The Maritime Silk Road, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and a Chinese submarine anchored at harbor in Sri Lanka: China’s strength is felt like never before in the Indian Ocean.
If there is one country that is most concerned with all these developments, it can only be India. Unlike Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Pakistan, who all embrace China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative with open arms, India’s attitude cautious and suspicious. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka was largely taken as a counter-balance to China’s growing influence in India’s periphery. Despite Sri Lanka being only a narrow strait away, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka was the first 27 years, and to Seychelles, 34 years.
What can India do? First, China’s involvement is primarily in economic field, especially in infrastructure. Secondly, India could be a beneficiary. India herself is involved in negotiating a China-Bangladesh-Myanmar-India Economic Corridor and it is a founding member of Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Both were initiated by China.
India’s utmost concern is in security, with the so-called “string of pearls” strategy of China. Allegedly these “pearls” are naval bases or electronic eavesdropping posts built by Chinese in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistani and Sri Lanka. Ten years have elapsed since the term was coined by an American defense contractor in 2005. The “bases” are found nowhere in the Indian Ocean. The most convincing proof is that the PLA naval vessels have been conducting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin for over 6 years without any bases of their own. Indian navy is equally involved in counter-piracy and is working in tandem with the Chinese navy. Both of them coordinate with some 20 international naval forces within a multi-national framework called SHADE. In May 2011, the Indian navy helped rescue Chinese merchant ship “Full City” and Chinese naval vessels helped escort many foreign ships, including Indian ships.
But if Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not a question for alert, what about India’s argument that if the Indian Ocean doesn’t belong to India, the South China Sea, too, doesn’t belong to China? In other words, could China accommodate India’s presence in the Asia-Pacific?
India government adopted a “Look East” policy since 1991. It represents initially an effort to cultivate economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia and to counterweight the influence of China. After two decades, this policy was widely criticized as superficial, especially when compared to China’s tremendous achievement. Today China is the largest trading partners of over 120 countries and the second largest trading partner of India. Since Prime Minister Modi took office, he brushed aside the “Look East” policy and rebranded it as “Act East” policy, in the hope that India will act rather than look east in the future.
For India’s new policy not becoming another catchphrase, “Act East” must include China. China hasn’t made any efforts to resist India’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific, be it political, economic or even military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, such as joint naval exercises with Singapore or joint patrolling with Indonesia. In fact, both China and India are members of security forums of ARF and ADMM+. China and India also had quite a few bilateral joint exercises in counter-terrorism.
China’s only concern is India may be seduced to play a “greater role” in the South China Sea dispute. It seems in recent years India is getting more vocal about the issue. In September 2011, India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation ONGC drilled in the disputed seabed between China and Vietnam. When Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in September, 2014, the joint statement mentioned freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In March, 2015, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen asked India to play a bigger role in the South China Sea.
India’s concern over the situation in South China Sea is understandable. Anyway, India has extensive historic and cultural links with South East Asia. More than 50% of India’s trade passes through the straits of Malacca. But as a country that takes non-alliance as the core of its foreign policy, India should stay away from territorial disputes between China and some ASEAN countries. According to China-ASEAN joint declaration, the dispute will only be resolved through friendly negotiations by the parties directly concerned. India should not say or do anything that looks like encouraging some ASEAN claimants in their disputes with China.
India should also be careful when it comes to freedom of navigation. This is a tricky legal issue. Both China and the U.S. agree to freedom of navigation, but interpret it in different ways. China believes that military activities, such as the close-in reconnaissance/surveillance by the U.S. Navy in China’s EEZ cannot be simply categorized as freedom of navigation, and cannot infringe on the coastal states’ national security interests, while the U.S. maintains that such military activities fall within the freedoms of navigation. The thing is India, like China and some other twenty countries such as Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, oppose foreign military activities in their EEZs. Since China and India share similar view on this, it is strange to see India taking side with the U.S.
The Indian Ocean is important for China, as the Pacific Ocean is for India. As a result of globalization, many believe that a broader Indo-Pacific era has arrived. Should this be the case, the Indo-Pacific has much larger room to accommodate Sino-Indian rapprochement rather than rivalry in each other’s “back yard.”