China-India Maritime Rivalry
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Issue Vol. 23.4 Oct-Dec 2008 | Date : 22 Nov , 2011

In the Post-Cold War Era re-distribution of power, the balance is clearly shifting to Asia. This is primarily due to the increasing comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China and India. But as they graduate to the global level, the two countries would need to contend with each other within the region. Besides, their adversarial potential due to the many outstanding security issues cannot be ignored. Whether these translate into a conflict would depend upon how Beijing and New Delhi manage their relationship in the coming years, but as of now the potential is sufficient to fuel strategic rivalry.

China-India rivalry has also emerged over exploration rights and access to Myanmars energy resources. The Chinese companies have always managed to grab a larger share of the contracts, either through their stronger influence in Myanmar, or by exploiting Indias weaknesses.

Asia is a predominantly maritime-configured region. Much of China-India interactions would thus relate to the seas or the littoral areas. The two countries do not share a maritime boundary, but this does not matter. As emerging powers, their vital security interests have been dilating from their immediate peripheries to regional extremities (and even beyond). In other words, while their immediate security imperatives lie in the western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean respectively; their strategic spheres have begun to overlap in both areas. This is leading them to stretch their maritime-strategic ‘footprint’ across the entire Asian region. It is logical therefore, for its effects to be felt in the geo-strategic sub-region of Southeast Asia, which lies midway in the ‘India-China rivalry-arc’ extending from north-western Pacific to the Arabian Sea.

China-India Maritime-Strategic ‘Rivalry Arc’ in Asia

Such rivalry is however low-keyed. It figures neither in China-India politico-diplomatic interactions, nor in official policy articulations. It is nonetheless highly discernable to any keen observer. This article attempts to bring out some of its nuances. It deals with the issue by segregating its geographical scope into three parts – the north-eastern Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea.

North-eastern Indian Ocean

This area is important for India’s supreme national security interest of ’survival’. For China, it is vital transit route for energy imports sourced from West Asia and Africa. This makes China highly vulnerable in case of a Sino-Indian military conflict. Such strategic vulnerability also restricts Beijing to use force to satiate its strategic objectives in the western Pacific like Taiwan. China could however mitigate this vulnerability through its naval presence in the area. Such presence would also enable Beijing to wield a strategic-leverage against New Delhi to resolve the outstanding issues, and to meet its military objectives in case of a conflict with India.

China-south_china_seaSince the late-1980s, China has provided much defence assistance to Myanmar. It has built naval facilities, radars and signal-intelligence (SIGINT) posts all along the Myanmarese coast and in Coco Islands, which lie barely 18 km north of India’s Andaman Islands. Various news-reports since then indicated that Chinese military personnel were stationed in Myanmar and were using these facilities to collect sensitive information on India. While these reports could never be backed by hard evidence, the potential could not be ignored either. In the future, it is also possible for these facilities to be used by China as refuelling halts for its naval forces, or maybe even as full-fledged forward bases. The volte face in India’s policy towards Myanmar since early-1990s has undoubtedly succeeded. Besides benign assurances from Myanmar, bilateral defence ties have strengthened in a way hitherto unimaginable. The most notable event in this direction was Myanmar Navy’s participation in Milan-2006 at Port Blair,1 which involved a historic first-ever visit of a Myanmar warship to any foreign port. Myanmar has even offered Indian naval officials to visit the “suspicious” sites. However, Myanmar’s armed forces continue to be heavily dependent on the Chinese military establishment. As recently as in June 2008, a Chinese naval team visited Coco Island upgrade its military facilities.2 The threat to India would persist until such dependence exists.

“¦it would also be necessary for India to enhance its naval engagement with its maritime-neighbours of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Thailand & Myanmar) for confidence-building through transparency. This may intensify China-India rivalry.

In April 2008, India and Myanmar signed Kaladan river transportation agreement that involves India’s upgradation of Myanmar’s Sittwe port. It has also made a proposal to build a deep-water port in Dawei.3 Though driven by imperatives of economic development/trade-connectivity, these could also be considered as New Delhi’s move to monitor Chinese activities in Myanmar’s littoral areas. However, owing to Chinese pressure, Myanmar did not permit India to be the sole operator of Sittwe port. Instead of BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer) desired by India, the agreement was eventually signed on the basis of BTU (Build, Transfer and Use).

China-India rivalry has also emerged over exploration rights and access to Myanmar’s energy resources. The Chinese companies have always managed to grab a larger share of the contracts, either through their stronger influence in Myanmar, or by exploiting India’s weaknesses. When in 2005, India was awarded its first offshore block A-1, Bangladesh agreed to let India obtain pipeline access to the gas through its territory. But it later became non-committal, imposing unrelated conditions that were unacceptable to India. The delay in India’s firming up an alternate route/plan compelled Myanmar (or gave it an excuse) to decide in 2007 to supply the entire gas to China through a pipeline to be laid from Sittwe to Kunming.4 To a layman, this would be baffling because the shortest distance from the gas-field to China is three times more than that to India.

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