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India vs. China
In recent weeks I’ve written of Australia’s defense concerns as China’s military grows in strength, particularly its navy, and I noted in my “Week in Review” column that China is supporting the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels in exchange for a $1 billion port in Sri Lanka, the better to navigate Indian Ocean trade routes.
Writing in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, Robert D. Kaplan of The Atlantic and the Center for a New American Security discusses the “Power Plays in the Indian Ocean.”
“(In) what quarter of the earth today can one best glimpse the future? Because of their own geographic circumstances, Americans, in particular, continue to concentrate on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. World War II and the Cold War shaped this outlook: Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and communist China were all oriented toward one of these two oceans….And yet, as the pirate activity off the coast of Somalia and the terrorist carnage in Mumbai last fall suggest, the Indian Ocean – the world’s third-largest body of water – already forms center stage for the challenges of the twenty-first century.”
Kaplan writes that the Indian Ocean is not just a geographic feature, but it’s also “an idea. It combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered, multipolar world. The dramatic economic growth of India and China has been duly noted, but the equally dramatic military ramifications of this development have not. India’s and China’s great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries ‘to redirect their gazes from land to the seas,’ according to James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.”
So look at a map. In the west you have the Persian Gulf feeding into the Gulf of Oman through the Strait of Hormuz. Further south you have the Gulf of Aden, where much of the piracy is taking place. Then across the Indian Ocean to the east you have the vital Strait of Malacca bisecting Malaysia (and Singapore) on one side and Indonesia on the other. This is the trade route that takes you into the South China Sea.
For its part, the United States still has to keep the peace in the Indian Ocean, and as Kaplan points out, the response of our navy to the 2004 tsunami showed how navies can exert great influence on shore while leaving a small footprint. [As opposed to the old cliché: navies make port visits, and armies invade.]
Today, 40% of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca; 40% of all traded crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
“Already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. Global energy needs are expected to rise by 45% between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China. China’s demand for crude oil doubled between 1996 and 2005 and will double again in the coming 15 years or so; by 2020, China is expected to import 7.3 million barrels of crude per day – half of Saudi Arabia’s planned output. More than 85% of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca.
“India – soon to become the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, after the United States, China, and Japan – is dependent on oil for roughly 33% of its energy needs, 65% of which it imports. And 90% of its oil imports could soon come from the Persian Gulf. India must satisfy a population that will, by 2030, be the largest of any country in the world….
“India’s trade with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran, with which India has long enjoyed close economic and cultural ties, is booming. Approximately 3.5 million Indians work in the six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and send home 44 billion in remittances annually….Iran, like Afghanistan, has become a strategic rear base for India against Pakistan, and it is poised to become an important energy partner. In 2005, India and Iran signed a multibillion-dollar deal under which Iran will supply India and 7.5 million tons of LNG annually for 25 years, beginning in 2009. There has been talk of building a gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan, a project that would join the Middle East and South Asia at the hip (and in the process could go a long way toward stabilizing Indian-Pakistani relations). In another sign that Indian-Iranian relations are growing more intimate, India has been helping Iran develop the port of Chah Bahar, on the Gulf of Oman, which will also serve as a forward base for the Iranian navy.”
India also has good relations with Myanmar, despite the latter being led by a military junta. Myanmar is rich in resources India needs, such as oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, uranium, timber, and hydropower – all of which China is also heavily invested in.
So India is enlarging its navy, one that is already quite large, with 155 warships, and it hopes to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers by 2015.
As for China, President Hu Jintao has bemoaned China’s “Malacca dilemma.” Everything China imports from the Gulf must pass through here, so the government is instead focused on transporting oil and other energy products via roads and pipelines from ports on the Indian Ocean. And as Robert Kaplan adds, “One reason that Beijing wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion is so that it can redirect its naval energies away from the Taiwan Strait and toward the Indian Ocean.”
So China is adopting a “string of pearls” strategy for the Indian Ocean, with ports in friendly nations along the northern seaboard, including at Gwadar, Pakistan, from which it can easily monitor traffic through the Strait of Hormuz; and a new fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Plus facilities in Bangladesh and Myanmar. In Myanmar, China is constructing not just naval bases, but also building roads and pipelines. Some of these sites where China is expanding its presence here are actually closer to central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai, “and so building road and rail links from these facilities into China will help spur the economies of China’s landlocked provinces.” [Kaplan]
“All of these activities are unnerving the Indian government. With China building deep-water ports to its west and east and a preponderance of Chinese arms sales going to Indian Ocean states, India fears being encircled by China unless it expands its own sphere of influence. The two countries’ overlapping commercial and political interests are fostering competition, and even more so in the naval realm than on land.”
Zhang Ming, a Chinese naval analyst, has warned that India could use the 244 islands that form India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago as a “metal chain” to block the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca, on which China depends. “India is perhaps China’s most realistic strategic adversary,” Zhang has written. “Once India commands the Indian Ocean, it will not be satisfied with its position and will continuously seek to extend its influence, and its eastward strategy will have a particular impact on China.”
As for the United States, its geopolitical challenges include not just the Middle East, but how to contain the presence of India and China in the Indian Ocean. To this end, Washington will try to leverage the sea power of its allies India and Japan to limit China’s expansion. But at the same time the U.S. wants to incorporate China’s navy into international alliances. The U.S. needs both India and China to cooperate on issues such as terrorism, piracy and smuggling, for example.
“Like a microcosm of the world at large, the greater Indian Ocean region is developing into an area of both ferociously guarded sovereignty (with fast-growing economies and militaries) and astonishing interdependence (with its pipelines and land and sea routes). And for the first time since the Portuguese onslaught in the region in the early sixteenth century, the West’s power there is in decline, however subtly and relatively. The Indians and the Chinese will enter into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters, with their shared economic interests as major trading partners locking them in an uncomfortable embrace. The United States, meanwhile, will serve as a stabilizing power in this newly complex area. Indispensability, rather than dominance, must be its goal.”