Some new political realities are developing as India begins to assert itself in the ocean off its shores and participates with the U.S., Japan, Australia and others in exercises at sea. China has expressed concern over these developments as the Indian Ocean is part of the major sea lines of communication China needs for supplies of oil and other products to feed its growing economy.
Indian commentators take on the fears expressed by China in a couple of recent pieces such as "New world, if only China could sea":
The Indian Navy and the US Navy are to hold their regular periodic ‘Malabar’ exercise in the Bay of Bengal in September. Some 20 ships, mostly from the Indian and US navies, will take part. Vessels from Japan, Australia and Singapore are also expected to participate in this five-day exercise. This has drawn a lot of attention, especially from China and its admirers in India. They consider this a follow-up of the quadrilateral ministerial meeting held in May in Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum among the foreign ministers of the US, India, Japan and Australia. Prior to this meeting, there was a demarche from Beijing expressing concern. India and Australia gave reassurances that the quadrilateral did not have any anti-Chinese connotation, and that it wasn’t directed against any country.Also "The Indian Ocean is not a Chinese lake":
However, it is very difficult for people conditioned by the Cold War to see the realities of a new balance of power in which a war among the major powers armed with nuclear weapons is considered virtually impossible.
The Indian Ocean area contains the energy routes to Japan, Australia, US and India. Some of the epicentres of terrorism adjoin this area. Both the western and eastern areas of the Indian Ocean are notorious for piracy. The Indian Navy had to rescue a pirated Japanese ship in the Arabian Sea. There is also considerable discussion about likely maritime terrorism in the future.
The US Navy happens to be the most powerful and largest navy in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy comes second. What is more natural than the two navies holding their usual exercise and inviting Japan, Australia and Singapore to participate in it? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing the Combined Commanders Conference on October 20 2005 said, “We must shed our Cold War shibboleths, rework our relationships with all major powers and emerging economies and improve our relations with all our economic partners and neighbours”. He added, “We must evolve a new paradigm of security cooperation relevant to an emerging multipolar world in which global threats will require global response.” The proposed exercise is in this spirit.
Chinese fears about the naval exercise are as irrational as western fears about the expansion of the Chinese navy. The Chinese want the world to believe that China will “rise peacefully” but they are worried about India improving its relations with other major powers. China has had a tradition of aligning itself with one power (Soviet Union) and switching over and aligning itself with its adversary (the US) and again switching back. India has maintained a steadfast non-aligned position and is likely to do so.
Whatever may be the public pronouncements of Indian diplomats and politicians, India has reasons to be worried about China. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing the Combined Commanders Conference referred to above, said, “We cannot also ignore the strategic cooperation that Pakistan has secured from China in many ways. We cannot rule out the desire of some countries to keep us engaged in low intensity conflict with some of our neighbours as a means of getting India bogged down in low level equilibrium”. China continues its assistance to Pakistan in nuclear and missile technologies. It was a Chinese bomb design that A.Q. Khan was selling to Libya. It is this behaviour of China that makes major powers worry about an Asia solely dominated by Chinese might.
As India becomes the third or fourth economic power in the world in the next 20 to 30 years, it will have to turn its attention toward the fractured state of politics in the Indian Ocean states. Today, African nations bordering the Indian Ocean are in a state of turmoil. Politics in countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia are unsettled. The Middle East has been boiling for the last 60 years, due to its oil wealth and the creation of the state of Israel.Wheels in spin.
Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, representing the bulk of humanity in the Indian Ocean states, have never seen peace in the last half century. Myanmar has become an outcast from the world community and probable battleground between India and China for its oil and gas. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are slowly moving into the economic iron grip of China. Indonesia and Australia have affinities with China and the West respectively.
Chinese sooner or later will use its sizeable community in Southeast Asia to foster its political and economic agenda. The Chinese are also slowly moving into the Indian Ocean. Hence, why should not India exercise its influence in the Indian Ocean? India has the naval muscle and the economy to match. It also has a political and economic system worth copying in the ethnically diverse nations of the Indian Ocean.
Realizing that the Indians were weak, as well as busy over neighborhood disputes with Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Chinese were the first to make a move in the Indian Ocean. Ten years ago they established a listening post off the coast of Myanmar, to monitor Indian naval communications and the sea-lanes in the Bay of Bengal leading to Singapore.
Out of nowhere, China decided five years ago to build the Pakistani port of Gawadr to help Pakistan acquire a new naval facility opposite the Straits of Hormuz. It was a masterstroke that has tied Pakistan to the Chinese sphere of influence for a long time. Also, China has clinched a deal to establish a submarine dock facility in the Maldives in the Arabian Sea, so close to India's western coast. India has good reason to be upset with these developments.
