The Indo-Pacific is likely to be the new area of contestation as China’s growing footprint and influence in the Indian Ocean region had created concerns for the United States, India and their allies of the region. The Indo-Pacific is highly important for global trade as 55% of world’s container trade and nearly 70 % of ship borne energy transport are passing through these waters. In recent times China’s expansionist policies and its assertiveness have demolished the idea of peaceful rise. The Indian Ocean is key to China because of its trade and energy transit. There has been a dramatic change in China’s foreign policy approach especially after the advent of Xi Jinping. Today, China sees itself as the centre of global politics with an interest to brand itself as the Middle Kingdom. It continues to adopt assertive security policies towards its neighbours and is engaged in territorial disputes in both South China Sea and East China Sea. Over the years China had become more assertive in the Indian Ocean region with the ambition of becoming a larger global maritime power. It is China’s dramatic rise and India’s response to that rise that has made the operationalization of the Indo-Pacific vision possibile. Both India and the United States have called for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Former Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh previously spoke about the Chinese research vessels and fishing boats in the Indian Ocean including the Indian EEZ. Indian navy claim that four to six Chinese research vessels are presently operating in the Indian Ocean region. These research vessels are used for surveying various parameters, including currents and salinity as well as mapping the ocean floor, which will assist the PLA Navy in undertaking submarine operations in these waters. In the power struggle between the two neighbours, while China has a clear advantage over the mountainous Himalayas, India has a clear advantage in the Indian Ocean which is also a source of blue economy. India’s concerns about China’s Maritime Silk Route in the Indian Ocean region were already evident when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Seychelles and Mauritius in 2015 emphasised the need to have a “climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interest, peaceful resolution of maritime issues and increase in maritime cooperation”. The Malabar exercises conducted annually between the four navies of the United States, Japan, India and Australia is a response to the China factor in the Indo-Pacific. Apart from the Quad partners, India had also conducted bilateral naval exercises with countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Similarly, China too have conducted naval drills in the Indian Ocean with countries such as Iran and Russia. India in recent times have emphasized the need to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, it is now taking a more vocal stand, declaring the South China Sea as the global commons wherein all disputes should be settled in accordance with international law. In recent times China had called for a ‘forum on the development of Indian Ocean island countries’ which is similar to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s SAGAR ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’ formed in 2015. One of the important aspects that worries the countries in Asia today is the assertiveness of China over Taiwan. For India Taiwan is important for its broader Indo-Pacific policy. China recently had sent more than 50 aircrafts into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone as a show of force. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and soared relations with India have led New Delhi to enhance its presence and influence in the Western Pacific which is regarded as China’s backyard. Besides the countries of South East Asia, India should also look to build ties with small Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, Marshal Islands, Solomon Islands and Tonga. India should utilize its Mission Sagar project more effectively to reach out to the countries in the Indian Ocean region at the time of the crisis and reduce the influence of China in the region.
(Ashok Alex Luke is an Assistant Professor at CMS College Kottayam and a Doctoral Candidate at the School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam)