Fresh approach: India-China maritime dialogue

Maritime cooperation is the buzzword among modern day strategic planners and analysts and countries with major navies are establishing architecture for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, though some of the navies do intend to have a monopoly over the sea.

To avoid a situation of rivalry and competition India has been engaging in dialogue and bilateral exercises and as an extension of this policy India and China would be conducting first ever bilateral maritime dialogue, most probably in May this year, in New Delhi, which will try to clarify each others intent behind naval forays in each other’s maritime domain.

India-China maritime dialogue would have a different meaning as compared to India-US and India-Japan maritime dialogue. Both Japan and the US are considered rivals to China and friendly towards India.

Along with this important engagement with China, this summer Indian warships would once again make a deep foray through the South China Sea and to the Pacific Ocean, which would entail visits to almost all ASEAN and some East Asian powers like Japan and Vietnam including China.

Naval cooperation

Ways to promote naval cooperation were one of the issues during the Defence Secretary level dialogue on 22nd March, 13 between India and China, which interestingly was held only two months ago in January in Beijing. With the change in Chinese leadership, the dispatch of very senior military official Lt. Gen Qi Jian Guo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Chinese PLA to India for another round of dialogue with Indian defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma has great significance in the changed context.

Cooperation and competition are the twin philosophy to mark naval powers presence in the oceans. India has been engaging with the non littoral states of Indian Ocean on a regular basis since early nineties, when in 1992, India for the first time invited the US Navy for the first ever Malabar series of naval exercises.

This was followed by the Varuna exercises with the French and the Konkan exercises with the British and by the middle of last decade Indian navy expanded its activities to the Pacific Ocean when it sent its warships for bilateral exercises with the Japanese navy.

However, before India engaged with the Japanese, Indian navy actually sent for the first time in 2002 its Destroyers to Shanghai. Prior to this India had already entered into a global partnership kind of relationship with Japan which led to the invitation first to the Indian Coast Guard and then to the Indian Navy for bilateral exercises.

India not only engaged with the Japanese in the Pacific but also interacted with the American navy in the Pacific near the Japanese coast. After crossing South China Sea and dropping its anchors at various coastal ASEAN states, Indian naval warships engaged in trilateral exercises also involving Japan and the US. Though China should not have got worried, when in 2007 India conducted the five nation naval exercises involving US, Australia, Japan and Singapore, but it raised eyebrows in Chinese strategic circles though this gathering was far away from the Chinese waters.

As a major littoral power of the Indian Ocean, India has been feeling greatly relieved after the end of the cold war, when the maritime rivalry came to an end after the withdrawal of the Soviet Navy  from the Indian Ocean. But off late the vacuum seems to be gradually filled up by the Chinese Navy, which has been making regular forays in the Indian Ocean and making strenuous efforts to establish its footprint on several of the tiny island nations, who have suddenly acquired great strategic significance, because of the emergence of Africa as agricultural, mineral and energy powerhouse.

As the South China Sea has huge untapped petroleum resources, Indian Ocean also offers huge energy possibilities. The eastern coast of Africa has been found to contain huge reservoirs of oil and gas and big powers are eyeing those resources. A country with substantial naval assets in the Indian Ocean can position itself strongly with an aim of grabbing a huge chunk of those crucial energy resources.

Though maritime experts have been predicting doomsday scenario of an impending maritime rivalry between India and China not only in the South China Sea but also in Indian Ocean in view of the emergence of Africa as an important resource base, India’s top strategic advisor Shiv Shankar Menon asserts that rivalry between the two countries is not inevitable as both have a common interest in keeping the sea lines of communication open for their trade and energy flows.

In fact China is working with a long term strategic vision on opening land routes via its Xinjiang province to Arabian Sea through the Gwadar port near Karachi, constructed by the Chinese government. China has won the permission for deep sea mining in central Indian Ocean and India has got its oil exploration facility in the South China Sea. If China in any way tries to harm Indian interests in South China Sea India can also do a tit for tat to the Chinese assets in the Indian Ocean.

Maritime diplomacy

China has a grandiose plan to bolster its naval presence in Indian Ocean by acquiring rest and recreation facilities in the Seychelles islands, which has drawn the attention of maritime watchers. But, China certainly cannot match Indian naval prowess in the Indian Ocean. So cooperation is the only way to mutually sustain in each other’s waters.      

Over last decade India has stepped up its efforts to advance its national interests through maritime diplomacy and with this aim has not only developed bilateral cooperation with outside powers but also with regional navies. Besides the initiative taken through Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in 2005, Indian navy has been hosting the regional navies under the Milan naval get together off the coast of Andaman under its first joint tri-service military command based at Port Blair.

Almost a dozen countries participate in the Milan, held every two years, but of greater significance is the holding of bilateral and multilateral naval exercises with countries like Japan, Singapore, US and some of the ASEAN members.

The naval interaction with China is also likely to be resumed very soon. And the first ever maritime dialogue is likely to be conducted in May, when the Chinese delegation visits India. China has already confirmed its willingness to visit New Delhi for the maritime dialogue, which will involve issues of maritime security, coordination and cooperation in times of distress, natural calamity and against sea pirates.

Though the two countries had started bilateral ship visits almost a decade ago and also engaged in passage exercises along with the mutual visits of Chiefs of Navies, the process was disrupted after China started issuing stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir in 2010.

Now the two countries are again on cooperative mode but it all depends on the real intent of the Chinese military strategists whether they want to use India as a stepping stone in the Indian Ocean or establish a cooperative program for promotion of peace and stability in the Indian Ocean.

But the way the Chinese maritime thinkers have been trying to counter Indian expansion in Indian Ocean by saying that Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean, doubts arise over the intent of their long term strategic planning to position themselves in India’s backyard, which is considered as natural waters of India.

Certainly with this mindset, China will find it difficult to comfortably place itself in the Indian Ocean and exploit the maritime resources without being challenged by India. In an increasingly globalised world where the challenges are gradually getting common India and China cannot function in isolation, whatever their level of rivalry may be in the diplomatic or economic arena.

This is why the two navies have been cooperating in anti piracy operations off the Somalia coast, the Gulf of Aden and other areas. Thus the specific dialogue on maritime security will offer a way forward for both the countries and if the Chinese are sincere and honest in intentions, it may lead to a new era in strategic cooperation.