The 21st century is marked with swiftly changing dynamics of global politics and to cope with looming challenges, states are adopting timely measures to secure their respective national interests. This article will focus on the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region where a tug of war can be witnessed between China and India.
To pursue and secure its economic interests, China has been extending its military might in the Indian Ocean region with the help of smaller South Asian littoral states. The network of Chinese bases in these states makes a string encircling India, and strategists have termed it as the string of pearls strategy.
The smaller South Asian states are either directly or indirectly dependent on China in terms of trade and economic relations which gives China an upper hand in this region. The debt trap launched by China showed its true colours when China took charge of the Hambantota seaport of Sri Lanka for a lease of 99 years.
A View from the Indian Ocean
The famous American maritime strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan once stated that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” The significant amount of oil flow from the Persian Gulf to the whole world augments its strategic importance, and the sea lines of communications help the smooth flow of goods through this region.
The vast territory of the Indian Ocean hosts the most important choke points. The north-western portion hosts the Strait of Hormuz, while the eastern portion hosts the Strait of Malacca. The Malacca strait is critical for China’s trade supplies, as it connects the South China Sea. The third important chokepoint is Bab el Mandeb, or the Strait of Djibouti, which links the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea.
The US base in Diego Garcia of the Chagos Islands and the Chinese military base in the Obock region of Djibouti are significant. India, the third main stakeholder in the Indian Ocean region, currently carried strategic deals with Australia for mutual adventures on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The establishment of the fifth Indian naval command on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal is another significant anti–China move.
China’s Strategic Policies
The Salami-slicing Tactic
The term was first introduced by Hungarian Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi. The salami-slicing strategy in war terminology is defined as dividing the major disputed areas into smaller portions and then conquering them one by one. China practices salami-slicing tactics against India in border areas by slow and gradual movements.
The turbulent standoffs between both states due to lack of exact demarcation have given birth to new challenges. After the annexation of Aksai Chin in 1962, the border in the Ladakh region was termed as the line of actual control (LAC). The new battlefront emerged last year at the tri-junction area of Doklam where India, Bhutan, and China have high stakes.
The Chinese ambitions of constructing a road to link Bhutan’s market faced backlash from India as Chinese strong footprints in this region was a direct threat to the Indian Siliguri corridor. The Aksai Chin annexation, the Pangong Lake incident, and the Doklam issue were carried out using this salami-slicing strategy. The annexation of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in the 1970s and the Scarborough Shoals case are other prominent examples of this strategy.
String of Pearls
The string can be divided into two parts: the western half and the eastern half. The western half of the string starts from Djibouti, where China has established a military base in the Obock region, allowing the Chinese navy to keep a close eye on the Bab el Mandab region and the western portion of the Indian Ocean. The next point in this string is Gwadar, the most significant deep seaport in the region.
The naval cooperation between China and Pakistan is a serious concern for India, as this Pakistani port not only serves as a commercial port but also a naval base used for surveillance. The third important base is in Feydhoo Finolhu island of the Maldives. The eastern half of the string starts from the Chittagong port of Bangladesh; the other key base is the Coco island in Myanmar.
The string gains more importance by the inclusion of the Kyaukpyu commercial port of Myanmar which is established by China. The purpose of this port is to transport oil supplies from Myanmar to Kunming city of China to cut Chinese dependence on the Malacca Strait. The other key bases are in Kuantan (Malaysia) and Maura (Brunei).
Maritime Silk Route
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been desiring the revival of the ancient silk route of China; it will pass through the Indian Ocean and connect South Asian states with European markets. Indian and American strategists, however, have referred to it as a debt trap.
China, under its project ‘sea wings’ launched in December 2019, deployed the underwater unmanned submarines and research vessels in the Indian Ocean, to gather information about the location of the Indian submarines. These submarines detect the electronic signals emerging from the movement of Indian submarines and vessels.
India’s Strategic Policies
The Necklace of Diamonds
To counter the Chinese string of pearl strategy, India is focusing on the same sort of encircling strategy. India established the Chabahar port in Iran to nullify the Gwadar impact, but the objectives are yet to be achieved. The development of the fifth naval command centre in the Andaman and Nicobar islands is aimed to secure the Bay of Bengal territories from Chinese adventures.
Other important Indian bases included in this counter strategy are the Changi base of Singapore, the Sabang base on the northern tip of Indonesia, the Duqm base in Oman, and the base in the Assumption Island in Seychelles.
Double Fish Hook Strategy
With the support of France, Australia, Japan, and the US, Indian naval forces launched the double fish hook strategy to counter the growing Chinese military power. The eastern hook starts from the Andaman Islands and includes the Sabang port of Indonesia and the Diego Garcia base of the USA in the Chagos Islands. The western hook starts from the Chabahar port of Iran and includes the Duqm base of Oman and the Assumption base in Seychelles.
Military Modernization Through Alliances
The United States
The nuclear deal concluded in 2008, paved the way for US military supplies to India. The Indian military new land warfare doctrine of 2018 introduced multi-front war scenarios against Pakistan and China (northern border). The new land warfare doctrine divides the battle group and divisions into more integrated battle groups.
To carry these battle groups to war fronts, India has been purchasing the Chinook helicopters, the C-130J Hercules. the C-17 Globemaster, Howitzers, and the deadly AH-64 Apache.
Russia and Israel
The alliance with Russia has provided India with the T-90 tanks, the S-400 missile system, the BrahMos missile, and the Akula-II submarine. The Indo-Israel defence collaboration mainly revolves around the modernisation of the Indian army through the supply of more advanced electronic warfare systems such as the Risat-2, GSAT-6, GSAT-7, among others.
These long-range reconnaissance and observatory systems have given India an edge to track enemy movement in the region. Moreover, the provision of air defence systems like the Barak-8 and the Barak-1 have enormously increased Indian military power. India has also been purchasing the T–80 tanks and the Kamov Ka-25 helicopters from Israel
It is clear that the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region is not only confined to China and India. The involvement of the US in this great game diversifies the impact of this rivalry. China’s rise in South Asia to secure alternative trade routes is not acceptable to India and the US. Hence, India’s continuous military modernisation with the support of the US is aimed to neutralise Chinese military ingress into the Indian Ocean region.
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