India’s border conflict with China is pushing New Delhi to look for an asymmetric response: flexing its naval might as it deepens cooperation with other democracies that seek to counter Beijing’s global ambitions.
India, which operates one of the world’s largest navies, sits astride shipping routes in the Indian Ocean that connect China to its main sources of oil and gas in the Middle East and to its key markets in Europe. Though growing fast, China’s navy still has only limited ability to operate in a region far from its home shores—and has to contend with the U.S. in its own backyard.
“On the northern border, the best we can hope for is to achieve a stalemate. But at sea, we have an advantage over the Chinese,” said retired Adm. Arun Prakash, a former head of the Indian navy. “A show of force at sea can send a message to China that you are vulnerable, that we can interfere with your shipping and with Chinese energy supplies. Their economy would be shaken up.”
India is intensifying joint naval maneuvers with the U.S. and its allies while building new ships and setting up a network of coastal surveillance outposts that would allow New Delhi to keep an eye on the Indian Ocean’s maritime traffic.
India’s military has historically focused on the lengthy land borders with fellow nuclear powers Pakistan and China. The country’s leaders began paying more attention to the Indian Ocean over the past decade as its foreign trade grew—and as China started making inroads in smaller South Asian nations that New Delhi used to consider within its sphere of influence.
“We are a large maritime country and we jut right into the center of the Indian Ocean,” India’s external-affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said in an interview. “There has been a sense over a number of years that we haven’t paid enough attention to that. As we started trading more, as the economy started importing more, the relative importance of the sea has grown in Indian thinking—not just Indian security thinking, but overall Indian geopolitical thinking.”
The role of the Indian Ocean in the global economy is hard to overestimate: Three-quarters of the world-wide maritime trade and half of the world’s oil supplies pass through its waters. Chokepoints such as the Malacca Strait in the east and the Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb straits in the west make much of that shipping exposed in case of military conflict.
As China has steadily penetrated the Indian Ocean, India has profoundly changed the way it views the U.S. and its allies in the region. A leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, New Delhi used to call for all external powers to remove their military bases and presence from the area.
These days, New Delhi is comfortable with the U.S. maintaining its strategic base at Diego Garcia, a British territory island located about 1,100 miles southwest of the southern tip of India. It is steadily intensifying its military and diplomatic cooperation with the U.S., France, Australia and Japan—all nations that share New Delhi’s concerns about China’s attempts to establish itself as Asia’s dominant power.
In July, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group, which was sailing to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea, held joint exercises with Indian warships near India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, which guard the access to the strait of Malacca, the latest in a series of such bilateral ventures.
“The world has changed. The U.S., very honestly, was very much a source of concern, even a threat. Today, the U.S. is seen much more as a partner,” Mr. Jaishankar said. “What we are seeing in the Indian Ocean is the coming together of converging interests of different players who are comfortable with each other politically, who have a shared concern for the global commons.”
While India and some of its partners insist that this cooperation isn’t specifically directed against China, Beijing’s increasingly nationalistic rhetoric and attempts to bully its neighbors have played a crucial role in pushing these nations closer together. Some 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops died in clashes in the mountainous Galwan Valley in June, one of several recent incidents where China pressed into what India considers its own sovereign territory. China’s claims along much of the border between the two Asian giants include an entire Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh.
Shelving its Non-Alignment-era qualms about cooperation with the U.S., India in 2016 signed a logistics agreement with Washington that made it easier for the two nations’ navies to visit each other’s port facilities and conduct joint exercises. Since then, New Delhi has followed suit with similar agreements with France, South Korea and Australia, and earlier this month sealed a deal with Japan.
“It’s not a question of pursuing a policy of containment of China,” said Alexander Downer, a former foreign minister of Australia who heads the International School for Government at King’s College London. “It’s just making it clear that, as a region, this isn’t a region that’s going to be subject to a Chinese Monroe doctrine.”
India’s navy operates an aircraft carrier and is building another, in addition to possessing nearly 30 other large surface warships and a fleet of strategic and tactical submarines. China’s navy, by contrast, possesses some 90 large surface warships, including two aircraft carriers, and it is building new—and more advanced—ships at a much faster rate. The disparity is likely to grow in coming years as China’s economy bounces back while India’s, battered by the coronavirus pandemic, shrinks.
Still, India’s ability to forge new partnerships with like-minded powers helps offset that imbalance. “India has a tactical weakness but a strategic advantage” vis-à-vis China, said Minxin Pei, a scholar at the Claremont McKenna College. “India has acted much more boldly than people had thought because the Indian government has the confidence that in the long run the situation with the balance of power is likely to shift in India’s favor.”
In March, India’s American-supplied Boeing P-8I reconnaissance and antisubmarine warfare aircraft flew sorties over the Indian Ocean from the French island of Reunion, the first such joint mission. As part of its effort to have a greater awareness of maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean, India’s navy is also setting up an “information fusion center” near New Delhi that is staffed by representatives of partner nations. The center receives feeds from coastal surveillance radar systems that India has established in recent years in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
“The Indians are trying to create facts on the ground in the Indian Ocean before the Chinese create facts on the ground,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Asian power and diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
India’s more ambitious efforts in the region haven’t always gone smoothly, however. In 2018, an announcement that India would lease part of Assumption Island in the Seychelles for a military facility sparked local protests. The Seychelles Parliament, controlled by opponents of the government, voted against the plan, effectively burying it. Even in India’s stalwart ally Mauritius, plans to set up another military facility on the Agalega islands have stalled amid local opposition. Other Indian Ocean nations, such as Sri Lanka, have increasingly cozied up to Beijing, a major source of investments that India is unable to match.
China’s major partner in the Indian Ocean region is Pakistan. China is investing in the development of the port of Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan, an effort that Indian and Western officials say could lead to the establishment of a Chinese naval and air base in the area. China already operates a major military base in Djibouti, its first such overseas facility. It has taken a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and agreed to finance and build deep-water ports in Tanzania and Myanmar. Beijing insists that all these facilities in the so-called string of pearls around India are peaceful and don’t pose a threat to India.
With the exception of Gwadar, on the soil of nuclear-armed Pakistan, these installations would in fact turn into liabilities for China in case of an open conflict because Beijing won’t be able to protect them, said retired Vice Adm. Pradeep Chauhan, director-general of the National Maritime Foundation, India’s main naval think tank.
Yet, in an environment where conflicts are becoming increasingly hybrid and the line between war and peace more and more blurry, that presence is spooking New Delhi.
“It is not my contention that China is seeking to surround India. It is not seeking to surround India,” Adm. Chauhan said. “But India is getting surrounded anyway, and China is constricting India strategically. India will seek to ensure that it has strategic freedom and strategic space.”
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