Modi’s China Visit – Allaying Maritime Misgivings

There is an air of anticipation surrounding Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to China – not least because there is a whole range of prickly bilateral issues awaiting serious and substantive discussions. Prominent among these is the issue of maritime security.

Ever since a Chinese submarine visited Colombo last year, India’s maritime fraternity has been worried about the possibility of a permanent Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China has tried allaying these concerns, with a suggestion for greater nautical cooperation and a regular bilateral dialogue. Reaching out to New Delhi, it has invited India to join its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), going so far as to state that the project cannot be fully realized without the latter’s active participation. And yet, China has steered clear of specifics, withholding critical information on the MSR, and even failing to come up with any detailed proposal for maritime cooperation with India.

New Delhi, meanwhile, has been visibly cautious in its response to Beijing’s overtures. While conveying their willingness for a maritime dialogue, Indian policymakers have prevaricated on the issue of the MSR, avoiding any discussion on the possibility of a maritime partnership with China. India’s tentative approach hasn’t helped in building the critical momentum needed to create meaningful nautical synergy.

In many ways, the lack of progress on India-China maritime cooperation is surprising, given that the Indian Navy and PLA-N essentially have different theatres of operations with no conflicting territorial claims. The real source of mutual suspicion, perhaps, has been each side’s inability to fathom the other’s true intentions in the maritime realm. Both India and China have been busy pursuing their national geopolitical ambitions, with little empathy for each other’s strategic imperatives. This disconnect is worth dwelling on, because it has created a tactical dissonance that has precluded any form of sustained operational engagement.

China’s Presence in the Indian Ocean

chineseIndian observers often point to the peculiar dynamic of India-China strategic relations, with elements of both cooperation and competition. This is most applicable in the maritime realm where mutual suspicions reign supreme. Indeed, despite attempts by the Indian Navy and PLA-N to improve collaboration in combating Somali piracy, both sides remain distrustful of each other’s maritime manoeuvres at sea.

The recent PLA-N submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean, followed by media reports that Beijing might be planning to secure its vast infrastructure network in the region by setting up maritime basing facilities at multiple sites – including one at Djibouti – has convinced many Indian analysts that China desires a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Reports of the $ 46 billion investment by Beijing in building the Pakistan-China economic corridor, which includes the development of the strategic port at Gwadar, have provided further evidence of China’s growing aspiration for influence in the IOR.

Indian observers also note China’s continued assistance to the Pakistan Navy (PN), pointing to the recent announcement of the sale of eight Type 32 (Qing Class) submarines. The Sino-Pakistan maritime nexus is a leading cause of anxiety for the Indian Navy, considering that the PN is a principal proponent of greater Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, and that the PLA-N fields one of the strongest contingents in the PN’s ‘Aman’ series of biennial multinational exercises – which the latter uses to showcase its maritime strengths in the Indian Ocean Region.

While Beijing’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea does not directly affect India, the PLA-N’s forays into the Indian Ocean do lend credence to the suspicion that China aspires to a larger regional footprint. Chinese anti-piracy deployments off Somalia have certainly grown in size and frequency, and China’s port infrastructure building in many Indian Ocean states has been increasingly purposeful. Viewed in combination with its recent strategic thrust in Afghanistan, these maritime developments make the ‘China-domination’ theory more compelling to Indian analysts.

China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea

China’s proactive moves in the Indian Ocean coincide with a rapidly deteriorating security environment in the Western-Pacific. It is embroiled in a raging dispute with several Southeast Asian countries over islands, atolls, reefs, and shoals in the South China Sea. In particular, China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea have been the cause of growing tensions in recent months, leading to a series of diplomatic face-offs with Vietnam, Philippines and Japan. Even as these episodes underscore China’s touchiness over territoriality issues, the sheer stridency of the Chinese response creates an impression that Beijing is uncompromising when it comes to nautical interests.

Despite increasing criticism, China has been unwilling to change its hard-line approach to territorial disputes, shunning any form of multilateral conciliation. As a result, maritime confrontation in the South China Sea has occurred with unfailing regularity. Meanwhile, the scope and frequency of PLA-N exercises outside the first island chain has gone up dramatically, illustrating the emergence of a potential Chinese counter to America’s ‘Asia Pivot’.

This also explains why there has been a sudden rise in China’s Indian Ocean deployments leading India to support the US Rebalancing strategy. It is no coincidence that the Indo-US joint vision statement on the Asia Pacific, released earlier this year, made a clear mention of ‘freedom of navigation’ – a key pillar of the US maritime posture in the South China Sea. Not only was the document seen as being directed at China, it was apparently prompted by growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region – especially a growing PLA-N propensity to use the ‘Pivot’ as a pretext for greater maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese apprehensions

Meanwhile, China has its own misgivings about India’s maritime interactions with the United States and its Pacific allies. Chinese analysts and media agencies point to the expanding scope of India’s maritime cooperation with the US, which now includes Japan and Australia. India’s growing confidence with maritime multilateralism as well as its operational assistance to Southeast Asian states involved in maritime disputes with China, seem to have convinced Chinese observers that New Delhi is willing to be used as a counter-weight to Beijing’s growing power in the Asia-Pacific region. Increasingly, many Chinese analysts regard India as a key component of an emerging strategic maritime compact with the US and Japan at the centre.

Then, there is also the matter of India’s participation in oil and gas exploration activities off Vietnam in the South China Sea, which China vehemently opposes. Since 2012, China has been cautioning India against any “unilateral” attempt to pursue oil exploration in the disputed South China Sea, saying that it is opposed to ‘outside’ nations intervening in the disputed areas. India’s assurances that its activities are purely commercial in nature, has failed to impress the Chinese leadership.

Towards Maritime Cooperation

Yet, there are many in India and China who see no other way but for the two nations to cooperate in the maritime realm – especially in the non-traditional domain. While joint protection of the SLOCs may not be on the cards in the near future, there definitely seems to be a case for cooperation on irregular security issues such as disaster relief, transnational crime, climate-induced migration and illegal fishing, as well as some developmental initiatives in the civilian sector, for instance sea-bed mining and blue-energy projects.

It is instructive that since 2012 there has been a noticeable expansion in India-China maritime interaction. The seriousness on both sides for improved relations can be judged from the fact that senior IN and PLA-N officers have been leading bilateral initiatives to expand nautical synergies. For instance, when INS Shivalik participated in an exercise at Qindao last year, it was Admiral Wu Shengli, the PLA-N Chief, himself who visited the ship, even asking for an impromptu tour of the missile frigate. Similarly, during the visit of an Indian flotilla to Shanghai in 2012, Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, then Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, came down from Visakhapatnam to conduct talks with Vice Admiral Su Zhiqian, then the highest ranked official in charge of the East Sea fleet.

Significantly, India’s policymakers and military leaders acknowledge that China’s Indian Ocean outreach may be an inevitable consequence of its search for new resources and markets. Many therefore see common security strands in New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ and Beijing’s ‘March West’ strategy, and the possibility of joint Sino-Indian operations in maritime-Asia.

According to a recent media report, Modi’s forthcoming visit to China could yield a basic maritime security accord – innocuously titled “scientific cooperation” agreement – a supposed acknowledgement of the growing reach of both countries in each other’s spheres of strategic influence. 1. For better operational cooperation, however, India and China will need to go beyond rudimentary agreements on combating piracy and crime in the Western Indian Ocean. Both sides will need to work out an acceptable framework for functional collaboration and create positive momentum in favour of greater strategic interaction.

As Modi and Xi sit down to talk business, they will both be aware that only a genuinely sincere approach will lead to greater operational synergy in the maritime domain.

(Courtesy : IDSA)

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