Council for Strategic Affairs

Council for Strategic Affairs

China’s Ocean Hegemony and Implications for India

The fifth generation of CCP leadership under Xi Jinping has de facto abandoned the Deng doctrine of keeping low profile internationally. China has become more ambitious of becoming a superpower and has been extending its sovereignty claims on the land and the sea. As a rising hegemon, China has started to challenge the existing international strategic order. China has been in the news recently for building artificial islands with air-landing strips in the South China Sea. It has demanded 12 nautical miles exclusive economic zone around these artificial, man-made reefs. China is a signatory to the law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Chinese attempts to claim the bulk of the South China Sea goes against both the letter and the spirit of the law of the sea. Beijing will invoke its EEZ for its own economic benefits while denying the same rights to other claimants. Brushing aside the ASEAN Code of Conduct in the SCS, China claims sovereignty over all of the SCS which is disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

For the last several years, Chinese official media has been harping on safeguarding China’s “Ocean Sovereignty”. The PLA navy’s goal is to have a “Thousand Ships Navy”. This stated “TSN” Goal is to further Chinese supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region and exploit the mineral & hydrocarbon wealth in the international sea-beds. PLAN has been entrusted to fight future wars for China’s security as per the former President Hu Jintao. On December 6th 2011, while addressing the PLA Navy, Hu Jintao pronounced that PLAN should make “extended preparations for warfare in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security”. China unilaterally declared an air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea in November 2013. Recently, a Chinese admiral declared similar intentions of setting up an air defense identification zone in the future above the disputed areas of the South China Sea if Beijing thought it was facing a strategic threat.

China has created not only facts on the ground but also facts on the Ocean in a very predictable manner of claiming sovereignty with the “Chinese Characteristics”. China always makes maximalist claims against other countries, disputes sovereignty, and alters the facts on the grounds of medieval history or economic reasons, bullies the smaller adversaries into submission, demands mutual concessions while later on sending its armed forces. China has constructed a couple of lighthouses in the South China Sea to provide a fig-leaf for its naked hegemony and sea-resources grabbing activities. China has successfully converted the South China Sea into a virtual private lake affecting the freedom of navigation for the entire world. India has vital maritime interests in the South China Sea. 55% of Indian maritime trade passes through the South China Sea. China has objected vehemently to ONGC’s oil drilling in collaboration with Vietnam in the South China Sea and PLAN ships have started to harass the Indian drilling rigs.

 Once the heat of the South China Sea is gone and Beijing has de facto acquired the marine resources of the South China Sea, the dragon will spread its strategic tentacles into the Indian Ocean. Warning bells are already ringing in the Indian Ocean. PLAN started its naval forays in Indian Ocean up to the Gulf of Aden in 2010 under the garb of anti-piracy operations to control Somali pirates. China’s string of pearl initiative got absorbed in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. China did acquire significant naval facilities in Hambantota, Chittagong, Maldives, and listening & communication facilities in the Coco Islands in Myanmar besides building the naval port in Gwadar. Incidentally, India has gifted the Coco islands to Myanmar in Nehru’s realm. Gwadar port was offered to India by Oman but Nehru declined and Pakistan became the owner and the beneficiary. China also acquired naval facilities for recuperation and re-fueling in Seychelles in December 2011. China has already signed an agreement with the UN backed International Seabed Authority to gain exclusive rights to explore poly-metallic sulfide ore deposits in 10,000 square-kilometers of international seabed in Indian Ocean for 15 years. China has been sending nuclear powered submarines to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Pakistan will receive eight Chinese nuclear powered submarines effectively neutralizing the Indian second strike capabilities in case of a nuclear attack on India.  China plans to buy an island from the Maldives for $ 1 billion under the current Maldivian Government of President Abdulla Yameen.

China’s response to Malabar naval exercises in 2007 when trilateral format included Japan was very negative leading to non-invitation to Japan later on after 2007. India plans to invite Japan in the upcoming Malabar exercises and Chinese reaction would be worth watching. China remains very paranoid about the US “Pivot to Asia” doctrine. Chinese paranoia about the Asian Quadrilateral led to Australia pulling out of that mechanism for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

 China had sent trial balloons to US for a G2 condominium by which US will take over the Atlantic Ocean whereas China will have rights over the Pacific Ocean. Unlike Tibet, Indo-Pacific is too important to be given to China on a platter. As a trading nation with vital economic and maritime interests, India will have to safeguard the sea-lanes of communication, ensure freedom of navigation and take the strategic ownership of her maritime interests.

China’s foreign exchange reserves were at the peak of almost $4 trillion in June 2014. Despite a recent decline in Chinese economy, China’s foreign exchange reserves totaled $3.514 trillion at the end of September 2015. China still has the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world.  China will continue to extend its strategic footprints under the much enlarged One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project because it has plenty of spare cash. China also proposes to use the Beijing sponsored AIIB as the financing arm for the OBOR which will ultimately require $ 1.4 trillion in investments. China has already sanctioned $46 billion on China-Pakistan Economic corridor as part of the OBOR connectivity without taking India’s sensitivities about CPEC passing through the POK. While India has cooperated with China in the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) Corridor project, the GOI has been deliberately silent about any synergistic cooperation with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road project.

In contrast to China, India’s foreign exchange reserves were only $352 billion in September 2015. Despite willing to take remedial action, New Delhi does not have the hard cash to take upon Chinese naval strategic threat in Indian Ocean. The strategic asymmetry vis-à-vis China will require some cool-headed long-term strategic and economic planning. Diplomats like Shyam Saran have rightly advocated limited but pragmatic cooperation with China on the OBOR while shoring up our own connectivity projects including the Chabahar port in Iran and Andaman and Nicobar island naval command.

India must, first and foremost, increase her Comprehensive National Power to deal with continued Chinese threats. The only way forward is to rapidly speed up Indian economy, ensure permanent economic reforms, develop domestic infrastructure, reenergize the Indian manufacturing sector and solidly promote the Make in India initiative. With a projected growth rate of 7.5% in 2016, India can restore her share of the world GDP and reduce the economic and strategic asymmetry with China while safeguarding her strategic & maritime interests in the Indo-Pacific.

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