The armies of the world’s two most populous nations i.e. China and India, are locked in a tense face-off high in the Himalayas, which has the potential to escalate as they seek to further their strategic goals. China and India are now on new strategic conflicts.
The reports say that in early May, Chinese forces put up tents, dug trenches and moved heavy equipment several kilometres inside what had been regarded by India as its territory. The move came after India built a road several hundred kilometres long connecting to a high-altitude forward air base which it reactivated in 2008.
India and China are celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties this year, which is an occasion that merits commemoration, but belies growing strategic tensions in their bilateral relationship. Currently, both countries are engaged in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh over unresolved boundary issues along their 4,056 km long international border. Back in 2017, a similar standoff between the two nations near the Doka La Pass lasted 73 days. Such confrontations accentuate the fractious trajectory of their strategic dynamics and exacerbate Sino-Indian competition in other arenas, including the maritime sphere.
Their armies – two of the world’s largest – come face to face at many points. The poorly demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) separates the two sides. Rivers, lakes and snowcaps mean the line separating soldiers can shift and they often come close to confrontation.
The current military tension is not limited to Ladakh. Soldiers from the two sides are also eyeball-to-eyeball in Naku La, on the border between China and the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim. Earlier this month they reportedly came to blow.
According to the Chinese military, India is the one which has forced its way into the Galwan valley. So, India is changing the status quo along the LAC – that has angered the Chinese.
Strategic consolidation in the maritime domain has become a common trend for both China and India over the past decade. Extending from the Western Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific, Asia’s waters are dotted with naval deployments. While India has made the Indian Ocean one of its strategic priorities, China has initiated a concerted campaign to secure its sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Beijing has been particularly assertive in these efforts, at times in contravention of international maritime law. But as China has expanded its area of naval operations into the Indian Ocean, policymakers in New Delhi have become particularly wary of Beijing’s power projection.
As security dynamics between the two nations enter a new phase of discord, it is important to trace the course of their maritime interactions to gain insight into what the future may hold for Asia’s two biggest naval powers.
Sino-Indian conflict has historically been restricted to the land domain. However, as both Beijing and New Delhi have opened their economies to global commerce, their dependency on sea-borne trade has exponentially increased. Both have come to realize the importance of naval power in enabling them to secure their sea lines of communication (SLOC), their primary concern being undisrupted energy access from the Middle East.
To this end, both nations have outlined ambitious force modernization plans to develop a “blue-water navy” that can operate at longer distances from their homeland for sustained periods of time. As Beijing’s maritime security interests intersect with India’s, there has been a linear escalation in the interactions between the two naval forces, leading to benign competition between them in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
As early as 1985, Chinese naval planners began deploying squadrons for routine port calls in the Indian Ocean. 1 Over the years, this has evolved into Chinese naval taskforces engaged in security missions. In fact, in September 2019, India’s naval chief Admiral Karambir Singh asserted that at any given time on an average, about seven to eight Chinese ships operated in the area. This escalation of Chinese naval presence has been gradual and can be linked to China’s security dilemma over its access to SLOCs west of the Strait of Malacca.
The “Malaccan Dilemma,” first touted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003, was predicated around a crisis scenario in which China would be denied access to its trade and energy routes in the IOR. Since then, Beijing has stepped up its diplomatic, trade, and naval efforts to secure a foothold in the Indian Ocean. According to some estimates, around 40 percent of Chinese trade passes through the choke point every year.
In September 2019, a Chinese research vessel was forced to retreat by Indian forces for operating inside the exclusive economic zone of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands without prior permission. The incident reminded both sides of the delicate intricacies surrounding maritime engagement in the open seas. Specific confidence-building mechanisms and crisis management protocols are nearly non-existent between the two navies. Save for statutory procedures guiding interactions on the high seas, Sino-Indian maritime interactions remain unregulated. As both countries’ naval forces come in contact more frequently, tensions loom on the horizon.
China and India have been engaged in a competitive embrace with one another for a while now. Both sides realize the importance of a cooperative bilateral relationship but are unwilling to cede any strategic ground. In the likelihood of a situation where Beijing gains an upper hand in the continental realm, strategists in New Delhi might be tempted to implement access-denial measures against Chinese naval assets in the region, to tilt the strategic balance back in India’s favor. While a confrontation along their international border could be isolated, a similar scenario in the maritime domain is likely to have multifaceted implications far beyond New Delhi and Beijing.