Power Plays in the Indian Ocean: The “Great Game” Goes to Sea?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Even as tensions simmer between India and China on the Doklam Plateau, where troops from both sides engaged in a two-month standoff in 2017 over Chinese efforts to build a road through territory disputed by India and Bhutan, the rivalry continues unabated at sea — namely, in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Although India has long enjoyed a relatively undisputed dominion over these waters, China has stepped up its military presence in recent years. In 2016, China began construction of a naval base in Djibouti, ostensibly to support regional efforts to combat piracy. In December 2017, Sri Lanka signed a debt-to-equity swap with China, granting a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota.

With Hambantota less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, the establishment of a Chinese presence places considerable pressure on the Indian Navy. But India, too, has been busy establishing its own network of bases throughout the IOR, most notably a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This chain of 572 islands, located approximately 1,200 kilometres away from mainland India, grants the Indian Navy control over access to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes. In the event of a large-scale conflict between India and China, it would be possible for India to use this presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to severely limit China’s access to resources essential to the country’s industry.

India seems keenly aware, however, of its relatively weak presence in the western IOR. Whereas a collection of countries have established bases in Djibouti — including not only China but also the United States, France, Italy, and Japan — India has traditionally maintained only coastal surveillance radar stations in Madagascar and Mauritius. To ensure that India retains the lead in the western IOR, a 20-year agreement was signed with the Seychelles in January 2018 to build an airstrip and jetty on the Assumption Islands for use by the Indian military. The stated purpose of this pact is to fight illegal fishing, poaching, and other criminal activity in the Seychelles’ exclusive economic zone, and this is certainly a plausible basis for the partnership: the Seychelles People’s Defence Force (SPDF) maintains a small fleet of seven patrol boats, mostly donated by China and the United Arab Emirates, and four fixed-wing patrol aircraft with which to defend an archipelago of 115 islands.

Source: Monte Reel, "Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games", Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016.

Source: Monte Reel, “Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games“, Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016. Klick on the image to enlarge it!

The Indian airstrip and jetty in the Seychelles can be interpreted as fulfilling two strategic aims. The first is, of course, its stated purpose: as fish stocks collapse on Latin America’s Pacific coast, Chinese industrial fishing fleets are venturing further westward into the Indian Ocean, creating a real threat to the Seychelles’ $210 million US fish and seafood industry. It has also been well-documented that China uses its fishing fleets to exert sovereignty in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and China will certainly continue to use such tactics in the IOR in order to advance the claim that certain strategic waterways are international rather than the territorial domain of any given country. Therefore, partnering with the Seychelles and other regional neighbours to combat illegal fishing is certainly in keeping with India’s security interests.

But the establishment of this base also achieves a second strategic aim for India: ensuring rapid response to any future incursion by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the IOR. Were tensions to escalate between India and China at some point in the future, the Indian Navy would have the capacity to launch forces from the Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mauritius to intercept PLAN vessels deployed from Djibouti to harass Indian shipping. It is uncertain, however, whether the berthing at any of these bases is sufficient to accommodate vessels of such size that they would be able to serve as an effective deterrent to Chinese aggression in the western IOR. If the current berthing is inadequate, India may need to seek berthing rights at a more substantial port, much like China’s own arrangements in Djibouti or at Hambantota.

PS Constant docked at the Seychelles Coast Guard base before the handing over in November 2014. It was the second vessel India turned over to Seychelles.

PS Constant docked at the Seychelles Coast Guard base before the handing over in November 2014. It was the second vessel India turned over to Seychelles.

In any case, it is likely this “dangerous dance” will continue between the two powers, with China and India both fearing containment and thus constantly seeking the geopolitical upper hand in the IOR. India will have to step up its efforts if it wishes to maintain its traditional sphere of influence; while the partnership with the Seychelles is a positive step, much of India’s moves have been reactionary. In contrast, China has offered a clear strategic vision for the region, known as “the 21st century Maritime Silk Road“, as well as potent maritime capabilities in the form of PLAN’s South Sea Fleet and a network of bases in the IOR to accommodate these ships. Just as in the Doklam Plateau, India can ill-afford to let China lead the dance.

Looking Over China’s Latest Great Wall“, Stratfor, 26.07.2017.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, China, Djibouti, English, India, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

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