Power politics in the Indian Ocean: don’t exaggerate the China threat

Author: Chunhao Lou, CICIR

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is becoming increasingly significant in the world arena. Recent discourse has focused on China’s naval ambitions in the IOR and potential US–India cooperation in response to China’s presence. To some extent, the ‘China Factor’ is one explanation behind the recent improvement of US–India relations, as both the US and India are anxious about Chinese entry into IOR. Particularly in India, many strategists are concerned about the imaginary Chinese ‘string of pearls strategy’. However, an in-depth analysis of the three countries’ strategic outlook could lead to a different conclusion.

The perception of the ‘China threat’ mainly derives from a fear of China’s different political system and its astonishing rise, both in scale and speed. But when analysed in relation to intention, capability, or aspiration, it is clear that the potential threat of China has always been over-exaggerated. China’s strategic focus is the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean. It lags far behind the US in terms of maritime power and does not enjoy India’s geographic advantages. More importantly, China has traditionally had a peaceful maritime policy. Even when China was a pre-eminent maritime power, it promoted peace and commerce, as was clearly illustrated during the Ming Dynasty.

Today, China’s naval strategy is to ensure a ‘harmonious sea’ through capacity building and international cooperation. China views the region surrounding the Indian Ocean as a vital energy and trade route, not a battlefield for power struggle. China’s seaward policy is strongly influenced by trade and energy motives, and its open economy is becoming more interdependent with the outside world, particularly the Indian Ocean. Chinese involvement in building infrastructure in IOR littorals is part of China’s economy-oriented ‘Going Global’ strategy. Although it is frequently argued that China should and must develop into becoming a strong maritime power, the Chinese government has always emphasised that their maritime power is totally different from Western-style maritime power. Many Chinese scholars even warn against having a military presence in the IOR.

Nonetheless, the US and India have a history of having different Indian Ocean strategies. Although China’s presence will always promote US–India cooperation, the democratic peace theory will not supersede realistic politics, and the differing interests of the US and India in the IOR will be difficult to reconcile. The US and India have had contradictory strategic policies regarding the Indian Ocean since the Cold War era. In the 1960s, when the US wanted to inherit Britain’s influence in IOR, India opposed the “theory of power vacuum” and instead supported the idea of an ‘Indian Ocean Peace Zone’. During the 1971 Indo–Pakistan War, the US dispatched its Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, causing great concern from the Indian side.

India’s view of the IOR can be summarised as a sense of crisis and destiny. Regarding the sense of crisis, Indian politicians and strategists pay great attention to the linkages between Indian Ocean and India’s national security. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru argued that India’s independence and survival depended on India’s control of the Indian Ocean. India’s Maritime Military Strategy (2007) highlighted that ‘whatever happens in the IOR can affect our national security and is of interest to us’. As for destiny, India’s unique geographic location forms the cornerstone of India’s aspiration to dominate Indian Ocean or even to transform Indian Ocean into India’s Ocean. Many Indian strategists view the Indian Ocean as India’s ‘rightful domain’ and contend that ‘India will have to play a very large role (in the Indian Ocean) if the prospects for peace and cooperation are to grow’.

In contrast, the US seeks to be a hegemonic maritime power that is not only dominant in the Atlantic or Pacific, but also in the Indian Ocean. Although it stresses the importance of a cooperative maritime strategy, the US is still trying to maintain its status as a pre-eminent maritime power. In accordance with the shift of the world power balance, the US will seek to sustain its strong presence in the Indian Ocean. The US has taken many measures to achieve this goal, including strengthening its presences in Diego Garcia and Bahrain, updating its military cooperation with established allies, and setting up forward military networks to control key choke points.

Thus, although confrontations and conflicts between China, US and India have been predicted in this region, particularly with the rise of China’s maritime power, their different strategic goals may lead to different results. Given the China’s policy aims, intent and capability, China cannot afford to challenge either the United States or India. But with the rapid growth of its economic and military power, India is likely to adopt a more assertive maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, considering that the US wants to maintain its maritime dominance, an India–US potential power struggle in the Indian Ocean is more likely to characterise the IOR landscape than the ‘China threat’.

Chunhao Lou is the Assistant Director at the Institute of Maritime Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.