Sino-Indian Power Strategies in the Indian Ocean, by Paulo Duarte

Countries with a vast sea coast, the power play between India and China also encompasses, among other areas, the ocean. The latter is, in fact, crucial for two economies that are “rapidly growing and increasingly outward facing” as William Garnier (2005: 4) points out. It is by sea that almost 90% of the trade is carried out, but it is also the sea that ensures, to a very large part, the supply of fuel, vital to the economy of China and India. This means that it is not possible to speak of economic dependence without considering maritime dependence.

 Given that the Strait of Malacca is a very sensitive transit point in Asian trade and that India and China are almost at the same distance from that strait, it is understandable that these two states “cannot simply ignore the problems of maritime security affecting their regional environment” (Hong and Jiang, 2010: 149). The fact that India has, according to J. Holslag (2008: 19), the ambition to “convert the Indian Ocean in an Indian Lake”, thereby declaring, according to Franco (2007: 6), “as its legitimate area of ​​interest all the region of the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca”, can only arouse apprehension in Beijing. And all the more since the money spent by New Delhi in modernizing its navy has increased from 1.3 to 3.5 billion dollars in the period from 2001 to 2006 (Holslag, 2008: 15). Indeed, the Indian Ocean is to India its “natural security perimeter, from the Straits of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz, and from the African shore to the coast of Australia” (Struye, 2010: 9). This explains why New Delhi has conducted, in recent years, a policy of approximation towards the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius which encompasses, among other aspects, maritime patrols, economic agreements and military training. Strengthening its ties with ASEAN, and its presence in the Gulf of Bengal, the Indian maritime doctrine is based on the Indira Doctrine (according to Indira Gandhi). In practice, this is a kind of Monroe Doctrine, applied to South Asia, and which finds its inspiration largely in the precepts set by Lord Curzon. Even though this author stressed the place of India within the British Empire, his ideas are not obsolete, but, instead, present in the vision that India currently has of its situation in South Asia (Batabyal, 2006).

 A word about one and the other fleet. If from a quantitative viewpoint it is China that has the largest navy, at a qualitative level, however, the Indians surpass the Chinese Navy, with a “more coherent, more modern and better trained navy” (Wanli, 2010: 4). One and the other present, however, a technology gap relative to the most modern fleets in the West (about 15 years for India and 20 years for China). Moreover, it is interesting to observe that the willingness to catch up to the West is such that, increasingly, India and China manage to build themselves modern ships, while limiting imports of sophisticated equipment. Notwithstanding, if the Indian navy can be seen as a ‘projection navy’, the Chinese navy is, on the contrary, essentially a  ‘navy of interdiction’ (“that is to say, with a potential to cause damage with its several submarines”) (Aggarwal, 2012: 36).

If the infrastructures are, certainly, important, one should not overlook, however, naval diplomacy. This is the source of immense cooperation agreements that India has established with all the island states in the Indian Ocean (David, 2006). Indian maritime power is, therefore, searching for a nonviolent hegemony (with all that implies in terms of soft power), within a framework in which India is playing the role of ‘gentle policeman’ who expresses willingness in “keeping the ocean as a common good” (Holslag, 2008: 16). Nevertheless, if that naval diplomacy enables India to project its power, while creating a network of alliances in the region, it witnesses, at the same time, a suspicion against the maritime ambitions of other countries. China is a case in point. According to J. Holslag (2008: 22), “Indian naval diplomacy seeks to prevent China from launching its anchor in strategic locations … (a fact that is) considered a major reason for the Indian offensive of naval charm”.

Nonetheless, while India is somewhat concerned with the ambitions of the Chinese navy, Beijing seems to be, in turn, concerned about the dilemma of energy security in the Malacca Strait. Indeed, the Chinese leadership believes that if an accident ever occurs in the strait, or if the latter is blocked by foreign powers, China could then see its energy supplies brought into question. However, Chinese officials are convinced that such a threat is more likely to come from powers such as Japan or the United States than from India itself (Ranade, 2009). Nevertheless, this does not mean that China has no interest in freeing itself from the domination of New Delhi over the Indian Ocean. Anyhow, as emphasized by Holslag (2008), a naval arms race with India is not likely, especially given that Chinese naval power will continue to pay more attention to Taiwan until a settlement is reached with the island. Moreover, the author adds that “China has no plausible legitimacy (except for the shipment of Zheng He in the 14th century) to explain to its neighbours why the Indian Ocean (contrary to the East and South China sea) must historically belong to its maritime area of ​​interest” (Holslag, 2008: 25).


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Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in Lisbon. His research focuses on China’s presence in Central Asia, energy security, Great Powers’ competition for access to oil and gas in Central Asia, among other issues (


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