By: Neeta Lal

In yet another sign of the growing competition for regional primacy between India and China, Indian officials have signed an agreement with Oman, strategically located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, to shore up bilateral defenses and make facilities available to Indian Navy ships.

The agreement, the result of a series of visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Middle East, is designed to bolster India’s strategy to counter Beijing’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean, hitherto regarded by India as its own maritime preserve. In recent months, as the 60-year dominance of the United States has begun to wane with President Donald Trump’s administration’s foreign policy missteps, India has begun to attempt to counter Beijing’s extensive Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure radiating out to the world around China.

Modi’s Middle-East focused ‘Link West’ policy agenda has resulted in a slew of bilateral visits to the Arab countries, with ties expanding between Asia’s third largest economy and the region.  Towards that end, India and Oman have also agreed to hold joint military exercises to strengthen their defense partnership.

Under bilateral agreements signed, India has secured access to the key strategic Port of Duqm in Oman in the Arabian Sea for military use and logistical support – although China also has facilities at Duqm. Experts see this development as a gambit to keep Beijing in check at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman as well as at Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which provides Beijing with a major facility on the Indian Ocean.

The Duqm port on the south-eastern coast of Oman, opening into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, is strategic to India because to its north lies the Chabahar port in Iran. India is helping develop Chabahar to open a trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing its recalcitrant western neighbor Pakistan.

With Duqm in Oman, Chabahar in Iran, Assumption Island in the Seychelles, Aalela in Mauritius, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India is preparing an impressive wingspan of expeditionary deployments for its navy. With this, it is seeking to also expand its strategic space in a region riven by complex and shifting power equations.  

Even so, India is somewhat late to the Duqm party. Realizing the area’s geopolitical significance, the US had already built its presence at the port way back in 2013-14, followed by the UK. China moved in swiftly thereafter to invest US$350 million in the Duqm port Commercial Terminal and Operational Zone Development Project in August 2016.

Undeniably, much of India’s action in the region is being propelled by China’s aggressive expansion across Asia and the Middle East. In recent years, China has significantly increased deployment of its naval assets in the Indian Ocean Region. It is also setting up base in its all-weather friend Pakistan’s Gwadar port, the southern terminal of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which it has acquired for a period of 40 years at usurious interest rates that have left a complaining Pakistan debt-strapped.

China has also snagged Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for 99 years in a debt-for-equity swap as well as expanding its presence in the Maldives island chain on India’s southeastern flank. Apart from surface vessels, many conventional and nuclear submarines of People’s Liberation Army Navy have been spotted in the Indian Ocean as well. Beijing has additionally made investments in Myanmar, and Bangladesh in a range of facilities.

All these developments have set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. However, India is hoping its presence at the Duqm Port will give it enough leverage to counter the Chinese presence in the region, especially Djibouti in East Africa, where China has set up its first-ever overseas base. The Indian Navy’s access to the Duqm Port in Oman will also have far-reaching consequences for India’s strategic reach westwards and in the Indian Ocean.

Along with its agreement with the UAE for joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf in March, it reinforces India’s eagerness to engage the Gulf countries more intensively to counter balance China.

An article “India’s shifting role in the Middle East” in The National points out that India’s security aspirations are growing in what it sees as its extended neighborhood including the Indian Ocean. “Security ties with Middle East states are important to this…. China’s entry furthers the Middle East’s strategic relevance to India. It drives Delhi to increase its own influence and avoid Beijing having leverage over its energy security and being encircled by Chinese allies. there has been a massive increase in activity.”

The article also points to the American diminution in the region. “Increased multi-polarity in the Middle East, with the long-term decline of American influence is providing more room for others. Concurrently, non-Western powers are ratcheting up their geopolitical presence. Russia is using its role in Syria as leverage in relations with Western allies such as the Gulf States. Of greater interest to India is that China is translating its massive economic relationship into strategic ties,” points out the piece.

As the contest for the Indian Ocean heats up, and smaller nations join `camps to protect their own interests, India and China are ensuring that nothing is left to chance in this battle for supremacy.

However, as some Indian analysts have pointed out, despite frenzied action at Duqm and beyond, neither Delhi nor Beijing would be imprudent enough to let these confrontations further escalate tensions between the two Asian neighbors who share a 2,000 km border. “Both nations realize that while they can never be friends, they will gain nothing by warring either more so as they enjoy healthy bilateral economic ties. However, Duqm-like tugs of war will continue as both nations try to establish their supremacy in Asia and gain toeholds in fresher territories,” sums up Parbati Kadam, senior analyst with a New Delhi-based think tank.    

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based Editor and senior journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel