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India and China Can Coexist in the Indo–Pacific

Last year witnessed a nadir in India–China relations as the two neighbours stumbled into their most serious border crisis in decades. While both leaderships were sensible enough to pull back from the brink, 2018 has seen steps from Delhi and Beijing to turn the page on their deteriorating relationship. As I have previously suggested in this column, the Doklam crisis showed the limits of confrontation in an age of interdependence (Z D Singh 2017).

Last year witnessed a nadir in India–China relations as the two neighbours stumbled into their most serious border crisis in decades. While both leaderships were sensible enough to pull back from the brink, 2018 has seen steps from Delhi and Beijing to turn the page on their deteriorating relationship. As I have previously suggested in this column, the Doklam crisis showed the limits of confrontation in an age of interdependence (Z D Singh 2017). Yet, to address some of their underlying differences, India and China still need to engage in a more purposeful dialogue on the issues that have generated an adversarial rivalry. And, the maritime spaces connecting the subcontinent to East Asia are an appropriate issue for such a conversation.

Historical Unity

In a rare study, K N Chaudhuri mapped the Indian Ocean as an area spanning the Red Sea to the South China Sea. The rationale for this definition was the pre-19th-century geo-economic networks between West Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia. For over a thousand years, transcontinental trade occurred through the Indian Ocean and included connections between many different civilisations and regions. This was, in many ways, a people-centric trading system that had evolved organically more through the initiatives of mer­chants, traders, sailors and coastal communities than grand political visions or imperial dictates. People “could sail from one end of the sea to the other until they reached the barrier of the Pacific, which remained practically closed to sailing ships” (Chaudhuri 1985: 23).

Early Chinese historical works were aware of the eastern and western divisions of the Indian Ocean and the distinctive nature of the contacts between them created by foreign seafarers. (Chaudhuri 1985: 21)

Contemporary Arab accounts from the ninth century also reveal that

the inter-regional maritime and caravan trade of the Near East [West Asia and the subcontinent], important as it was, existed alongside the highly profitable trans-oceanic trade originating further east [in South East Asia and China]. (Chaudhuri 1985: 49)

The other factor that historically defined the limits of the Indian Ocean was its navigability being determined by its monsoon winds, which determined the precise sailing patterns from both ends of the ocean. Recent official Indian reflections attest to such a past:

No other part of the maritime world has its fundamental economic activities so directly derived from cycles of nature. This unity was expressed over the ages primarily through maritime trade rhythms, that then carried over into migration, traditions, practices and faith. As a result, this ocean evolved its own special identity that is based on mobility, acceptance and inter-penetration … the overall ethos of the Indian Ocean was one of co-existence and adjustment, where respect for diversity was intrinsic to the promotion of trade. (MEA 2017)

Instructively, even the European powers had relied on pre-existing networks among the Indian Ocean regions, which they revived or further developed in some cases and obstructed in others. It is also worth recalling that in terms of volume and profit, intra-Asian commerce, until the onset of the Industrial Revolution era, dwarfed what the European powers could generate through Europe–Asia trade. In other words, Europe needed Asia far more than Asian countries needed markets outside the vast Indian Ocean area, and early European geo-economic activity in Asia was in large measure a continuation rather than a dramatic interruption in older trade links and ­cultural contacts.

It was only in later phases, especially with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, that Europe gained undisputed military ascendance over Asian civilisations and severed the traditional political economy in the wider Indian Ocean area. The narrower or fragmented definitions of the Indian Ocean were a reflection of imperial policies, particularly of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, who sought to control the freedom of navigation between the subregions of Asia, militarised commercial interactions, and created their own spheres of influence, particularly in the central and western Indian Ocean. These colonial powers, as one former official notes, “created artificial firewalls through their administrative jurisdictions that diluted centuries of natural movements and contacts” (MEA 2017). The image of the Indian Ocean as a self-contained space or a “closed sea” from Aden to Malacca was very much a construction of these great powers that sought exclusive economic privileges via their geopolitical control over India and the surrounding west–east sea lanes.

During the postcolonial period, regio­nal powers sought to adapt these imperial ideas for defensive purposes to secure their heartlands. Since both India and China had faced a similar historical experience of maritime intrusion and subsequent subjugation through external power projected via the sea, a memory of maritime weakness and a determination to avoid a repeat of that traumatic past became ingrained in the strategic cultures of both countries. And, when India and China confronted pressure and coercion from the sea during the Cold War, they quickly recognised the value of sea power and the destabilising role that their maritime periphe­ries could play to disrupt domestic and regional stability. But, it was largely homeland and territorial concerns that shaped Indian and Chinese maritime thinking. Commerce and connectivity was rarely the driver of state behaviour.

Given that the present era of globalisation has not only restored the traditional connectivity between the Indian Ocean’s constituent regions, but also significantly enhanced it, the logic to revive an expansive mental map for the Indian Ocean based on open regionalism and social, economic, and cultural interdependence has again become compelling.

A Maritime Commons

At the outset, we must first identify the main interests for India and China in the Indian Ocean today. For China, its outlook and policy priorities depend on which part of this vast ocean we are referring to. The attitude towards the eastern fringes of the Indian Ocean, or where the western Pacific begins, appears to be more geopolitically driven, that is, aimed at the security of China’s heartland and eastern seaboard. Chinese interest in the central and western areas of the Indian Ocean appears to be primarily linked to the security of its sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for the vast strategic commodities and energy supplies that flow from West Asia and Africa to coastal China. For India, the northern Indian Ocean is a space that has been a part of the subcontinent’s evolution through hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In addition to civilisational factors, geopolitics is another variable that shapes how many Indians think about the Indian Ocean. A part of this image, as alluded to earlier, has been influenced by British ideas that promoted a “closed sea” to exclude rival powers from acce­ssing the subcontinent.

The one factor that both countries recognise as vital for their economic growth and domestic transformations is maintaining open maritime trade routes. So, can India and China envision themselves as joint stakeholders in the maritime commons? After all, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo, 50% of the world’s container traffic and 70% of crude and oil products pass through Indian Ocean sea lanes. These staggering statistics reflect the Indian Ocean’s status as a “global commons” and an economic highway. About 75% of India’s oil imports also use these waterways. For China, too, the share of seaborne energy trade traversing from the western Indian Ocean to the eastern part and into the South China Sea is also high with 80% of its oil imports passing through the Malacca Strait. China is also said to face a Hormuz Dilemma because 40% of its oil imports transit the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (Brewster 2015: 49). More broadly, nearly all of China’s trade with Europe, West Asia and Africa travels through the west–east sea lanes just below the South Asian peninsula. This high dependence on Indian Ocean trade routes has reflected in China’s maritime strategy where it has gradually developed a presence beyond the Malacca Straits, the historical choke point and transit between the central and eastern Indian Ocean.

In October 2008, a Chinese naval flotilla engaged in its first long-distance operation into the western Indian Ocean. Since that year, China has maintained a small but regular presence in the Gulf of Aden as part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLA–N) counter-piracy deployments. Bet­ween 2009 and 2014, the PLA–N also made 49 port calls around the northern, central and western Indian Ocean (Koh 2016: 151). Presently, the Chinese deployment in Aden, near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, accounts for four to five warships at any given time (R Singh 2017).

The Indian government’s reactions to these developments generally have been pragmatic. Then Defence Minister A K Antony had welcomed cooperation with the PLA–N stating that, “If ever there was a need for consensual and cooperative effort, it is in relation to piracy” (quoted in Holslag 2013: 43–45). In 2013, India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon remarked that an India–China maritime rivalry “was not inevitable” as both countries had a “common interest in keeping sea lanes of communication in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans open. These lines are vital to India’s trade and energy flows. So are they for China” (PTI 2013). In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too acknowledged the global interest in the Indian Ocean: “We recognise that there are other nations around the world, with strong interests and stakes in the region” (Modi 2015). As we can see, Indian policymakers have recognised Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean.

China’s strategy to mitigate the vulnerability of its extended Indian Ocean SLoCs is still evolving. Rather than concentrating its maritime attention to a few ports and harbours, China has been dispersing its logistics over a large number of littoral locations: Djibouti, Aden, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Pakistan and Myanmar (Kamerling and van der Putten 2011).1 A parallel dimension of China’s strategy has also been to pursue continental lines of communication to the Indian Ocean to bypass the South East Asian archipelago altogether. These include the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, and China–Myanmar corridor. Of these, only the Myanmar link has so far been operationalised. The Myanmar–China crude oil pipeline originates in Made Island in Rakhine and runs further for 771 kilometres through Myanmar until it reaches Yunnan. This pipeline began operating in May 2017 and has a transmission capacity of 22 million tonnes of crude oil per year. It is expected to reduce China’s reliance on the Malacca route by about one-third and cut the transport distance for African and West Asian oil shipments by about 1,200 km (Myanmar Times 2017; Financial Times 2013). Yet, as a recent United States government report notes, these

new pipelines will alleviate only slightly China’s maritime dependency on either the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz. Despite China’s efforts, the sheer volume of oil and liquefied natural gas that is imported to China from West Asia and Africa will make strategic SLOCs increasingly important to China. (Len 2017: 50)

In short, there seems to be little alternative for China but to focus on a combination of national and multilateral efforts to secure its maritime trade routes.

Motivations and Capabilities

The rapid expansion of China’s merchant shipping fleet, the world’s third largest today, and investment in South Asian and West Asian ports and harbours is part of a conscious attempt at maintaining economic security. Over the past decade, China’s merchant fleet has expanded by 300%, from about 44 million gross tonnes at the end of 2005, to over 130 million gross tonnes at the end of 2015. Since 2010, Chinese and Hong Kong companies have completed or announced deals involving at least 40 port projects worth over
$45 billion,2 the largest five of which are in the Indian Ocean area. China’s 2015 white paper on military strategy has obliged the PLA–N to protect “the security of sea lanes of communication and overseas interests” (Ministry of National Defense 2015). Interestingly, such a pattern is different from the typical mode of maritime transformations. The Soviet Union, Germany and Japan, for instance,

built their navies first and then promoted merchant marine development … China’s current maritime transformation is led largely by an exceedingly dynamic commercial maritime sector, which in turn is creating synergies for naval development. (Collins and Grubb 2009: 345)

It seems clear that China’s presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean is driven largely by China’s massive economic footprint on the world trading system.

For India, the littoral is seen more as part of some kind of order-building process where the area can be steered towards a common regional identity and purpose. As a former official notes, India’s policy is to “create the connectivity that promotes a sharper Indian Ocean personality to emerge.” The Mausam project is aimed at constructing and reviving “the ocean’s identity” (MEA 2016).3 So, for India, the maritime space around it has a geo-cultural dimension as well as a geopolitical dimension. For the same reason, India appears more interested in intra-regional economic cooperation,4 where the littoral states can be persuaded to craft sub­regional or plurilateral cooperation mechanisms, in contrast to China’s interest in inter-regional economic connectivity.

Another stark aspect that stands out is the nature of Sino–Indian interactions in the Indian Ocean. In the northern Indian Ocean, India’s weight is felt primarily as a naval power rather than a comprehensive and balanced maritime power with the full spectrum of commercial, merchant marine, industrial and technological capabilities. China, on the other hand, has emerged as a more active maritime power with significant investments in ports, infrastructure and pipelines, without posing itself as a major naval power in the central and western Indian Ocean. This makes their bilateral interaction asymmetric and atypical because Indian and Chinese maritime strengths and vulnerabilities exist in different domains of power and consequently, their influence is being projected in different ways and through different instruments.

One trend nevertheless seems clear: the globalisation clock cannot be turned back. Both India and China are deepening their economic interdependence with other regions and the maritime spaces around these countries are still the main arteries for those connections. Hence, neither can afford to ignore the other’s maritime policies. As China’s investment in maritime infrastructure in the central and western Indian Ocean increases, it is likely to get drawn into the neighbourhood’s affairs. If Beijing does not handle this process prudently, it could heighten mistrust and fuel a costly competition. Delhi, for its part, needs to candidly reflect on the premodern geo-economic linkages in the Indian Ocean, which were inclusive and expansive, and China was often an integral part of those inter-regional exchanges. Put plainly, the notion of a closed or privileged Indian space between Aden and Malacca was an imperial aberration rather than the norm in the wider span of Asian history.

Another lesson from the maritime past is that only when Indian Ocean ports assumed a politically neutral and open status to diverse and competing players did the particular location become a thriving entrepôt for different trading communities and commodities. Both Indian and Chinese policymakers ought to keep this in mind as they scramble for maritime privileges along the Indo–Pacific.


Zorawar Daulet Singh ( is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.


1 Recently, China has agreed to take a 70% stake in the Kyauk Pyu seaport in western Rakhine, Myanmar (Dhaka Tribune 2017).

2 The largest five ports for which data is available are: Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Australia and Israel. It has been estimated that, since 2015, two-thirds of the world’s container traffic passes through Chinese-owned or invested ports (Financial Times 2017; Kuo 2017).

3 India is “Trying to Get Friendly Island Nations of the IOR into a Common Maritime Security Grid” (Ghosh 2015: 238).

4 Trade with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean constitutes close to 40% of India’s total trade (MEA 2010).


Brewster, David (2015): “An Indian Ocean Dilemma: Sino–Indian Rivalry and China’s Strategic Vulnerability in the Indian Ocean,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, Vol 11, No 1, pp 48–59.

Chaudhuri, K N (1985): Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, London: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, Gabriel and Michael Grubb (2009): “Strong Foundation: Contemporary Chinese Shipbuilding Prowess,” China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds), Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Dhaka Tribune (2017): “China to Take 70% Stake in Rakhine Sea Port,” 17 October.

Financial Times (2013): “China–Myanmar Pipeline to Open in May,” 21 January.

— (2017): “How China Rules the Waves,” 12 January.

Ghosh, P K (2015): “Evolving Indian Ocean Governance Architecture: An Indian Perspective,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, Vol 11, No 2, pp 236–55.

Holslag, Jonathan (2013): “The Reluctant Pretender: China’s Evolving Presence in the Indian Ocean,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, Vol 9, No 1, pp 42–52.

Kamerling, S and F P van der Putten (2011): “An Overseas Naval Presence without Overseas Bases: China’s Counter-piracy Operation in the Gulf of Aden,” Current Chinese Affairs, Vol 40, No 4, pp 119–46.

Koh, C S L (2016): “Sino–Indian Maritime Security Dilemma,” India’s Naval Strategy and Asian Security, Anit Mukherjee and C Raja Mohan (eds), London: Routledge, pp 144–74.

Kuo, Mercy A (2017): “The Power of Ports: China’s Maritime March,” Diplomat, 8 March,

Len, Christopher (2017): “China’s Maritime Silk Road and Energy Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean: Motivations and Implications for the Region,” NBR special report #68, November, National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle.

MEA (2010): “Speech by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, India,” 19 November, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, ments.htm?dtl/816/.

— (2016): “Remarks by Indian Foreign Secretary at Indian Ocean Conference,” 1 September, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi,

— (2017): “Foreign Secretary’s Address to the Indian Ocean Conference, Colombo,” 1 September, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi,

Ministry of National Defense (2015): “Full Text: China’s Military Strategy,” 26 May, 4586805.htm.

Modi, Narendra (2015): “Text of the PM’s Remarks on the Commissioning of Coast Ship Barracuda,” 12 March,

Myanmar Times (2017): “Myanmar Exports 2m Tonnes of Oil via Pipeline over Four Months,” 21 September.

PTI (2013): “India–China Maritime Rivalry Not Inevitable: NSA,” Press Trust of India, 4 March.

Singh, Rahul (2017): “Chinese Warships Prowl Indian Ocean Ahead of Naval Drills by India, US and Japan,” Hindustan Times, 5 July.

Singh, Zorawar Daulet (2017): “India and China: A Stubborn Relationship,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 39, pp 10–11.

Updated On : 2nd Apr, 2018


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