China and India’s Strings of Pearls

China and India are competing for influence across the Indian Ocean, each building bases on small islets and atolls.

India is unique among rising powers in that it is both a continental and a maritime power. In recent history, no country except for China and the United States has been able to project power as such.

Occupying a subcontinent with a coastline that runs nearly 8,000 miles, India is geographically privileged. But it is not alone. China, too, is both a continental and a naval power and set on extending its sphere of interest in the South China Sea.

In Beijing, the concern that India might soon rival its supremacy on the high seas is mounting. China has therefore adopted a “string of peals” strategy that prescribes the construction bases around the Indian Ocean, aimed at encircling India. Ports currently under construction include one situated on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, ten miles removed from what is one of the world’s busiest shipping lines, and another near Gwadar in Pakistan. China is also courting the littoral states of the Indian Ocean including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles, hoping to settle naval stations there in the near future.

China, in short, doesn’t want the Indian Ocean to be India’s Ocean, recognizing that this vast body of water is pivotal to its future international influence and economic growth.

The government of India has started to appreciate the Chinese strategy of late and is attempting to counter it with a naval diplomacy of its own. It is strengthening the military presence on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and engaging with the Maldives, trying to keep the Chinese out.

Traditionally, all powers that aspired to control the Indian Ocean have sought a base in the Maldives. The southernmost island, Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II. Gan met the requirements for safe, deep anchorage in a strategic area. In addition, Antsiranana on Madagascar, the Diego Garcia atoll as well as the Aldabra and Farquhar islands and Île Desroches in the Seychelles are important strategic locations in the western part of the sea.

The base on Gan was set up by Britain in response to Japanese advances against Singapore and Indonesia during World War II. During the Cold War, in 1957, it was transferred to the British Royal Air Force which vacated it in 1971 after the Maldives had gained independence. Following the British departure, Iran, Libya and the Soviet Union all tried to secure the Gan Island base to counter the American military presence in Diego Garcia.

The network of radars that India will be installing in the Maldives is largely to the benefit of the island nation which does not have a navy of its own. During discussions, the Maldivian authorities voices concern over the “crucial tasks of safeguarding and protecting their vast exclusive economic zone of the Maldives, while expressing its need to develop and enhance maritime surveillance and aerial mobility capabilities.” According to President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, the installation of the radars is already underway across ten atolls.

India and China’s standoff in the Indian Ocean was rightly predicted by Robert Kaplan in his seminal essay “Center Stage for the 21st Century” published in Foreign Affairs last year. Kaplan envisaged China and India competing for supremacy of the sea with the United States acting as balancer.

India actually sees a need to counter Chinese influence in oceans around the world. Indian naval officers with acquaintance in diplomacy are now considered candidates for ambassador and high commissioner posts across the Southern Hemisphere. A classic example is the appointment of Admiral Sureesh Mehta, former Chief of the Indian Navy, as High Commissioner to New Zealand. He will ensure that India’s strategic concerns are fulfilled even in the faraway Pacific where China is courting island states as Fiji, Vanatalu, and the Cook Islands.

An important first step for India is to establish embassies and high commissions on these islands where its presence is now limited or even nonexistence. Then it can truly pursue a naval diplomacy.