China, India & the US Jostle For Space In Asian Waters

Over the last few decades, the impor­tance of mar­itime secu­ri­ty in the Asia-Pacif­ic region has dras­ti­cal­ly increased. The sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion (SLOCs) that con­nect nations through­out Asia are crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant due to the flow of vital resources and trade goods that nations rely on to sus­tain their eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment.

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In this con­text, the tra­di­tion­al land pow­ers of India and Chi­na have rec­og­nized the impor­tance of naval pow­er, and are sub­se­quent­ly in the process of mod­ern­iz­ing their navies. In addi­tion to this region­al buildup, the Unit­ed States fun­da­men­tal­ly impacts mar­itime secu­ri­ty in the region due to its hege­mon­ic dom­i­nance, both in terms of naval capa­bil­i­ties and tech­no­log­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty. The col­li­sion of inter­ests between these three nations defines the geopo­lit­i­cal envi­ron­ment with­in the Asia Pacific. 

In the past two decades Chi­na has rapid­ly attempt­ed to mod­ern­ize its navy, with mil­i­tary expen­di­tures increas­ing by over 140 per­cent since 1997. Recent mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion with­in Chi­na has been focused towards upgrad­ing its naval capa­bil­i­ties, and devel­op­ing a blue-water navy capa­ble of pow­er-pro­jec­tion through­out the Asia Pacific. 

An analy­sis of Chi­nese naval mod­ern­iza­tion can best be explored through their dri­ve for a mod­ern air­craft-car­ri­er. In 2009, Defense Min­is­ter Ling Guan­glie announced that the Chi­nese navy will be equipped with two air­craft car­ri­ers by as ear­ly as 2015. Chi­na then launched its first air­craft car­ri­er in August 2011, which was a refit­ted ver­sion of a Sovi­et car­ri­er. While the car­ri­er is cur­rent­ly only fit of train­ing pur­pos­es, and will not be a ful­ly oper­a­tional com­bat ves­sel for years to come, it rep­re­sents China’s grow­ing naval pow­er. The attain­ment of an air­craft car­ri­er pro­vides Chi­na with the tra­di­tion­al sym­bol of a world pow­er while also pro­vid­ing the capa­bil­i­ty to secure the SLOCs through which its oil and resource exports have to trav­el through. 

India has sim­i­lar­ly been mod­ern­iz­ing its mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties. India dou­bled its defense bud­get between 1994 and 2004, and cur­rent­ly has plans to spend US$40 bil­lion on mil­i­tary expan­sion over the next four years. India’s naval mod­ern­iza­tion, how­ev­er, has been arguably more effi­cient and effec­tive than China’s, as the for­mer has focused on qual­i­ty over quan­ti­ty, and invest­ed in state-of-the-art weapons systems. 

With­in India, there is recog­ni­tion that a strong naval pow­er is not only vital to uphold­ing its secu­ri­ty inter­ests, but also for its con­tin­ued pros­per­i­ty. India already has pos­ses­sion of one air­craft car­ri­er, and impor­tant­ly, is plan­ning to increase this num­ber to a total of three car­ri­ers by 2020. India’s dri­ve for mar­itime dom­i­nance has recent­ly inten­si­fied with its 2012–2013 defense bud­get increas­ing by 13 per­cent, and with the navy receiv­ing the largest share in com­par­i­son to the oth­er arms of its military. 

Already, Indi­an naval mod­ern­iza­tion efforts have seen com­mend­able results. As recent­ly as last month, India launched two new class­es of sub­marines, includ­ing a nuclear pow­ered sub­ma­rine, and con­duct­ed the first flight of the naval ver­sion of its light com­bat aircraft. 

A main source of com­pe­ti­tion between Chi­na and India is in the field of ener­gy secu­ri­ty. Access to and trans­porta­tion of valu­able resources has increas­ing­ly meant that geopo­lit­i­cal process­es define strate­gic pol­i­cy in the region. 

India does not want to see a Chi­nese naval build-up in the region, yet it is clear that Chi­na has pressed its mar­itime agen­da into the region. In response to this, we see India try­ing to counter-bal­ance Chi­na. As the Chi­nese navy mod­ern­izes, India has become increas­ing­ly wary of being encir­cled in the Indi­an Ocean. 

For exam­ple, China’s “string of pearls” strat­e­gy, which refers to the nego­ti­a­tion of bas­ing rights along the sea route which con­nects Chi­na to the Mid­dle East, does not include inter­ac­tion with India. Indi­an pol­i­cy-mak­ers increas­ing­ly are wor­ried about the future con­trol of SLOCs and the secu­ri­ty of India’s ener­gy. Due to this “string of pearls,” for exam­ple, Chi­na is able to check India’s rise, and mon­i­tor their mar­itime exer­cis­es due to the lever­age they gain with hav­ing bas­ing rights in Pak­istan. Fur­ther­more, China’s strat­e­gy allows access to routes that bypass the Malac­ca Strait. This impacts India’s geoe­co­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty and region­al stand­ing, as any block­ade to the strait would heav­i­ly dam­age India, while Chi­na would have an alter­na­tive route it can rely on. 

It is India’s rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States, how­ev­er, that is the most impor­tant tool for India’s counter-bal­anc­ing of Chi­na. Both Chi­na and India have been sus­pi­cious about the other’s rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States, yet both have been try­ing to fos­ter a strate­gic rela­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton. India cur­rent­ly has the more strate­gi­cal­ly advan­ta­geous rela­tion­ship, which is a great wor­ry for Chi­na. It is per­ceived that Chi­na is being coun­tered while India is being bol­stered as the region­al pow­er. The Unit­ed States is rely­ing upon India to secure the cru­cial sea lanes, and has increas­ing­ly been con­ced­ing lead­er­ship of the Indi­an Ocean to India. For­mer Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Pow­ell has pub­licly stat­ed that “India has the poten­tial to keep the peace in the vast Indi­an Ocean and its periphery.” 

China’s abil­i­ty to uphold its mar­itime secu­ri­ty in the region large­ly rests on its abil­i­ty to oper­ate under the naval dom­i­nance of the Unit­ed States. Even though there have been friend­ly mil­i­tary exchanges between the two coun­tries, their strate­gic trust remains very low. For exam­ple, China’s reac­tion to the U.S. pro­pos­al for a Glob­al Mar­itime Part­ner­ship was met with neg­a­tiv­i­ty and dis­trust. It was at first sug­gest­ed that such a part­ner­ship would make great break­throughs in Sino‑U.S. rela­tions, but ana­lysts from with­in Chi­na claimed that such a pro­pos­al only fur­thered U.S. dom­i­na­tion of mar­itime affairs at the glob­al level. 

A defin­ing fea­ture of the geopo­lit­i­cal envi­ron­ment with­in the Asia Pacif­ic in the years to come will be whether or not Chi­na and India will be able to uphold their mar­itime inter­ests with­out unnec­es­sary esca­la­tion or con­fronta­tion. The Unit­ed States is cen­tral to this sce­nario, due to its role as region­al hege­mon and its capac­i­ty to pro­vide India a strate­gic advan­tage by coun­ter­ing Chi­nese naval ambitions. 


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