China, India, Japan, US in Indian Ocean Great Game

Although India and China are expected to become each other’s largest trading partners, the prospects of an Indian Ocean conflict between them are also increasing, with an emerging Great Game for influence.

Of important developments taking place during the past year or so, one of the most recent is Japan’s decision to join India and the United States in their annual bilateral Malabar Naval exercises. On July 22, Japan announced its decision to take part in the Malabar drills. Although this is not for the first time, this particular year certainly comes with some geopolitical baggage that adds to its significance.

India has largely kept the Malabar exercise restricted to a bilateral one with the US after China protested against its 2007 edition in the Bay of Bengal when the exercise was expanded to include the Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies. However, this year seems to be an exception, one deeply rooted in the emerging contest.

The Indian Ocean contest has clearly started to take shape as China makes inroads among India’s close neighbors and India tries to recover its position as the dominant maritime power. On the other hand, Japan’s inclusion in this year’s exercise is part of Tokyo’s own drive against an increasingly assertive Beijing. Japan was keen to take part in the exercise at a time when it is already expanding the role of its military. With Japan’s inclusion, this year’s Malabar Exercise has thus taken on an explicit anti-China disposition which is going to leave both India and China in a complex geopolitical web.

The apparently smooth India-China relations are, in fact, deeply troubled. The so-called “smoothness” was largely maintained during Chinese president’s September 2014 visit to India. As such, left largely unspoken are the deep worries in India over Chinese maneuvering among the littoral nations, where New Delhi`s position is being constantly challenged by billions of dollars in aid from Beijing and gargantuan Chinese construction projects.

Interestingly, the underlying reason(s) for this conflict are not geo-strategic. They are geo-economic. China, India and Japan are increasingly coming close to the point of conflict in the India Ocean over the tankers that move through the Indian Ocean, carrying 80 percent of China`s oil, 65 percent of India`s and 60 percent of Japan`s.

China’s zigzag strategy, aimed at strengthening its position against its rivals, was quite visible not during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India but in the visits he made just before arriving there. For instance, before arriving in India, Xi visited two of China’s then-allies, Maldives and Sri Lanka. In the Maldives, Chinese influence has been increasing steadily. The source of influence is Chinese investment as part of its “String of Pearls” strategy, now discarded in favor of the Maritime Silk Road, which includes Chinese investment in ports such as Colombo in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. China has built a colossal port in the once-quiet town of Hambantota although newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena has been backing away somewhat from the Chinese embrace towards India and the US.

PM Modi returned just few days before the arrival of the Chinese president from a highly successful trip to Japan, China`s fiercest rival, bringing home pledges of billions of dollars in aid and investment along with agreements to strengthen security and economic ties. During the same few days, the Indian and Vietnamese presidents issued a joint statement calling for “freedom of navigation” in the South China and East China seas, a clear jab at Beijing`s aggressive assertiveness in the region.

The story would, however, remain incomplete without noting the US’s involvement. Not only does the US keep fanning what some choose to call the “defining rivalry” of the 21st century between India and China, but the rivalry itself allows the US to profit economically. This “defining rivalry” cannot be maintained, certainly not by India alone, without US-manufactured arms, ammunition and modern weapons systems. Therefore, the US now and then injects certain “defence agreements” into it.

According to a recent report, the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been advocating certain agreements with India to bring US defense companies closer to helping the Indian navy build its own aircraft carrier and to encourage cooperation on jet engines. In his bid to exert the US’s influence over the so-called defining rivalry, Carter in an unprecedented move, made the first-ever visit of an American defense chief to a major Indian naval base and held high-level meetings in New Delhi last month, focusing on what the Pentagon calls “maritime security cooperation.”

The US’s strategic disposition with regard to the India Ocean and its alliance with India in this behalf was quite obvious. Carter was reported to have declared “defense technical cooperation” with India a big priority for the United States, as well as “a big priority for the Indian government.” Secretary Carter’s visit to one of India’s major commands sends an important signal and demonstrates “the clear convergence between the US rebalance and India’s approach to ‘Act East,’” said one Indian defense official.

In other words, Carter’s visit to India was just another effort of the US to shape the former’s relations with China into a particular framework and, as such, a potential contribution to the transformation of India-China competition into conflict. Carter’s advocacy of greater India-US defense co-operation notwithstanding, the US also strongly favors permanent expansion of The Malabar exercise.

Robert Scher, the assistant secretary of defense for the Office For Strategy, Plans and Capability, was reported to have favored the idea of permanently expanding the exercise to include these partners instead of doing so on an ad hoc basis. He also said that expanding the exercise would be one tangible demonstration of Washington and New Delhi working together on maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

India-China rivalry notwithstanding, it is quite obvious that it is something that serves the US’s strategic interests—hence, an ever-increasing emphasis on establishing multilateral strategic partnerships. For India, the prime motivating factors continues to be Chinese naval expansion in and around the Indian Ocean.

This competition –as long as it remains competition –is vital for the economic health of both countries because it involves huge trade transactions. However, transformation of this competition into conflict would certainly work against the economic interest of both India and China if not the world.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic