a lot of potential GNP in this area due to the demographics; young populations to be exact. Also, there are trans-shipments of high value goods criss-crossing this region and in addition to the availability of natural resources.

However, while on the one hand there is this high-value region, on the other there is a region that fraught with uncertainty. There is no high level multilateral institutionalisation that is seen among European States. The relationships are more bilateral and there are a lot of issues and disputes regarding rights to natural resources, territorial disputes, etc which do not have multilateral institutions to create stable expectations about the outcomes that are still unsettled. In addition, there is still some bad history that has not been dealt with. Apart from this, there is a rising global power, and history demonstrates that power transitions are fraught with uncertainty, especially if the large population, potential GNP and military power are taken into account.

Regarding the manner in which the states here interact with each other, two very broad models can be instantiated – the liberal and the hierarchical. While the US favours a transparent liberal model, it is not clear what China favours, mainly due to the opacity of its decision-making process. But, given China’s revealed preferences, it is a cause for concern that China might be leaning towards the illiberal model.

The question then is how to deal with this. The US has been a public goods provider in the region, especially from the standpoint of providing background security for commerce and other kinds of international political activity that occurs here. The US is still prepared to do that, especially in the maritime domain, and possibly increase its role as a public goods provider in a more formal way but in conjunction with partners. This is less of a containment strategy and more of a way to shape the way the foundations of this region are laid down, and US sees India as a natural partner in this regard, given the convergence of interests, the potential GNP, the geostrategic location of the State and the large land base. In order to realise this partnership, the process into phases would have to be broken down into two phases: set up background conditions for such a partnership, coalesce the strategic vision of the two, map out the end-state that is sought, and finally operationalise the partnership to reach that end-state.

Prof Srikanth Kondapalli
Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

There are four points that can summarise the Chinese perception of the Indian Ocean. A majority of Chinese academic publications look at the Indian Ocean as a region with great economic potential, especially with regard to fisheries. The SCS still holds good in terms of fisheries resources, but given the number of contestants for theregion, the Chinese are shifting focus to the western region of the Indian Ocean. This appears to be an innocent way to suggest that they have an interest in the region.

The second main component is energy. West Asia and Africa contributed roughly 58 per cent and 16 per cent of China’s oil imports in 2013. This demand for energy from these regions is not predicted to go down despite shale gas reserves being found even in China, and the Arctic being opened up for energy cooperation, at least for the medium-term. China is therefore heavily dependent on this region even though trade with this region is very low if the energy basket is removed.

There exists a strong lobby within China that looks at the power transition debate at the global level, which means that all areas within the globe will be contested by China - even in the Indian Ocean region. In the 1970s, the Chinese (and the Soviet Union and India) used to call for the Zone of Peace in the Indian Ocean, in connection with the Americans leasing Diego Garcia. Incidentally, the lease for Diego Garcia will have to be renewed inn 2016. So, Chinese efforts in the region are connected to a contest with the US for primacy. However, China does suffer from a number of disadvantages in this respect. The region is 6000-9000 km away from home ports, which means that they will have to set up base closer to the region for the necessary tactical air-support. In short, ‘great power’ status is what is driving China in all regions. Xi Jinpingfirst mooted the twin initiatives of the Continental Silk Route and the Maritime Silk Route in 2013; this is the Chinese counter to the US policy of ‘rebalancing’. These initiatives would extend China’s influence in two belts: the BCIM and the China-Pakistan economic belt.

There is also the view in China that the seafaring faction has become very powerful within the Chinese military as well as the political leadership. The recent reorganisation of the maritime organisations into one dealing with oceanic administration and the other dealing with law and order, becomes significant. The possibility of the G2 (Brzezinski’s Group Two) coming into the IOR is also becoming more tangible. The recent exercises and the presence of the Shang SSN in the IOR for almost 23 days and the Gulf of Aden exercises reflect the concerted Chinese effort to gain a foothold in the region. Chinese scholars have suggested the pursuance of replenishment facilities in the region as a replacement for bases.

Chinese attention is still fixed on the Pacific region, but increased Chinese activity has been seen in the Indian Ocean region lately, and given the seeping assertiveness that China exhibits in the SCS, it is a cause for concern.

Cdr Kamlesh K Agnihotri
Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation

President Hu Jintao, in November 2012, called for enhancing Chinese capacity for exploiting maritime resources and resolutely safeguarding China’s maritime interests and building China into a maritime power. In July 2013, President Xi Jinping lent full support to the vision and claimed that China’s maritime cause had entered the best period of development. The Chinese leadership clearly enunciated a decisive road map for expanding the scope of China’s maritime developments. This vision is to be accomplished by putting together various requisite foundation blocks to facilitate the nation to ‘pull together’ towards a maritime power status.

These maritime building blocks will enable China to accomplish a quantum leap in maritime activities in the extended Indo-Pacific region. The first imperative for China to increase their maritime activities in the IOR is the protection of the sea lines of communication (SLOC). The second and more important imperative relates to a need for growing power and for increasingly large operating space that strives for a presence in all global hotspots so as to influence events in favour of its own national interests. These imperatives lead China to undertake the capacity-building of its to undertake distant area operations and also to quantitatively upscale civilian maritime activities indicating both presence and purpose.

Pertaining to the Indian Ocean, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), in its present stage of evolution, would be at a decided disadvantage due to distance and non-availability of integral air defence capability. But, the situation is changing fast. The fast modernising navy is being utilised for military operations other than war, thus projecting the benign face of the State while simultaneously keeping the forces well-trained, equipped and operationally active. The IOR has been a region that has provided the PLA-N a number of opportunities in this regard, for example, anti-piracy escort duties, the AMAN series of exercises and counter-piracy exercises. The activities of PLA-N ships post-deployment in the Gulf of Aden have also become a major platform for the furtherance of soft power diplomacy in the region. Ships have been going to different regions in the world and if their movements are plotted, their courses would resemble a wagon-wheel of sorts with the hub at the Gulf of Aden.
If the dictum of the flag following economic interests is considered, then it stands to reason that Beijing would soon acknowledge the need for the PLA-N to secure its maritime stakes and interests.

The PLA-N ships visiting ports of increasing Chinese influence in the IOR are a cause for concern since this maritime area is critical to Indian maritime interests. The Bay of Bengal, in particular, the area around the Andaman Sea is extensively used for experimental rocket and missile firing, providing ample opportunity for the Chinese to listen in on communications conducted on various frequencies. It is also possible that the ports in the region might be converted to formalised logistic bases, also leading to increased traffic. The China-Pakistan maritime cooperation is evident for all to see and has to factored in by the Indian navy.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Director Research, Indian Council of World Affairs

The Indian Ocean is a busy place; almost thirty navies can be plotted in the region and the kind of activities that they are engaged in are phenomenal. Each of these navies is here with specific agendas. The Somali pirates had provided an apt excuse for foreign naval presence. The pirates have ceased to be a major problem but the navies still remain.

Looking at Japanese presence in a region as far away as Djibouti (clearly more than a thousand nautical miles from Tokyo), is it to be inferred that there is a creeping jurisdiction of the Japanese defence force? Another actor is the European Union, who talks about the Suez-Shanghai route in terms of trade. Russia too, along with China, has made forays into the Indian Ocean. Navies in this part of the world will generate roles for themselves in order to remain. They are here for the long-haul.

A clear distinction has to be made between a base and an access facility. The Chinese are here not for bases but for access. Bases would involve huge amounts of investment and political implications. It is not just the Chinese navy that seeks access. The Indian navy too pursues access facilities but follows a different strategy from that of the Chinese. While the Chinese provide aid in infrastructure-building, the Indians create small pockets of bilateral naval exercises.

The Chinese are well ahead in consolidating their maritime power because they have invested in areas like maritime tourism (a source of revenue) which other states tend to ignore. An interesting new trend which is observed is that countries like Seychelles and Mauritius are looking to China in their concept of a ‘blue economy’. Hambantota and Gwadar are two examples of China accommodating such interests.

Finally, if the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium were to borrow the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as a model from the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), it could act as a strong confidence-building mechanism. This is necessary because China, US and India will not be the only actors in the IOR. Keeping this in mind, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) needs to look at expanding its role and becoming more inclusive. Moreover, it needs to work in conjunction with other structures like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and MILAN. These structures also need to stop shying away from hard security issues.

Discussion Questions:
• What are the specific issues the US will address in the Indian Ocean and will the modus operandi be multilateral?
• What is the quality of the PLA-Navy in terms of equipment and human resources?
• How far can China afford to go in terms of pursuing its ambitions for energy acquisition or power transition vis-à-vis maintaining bilateral relations with other countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan?
• There seems to be some concern that the Chinese are coming. How should India respond in terms of policy action and the like?
• Is China trying to change the rules of international conduct? If it is, why is the world quiet?
• China is coming into the Indian Ocean. So what?

• Before the US and India get to the specifics, there has to be confidence on both sides that there is a convergence of interests. There has to be a lot more dialogue before a certain level of trust exists that can indicate a consensus. Till then, it could be said that the US is engaged in a pre-commitment strategy, which means that there will be US presence in the region which may be engaged in case of security threats.

• The quality of the Chinese ships has greatly improved. From ships that could have been described as fire hazards, the PLA-N now has ships that are good in terms of design and technical detail. Moreover, in terms of quantity also, the PLA-N has improved. In 2013, 17 ships were commissioned, which included frontline destroyers, frigates of the Weifang class and some minesweepers. The PLA-N ships exhibit sustenance and reach, reflecting that their quality has improved by leaps and bounds.

• The Maritime Silk Route is a new initiative romanticised in traditional, historical and cultural ways. The Xinhua news agency recently brought out a map identifying Kolkata and Hambantota as part of the route – that this might have military implications cannot be ignored.

• Three incidents illustrate how China has eluded the US enquiries into its activities. First, the 1993 Yinhe incident in which the Chinese were suspected of transporting chemical and biological weapons beyond its borders into West Asia. In 1996, the USS Kitty Hawk had the upper hand on the Chinese. The 2001 EP-3 incident occurred even though an admiral was the US Ambassador to China. These and other such incidents indicate that the Chinese are growing more confident and their Anti-Access Area Denial strategy is working in keeping the US away from its peripheries.

However, unless China enacts another Pearl Harbour, it is not likely that it will enter the Pacific. In case of the Indian Ocean, Chinese entry cannot be stopped from entering since it is not India’s Ocean. What is important in this scenario, therefore, is the rules of engagement. Also to be noted is reciprocity when it comes to the SCS. The Chinese foreign ministry stated that India has no concerns in the SCS. India does have a sizeable portion - 55 per cent - of its trade passing through the region. Hence it is a concern.

• Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean will be leveraged into psychological, media and legal warfare.

• The IONS is a structure that needs to be developed and invested in. However a little more debate will be required in order to assuage the apprehensions member States might have regarding opening up the institution to other regional players.

Rapporteured by Rheanna Mathews, Research Intern, IPCS