AT THE 18-country East Asia Summit this week in Phnom Penh, Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, found time to update his Twitter feed. He posted a picture of a Cambodian dance troupe performing “Samudra Manthan”, or “the churning of the oceans”—an episode from Hindu mythology. Perhaps he liked the reminder of India’s deep “civilisational” links with countries to its east. Or perhaps he was struck by the analogy to the present-day tussle for dominance in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, and in particular, India’s emerging naval rivalry with China.
As it happens, “Samudra Manthan” is the title of a new book on this topic by C. Raja Mohan, an Indian writer on strategic affairs, for whom the myth is a metaphor for the two countries’ competition at sea. This contest remains far more tentative and low-key than the 50-year stand-off over their disputed Himalayan border, where China humiliated India in a brief, bloody war in 1962. But the book raises alarming questions about the risks of future maritime confrontation.
Although both China and India have long, adventurous maritime traditions, neither has been a sea power for most of its history. Both have been preoccupied with the risks over their land frontiers. China had a brief outgoing flurry under Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433). But it built a great wall, not a great navy. From Alexander the Great on, India’s north-western frontier was the route of choice for invaders. But after suffering from Western imperial expansion at sea, both China and India learned the importance of naval might. Both have globalised rapidly in recent years, encouraging maritime ambitions. Both, in Mr Raja Mohan’s words, are transforming their navies “from forces conceived for coastal defence and denying their neighbouring waters to hostile powers to instruments that can project force far beyond their shores”.
China’s naval plans receive more attention. By 2020 its navy is expected to have 73 “principal combatants” (big warships) and 78 submarines, 12 of them nuclear-powered. Last year its first aircraft-carrier, bought from Ukraine, began sea trials; indigenous carriers are under construction. Proving it can now operate far from its own shores, China’s navy has joined anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Of course this evolution is not aimed at India, so much as at building a force commensurate with China’s new economic might, securing its sea lines of communication and, eventually perhaps, challenging American dominance in the western Pacific, with a view to enforcing China’s view of its national sovereignty in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Indian strategists, however, tend towards paranoia where China is concerned. China’s close strategic relations with India’s neighbours, notably Pakistan, have given rise to the perception that China is intent on throttling India with a “string of pearls”—naval facilities around the Indian Ocean. These include ports China has built at Gwadar in Pakistan; at Hambantota in Sri Lanka; at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar; and at Chittagong in Bangladesh.
None of these, however, is as yet a military facility. And the Pakistani and Burmese projects can be explained in part by two Chinese obsessions only peripherally related to India. One is the drive to develop China’s relatively backward western interior. Just as India sees Sittwe in Myanmar and the Kaladan river as a route to its own north-eastern provinces, Myanmar offers the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan access to the sea. Pakistan does the same for the western region of Xinjiang. And in theory India’s Kolkata might become the port for Lhasa in Tibet. Second is the so-called “Malacca dilemma”—the vulnerability China feels because so much of its imported energy passes through the narrow chokepoint of the Malacca Strait. Gwadar and, especially, Kyaukphyu provide an alternative route.
India’s naval advances are less dramatic. But it has operated two aircraft-carriers since the 1960s, and aims to have three carrier groups operational by 2020, as part of a fleet that by 2022 would have around 160 ships and 400 aircraft, making it one of the world’s five biggest navies. Like China, it also hopes to acquire a full “nuclear triad”—by adding sea-based missiles to its nuclear deterrent. While China has been testing the waters to its south and south-west, India’s navy has been looking east, partly to follow India’s trade links. India fears Chinese “strategic encirclement”. Similarly, China looks askance at India’s expanding defence ties with America, South-East Asia, Japan and South Korea.
China suspects India of complicity in efforts to undermine its sweeping claim to sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea. It saw evidence of this in India’s involvement in oil-and-gas exploration in waters disputed by China and Vietnam. The underlying fear is of an American-led plot to contain China. Even were such a plot hatched, India would be a reluctant conspirator. But it and China are in a “security dilemma”, where one country’s “essential steps” to safeguard its interests are taken by the other as threats that demand a response.
A trilemma, really
This is further complicated by the role of the United States, which remains the dominant naval power in both the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. India knows that it cannot match China’s military muscle, but does not want to rely too heavily on America. China does not want India to emerge as a true rival for regional power, but does not want to push it into an American alliance.
The risk, as Chinese and Indian warships venture farther afield, is akin to that in China’s maritime disputes with Japan and its South-East Asian neighbours: of an accidental conflict that escalates. This is exacerbated by an absence of codes of conduct and forums to thrash out disputes. The East Asian Summit, which includes America, might one day become such a gathering. But for the time being it aims only at “confidence-building”. Marred this year again by squabbles about how to discuss disputes in the South China Sea, the summit finds even that elusive. By Banyan for The Economist