China's trump card is its export merchandise, which it can offer to any nation on good terms and carry the day. Although these exports have not conquered the traditional markets for European, U.S. and Indian goods in the Indian Ocean states, the Chinese are trying hard. They followed up their hard sell with a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Africa last February that included Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles. The whole purpose of this visit was to outflank Indian, European and U.S. interests. In countering these Chinese moves head-on, India should be front and center, backed by U.S. and European powers.
India has finally ended its Cold War position with the completion of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and it is now time to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean.
The world for the next 40 years will be dependent on oil from the Middle East. In addition India may be buying huge amounts of gas from this area. It is important that India offer protection for this seaborne commerce. The sea lanes of greatest importance stretch from the Gulf of Hormuz to the Malacca Straits. This stretch carries 40 percent of the world's oil to its destinations in South and Southeast Asia, China, Japan and the United States.
Commerce has repeatedly been threatened by terrorists, pirates and failed states that wish to make a political point. India, with U.S. support, must provide protection for this major sea highway. Already the United States and India have been holding naval exercises and discussing joint maritime patrols. This is a step in the right direction. The United States is now willing to consider more Indian requests for advanced military hardware.
Another important sea route is the one that carries oil exports from the Middle East to Europe. Europe wishes to conserve its own oil and is making heavy demands on Middle Eastern oil. This cannot go through the Suez Canal, because oil-laden ships cannot traverse the shallow canal. Therefore these mega ships travel to Europe hugging the eastern seacoast of Africa, via the Cape of Good Hope and onward to Europe. The bulk of oil shipments to the U.S. Atlantic coast take the same route. Hence its protection is also of paramount importance.
Chinese presence there is unwanted and unnecessary. It only complicates an already delicate situation. Nobody will mind India's presence there. India provided seaward protection to the African Union Summit in Mozambique in 2003 and earned a high reputation for this job.
A clever way to establish Indian hegemony in the area would be to establish an Indian Ocean Littoral States Bank to finance trade and development in the region. The United States and Europe would have to support it, but it would be in their interest to keep China out of the Indian Ocean.
In short, the Indian Ocean is not a Chinese lake. China should not be allowed to capitalize on temporary Indian inaction in the area. India must take a leading role in developing and managing the aspirations of the people in the area. In addition India has to guarantee safe passage for maritime commerce. To this affect, India needs to build up its naval and military muscle to make its presence felt
UPDATE: More on "Malabar 07" here:
A month from now, the Bay of Bengal will come alive to one of the biggest naval exercises to be held in these waters when the navies of India, the United States, Australia, Singapore and Japan conduct a five-day joint exercise. The event is sure to create more than mere ripples in the region.Sea lanes!
Code-named "Malabar 07", the multi-nation naval exercise that will take place from September 4-9 will see the participation of two destroyers from Japan, a frigate from Singapore, and a frigate and a tanker from Australia. However, it will be the US and Indian navies that will hold center stage.
The exercise will be held between Visakhapatnam, headquarters of India's Eastern Naval Command, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands - not far from the strategic Strait of Malacca. Drawing attention to the significance of the site of the exercise, Prabhakar told Asia Times Online that the Bay of Bengal lies at the confluence of seas with the Indian Ocean on one side and Southeast Asian waters on the other. "It is at the tapering end of waters through which oil traffic coming out of the Strait of Hormuz pass before entering the Strait of Malacca."
The Strait of Malacca connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. This narrow waterway is crucial to maritime trade - it is one of the busiest ocean highways in the world. Its traffic density is projected to increase from 94,000 ships in 2004 to 141,000 in 2020. A quarter of the world's oil shipments pass through this waterway every day. Half of China's imported oil and 95% of the oil shipped to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pass through the strait.
Although China is not a Bay of Bengal littoral, it has systematically cultivated naval ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar to attain access to these waters. Its presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean has been growing thanks to such ties - a matter of grave concern to such countries as India.
The joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal sends out a message to the Chinese navy "that its future presence will not go unchallenged in the Indian Ocean", said Prabhakar.
But China is not impressed by these claims. Beijing feels there is more than just disaster management in this informal quadrangular exchange. It believes that the Quadrilateral Initiative is an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance to contain a rising China.
Beijing, which expressed annoyance during the India-US-Japan naval exercise off the Japanese coast in April, went a step further a month later and issued demarches seeking explanations from Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington on the purpose of the exercises during their meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting at Manila in May.
The Quad's members have gone to great lengths to dispel speculation that their alliance is seeking to contain a rising China. After the Manila meet, for instance, where the Quad was inaugurated, all four members stressed that the meeting was not directed against China but limited to discussing a few issues of common concern.
Earlier, Japan had described the grouping as an "arc of prosperity and freedom", while India clarified that the initiative has "no security implication". During his visit to New Delhi last month, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson stressed that Canberra was in favor of limiting the initiative to trade and culture.