The nouveau hegemon of the Indian Ocean?

by Abbas Adil

With reduced US influence in the Indian Ocean Region, India and France have been patrolling the Southwest Indian Ocean since 2020. Indian Navy P-8I maritime patrol aircraft participated in “joint surveillance missions” from French La Réunion.

India is being groomed as a proxy for the Western powers to oversee the Indian Ocean. India and its allies fear China’s rising maritime influence (the so-called. “String of Pearls” bogey).

The USA’s new protégé is India. To woo India firmly into its fold, the USA offered to sell it $3 billion (per one unit) Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot Advance Capability (PAC-3) missile defence systems as an alternative to the Russian S-400 system. India ditched Russia from whom it had decided to purchase five S-400s at a cost of $5.4 billion. India’s ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean does not augur well for the region. It should let the Indian Ocean remain a zone of peace
India abhors Chinese growing investments in the Horn of Africa to the ASEAN nations and the Pacific Island nations, besides in Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Pakistan’s Gwadar Port as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Maldives.

Maldives had banned anti-India protests (under president Soleh). Now it has demanded an end to the Indian military presence. The Indian navy chief says he has no instructions to vacate Maldives. But, it appears that they would leave by mid-March.

In the Maldives, China financed the China–Maldives Friendship Bridge, linking Malé to the island of Hulhumale and Hulhule. The Maldives also leased an uninhabited island, Feydhoo Finolhu, to China for 50 years at a price of about $ 4 million for tourism development.

To offset the Dragon, India modernized facilities in the Andaman Islands and at a base in Campbell Bay in the Nicobar Islands. Rs 56.5 billion would be spent to increase the capacity of warships, aircraft, troops, and drones to be stationed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. INS Kohassa was commissioned in the Bay of Bengal islands. Logistics facilities in Mauritius (Agaléga Islands) and Seychelles have been upgraded. .

To strangle the Maldivian economy, India directed tourists not to visit the Maldives.

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between Washington and New Delhi would enable India to gain logistical support from the many US facilities located throughout the Indo-Pacific. The BrahMos supersonic missile is being tested and inducted.

China’s posture: China wants to bridge its aircraft-carrier deficiency through anti-ship ballistic missiles and the Xian H-6K bomber armed with advanced air-launched cruise missiles. Chinese defence systems include DF-, Dong-Feng 21 (DF-21; NATO reporting name CSS-5 – Dong-Feng (literally: ‘East Wind’). Dong-Feng 21 is a two-stage solid-fuel rocket, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronics Technology Academy. A variant is DF-26 with range increased to 3000 km (1,900 miles) to 4,000 km (2,500 miles). China has two supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, the YJ-12, with a range of 400 km, and the YJ-18, which can hit targets up to 540 km away. But they are no match for the US subsonic Harpoon anti-ship missile, which has been modified to give it a maximum range of about 240 km. An anti-ship variant of US Raytheon’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, with a range of over 1,600 km, has been delivered to the US Navy. China has a string of naval assets in the region from Gwadar to Djibouti.

China’s Achilles heel: China has maritime disputes over some islands in the region (Japan, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines). In the East China Sea, there is a dispute between China and Japan over the islands of Diaoyu and Senkakus islands.

India’s posture: The USA assured India that it would be its `security provider’ in moments of need. The major stakeholders in the region are the USA, China, Australia, ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea.

Majority of the littoral states, including India, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea, are under American influence. The USA has powerful naval bases at Diego Garcia, Busen, Guyan Island, Yongson base (South Korea) and Okinawa (Japan).The USA has stationed its littoral combat ships at Singapore besides accessing facilities of Vietnamese port Cam Ranh Bay.

Despite adverse advisory opinion on Chagos Islands, including the Diego Garcia atoll, by the International Court of Justice, US forces are still entrenched there. Besides, France maintains naval bases in the Indian Ocean and stations frigates off Réunion.

To block China’s ascendancy, all littoral states including Japan, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and other middle ranking regional powers are modernizing their navies. China wants to surpass the USA not only in terms of GDP but also in respect of naval power.

India wants to build a blue water navy capable of defending not only its homeland, but also wider security and economic interests, in the Indo-Pacific region. In view of the South East Asia and South China Sea region, India created regional Andaman and Nicobar Tri-Service Command in Port Blair.

At US prodding, India revised its maritime strategy “Freedom to Use the Seas’ in 2015 to “Ensuring Secure Seas”. India obtained access to the US naval base in Diego Garcia, and to the French naval bases in Mayotte and Réunion islands, besides the Australian naval base in Cocos (Keeling). It signed an agreement with Seychelles to develop and manage facilities on its Assumption Island, another agreement with Mauritius to develop dual- use logistics facilities in the Agaléga Island, and obtained berthing rights in Duqm Port in Oman and Maputo in Mozambique. Besides, she took up development of the Sittwe Port in Myanmar as part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project for building a multi-modal sea, river and road transport corridor for shipment of cargo from the eastern ports of India to Myanmar through Sittwe. It upgraded its existing listening post in northern Madagascar.

The Indian Navy wants to attain underwater nuclear power projection capability by the year 2025. By that year, the Indian Navy will have a network-centric approach and land-attack assistance capability. The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System has become operational since 2016. It will provide positional information of about 1500 km around the Indian mainland.

India is already a partner in the US security architecture of the Indo-Pacific Region. The Indian Navy’s new acquisition project in the pipeline adds up to well over Rs. 300 billion over the next 15 years.

China’s ‘string of pearls’. China is suspicious of India’s role as a US proxy in the Indo-Pacific region. It regards the arc from The Bay of Bengal to the East China Sea as a hot-spot of rivalry. China’s blue Book warns if India, China itself and the USA failed to engage with each other more constructively in view of their overlapping interests, the Indian Ocean could end up `as an Ocean of conflict and trouble’. Chinese Battle Group and submarines often moved in the Indian Ocean, though after giving prior movement-notice to littoral states.

China has deployed Xia-class nuclear submarines with SLBMs in the South China Sea. They can reach the south-western quadrant of the Indian Ocean via the Malacca or Sunda Straits in a short time.

China is building energy relationships worldwide especially in Central Asia, Russia, Africa, Middle East and Gulf countries. China gets about 70 per cent of its oil imports from West Asia and Africa through tankers. China is creating a strategic petroleum reserve and is building a fleet of super-tankers for transport of energy to China.

The USA has over 800 naval bases while China has only two, that are Mombasa and Djibouti, aside from controversial Hambantota (Sri Lanka). Yet, the US propaganda is that China is setting up bases along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea. The bases have dual objectives to protect energy and strategic interests.

The Indo-Pacific region is of great importance because of its impact on energy, maritime and trade security. ASEAN and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation are important politico-economic players in the region. The APEC members account for 40 percent of the world’s population, 54 percent of the World’s Gross Domestic Product and 44 percent of the World’s trade. ASEAN accounts for about 8.8 percent of the world’s population and three percent of the total land area of Earth.

Robert Kaplan, in his book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and Future of American Power, argues that the geopolitics of the 21st century will hinge on the Indian Ocean. The USA’s new protégé is India. To woo India firmly into its fold, the USA offered to sell it $3 billion (per one unit) Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot Advance Capability (PAC-3) missile defence systems as an alternative to the Russian S-400 system. India ditched Russia from whom it had decided to purchase five S-400s at a cost of $5.4 billion. India’s ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean does not augur well for the region. It should let the Indian Ocean remain a zone of peace.

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