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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