The Indian Ocean is becoming an important area of rivalry between India and China. The shape of any future security order in the Indian Ocean, and the roles of India and China in that order, are big unanswered questions. But public analysis of China’s role in the region is relatively unsophisticated. Some Indian commentators see China as an aggressive intruder in the Indian Ocean, accusing it of building “strings” of naval bases and of even trying to “encircle” India. But what are China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and what are its vulnerabilities?
China’s strategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean
China’s overwhelming strategic imperative in the Indian Ocean is to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOCs), especially the transport of energy to China through the Malacca Strait.
China is keenly aware that its SLOCs are vulnerable to threats from state and non-state actors. It faces a ‘Hormuz Dilemma’ in the Persian Gulf, where some 40% of China’s oil imports transit the Strait of Hormuz. China is even more vulnerable in the Malacca Strait, through which around 82% of China’s oil imports pass. According to former Chinese President Hu Jiantao, this vulnerability represents China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’.
Beijing is concerned that China’s inability to protect its SLOCs could be used as a bargaining chip against it in the context of a wider dispute. China has so far implicitly accepted the role of the United States in the Indian Ocean – it has no choice but to do so – but it takes quite a different view of India.
China is trying to mitigate its vulnerabilities in several ways. First, it is developing capabilities to project naval and air power into the Indian Ocean to protect its SLOCs – although these capabilities will be extremely limited for many years to come. Second, it is attempting to reduce its vulnerabilities through diversifying its energy transport options by developing pipelines and other transport links to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and, potentially, Pakistan. Third, it is developing considerable economic and political influence with some Indian Ocean states.
Many in New Delhi see each of these moves as threatening India’s interests. In particular, claims about a ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean have become a prominent part of public discussion. According to this theory, China is engaged in a concerted strategy of developing a string of naval facilities across the northern Indian Ocean that would be available for use by the Chinese navy in the event of a conflict.
Most non-Indian security analysts are highly sceptical that a ‘String of Pearls’ strategy even exists. Among other things, any such facilities would be of limited utility and would be vulnerable to attack.
But the popular controversy over the ‘String of Pearls’ is part of a broader concern in India about China’s role in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Few Indian security analysts acknowledge China’s strategic vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean as a legitimate cause for concern by Beijing; rather, many perceive China’s regional relationships as being directed against India: either as a plan of maritime “encirclement” or to keep India strategically off-balance in the region, just as China’s relationship with Pakistan has long kept India off-balance in South Asia.
While the Indian Navy’s immediate strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean involve countering Pakistan and enforcing control over India’s exclusive economic zone, the potential for China to project naval power into the Indian Ocean has become its principal long-term source of concern. Many in New Delhi see a significant risk that India and China will, as Arun Prakash, former Indian Chief of Naval Staff, put it, “compete and even clash for the same strategic space.”
Certainly Sino-Indian naval rivalry has the potential to spread across both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. India has responded to China’s perceived presence in the Indian Ocean by trying to pre-empt China’s relationships in the region and by developing its own military capabilities near the maritime choke points, particularly the Malacca Strait. India has also tried to exert pressure on China to keep off its “patch” through reminders that it might develop its own presence in the South China Sea.
A security dilemma in the Indian Ocean?
A security dilemma may now exist between India and China in the Indian Ocean as “defensive” moves taken by each are seen as reducing the other’s security. But despite talk of “encirclement” among some Indian commentators, few have credibly argued that a Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean presents any realistic military threat to India.
On the contrary, the Indian Ocean is the one area in which India holds a clear military advantage over China. As the former Indian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Mehta, commented, “The weak area for China today is the Indian Navy. We sit in the Indian Ocean and that is a concern for China and they are not happy as it is not so easy for them to come inside.” 
Because India does not have the economic capacity to match China’s overall naval capabilities, it will need to place greater reliance on geography. In strategic jargon, the Indian Ocean represents “exterior lines” for China and “interior lines” for India. That is, India has a natural advantage in the Indian Ocean, including short lines of communication to its own bases and resources, and China has corresponding disadvantages.
The Indian Ocean is a long way from China. The maritime chokepoints between the Indian and Pacific Oceans – through which Chinese vessels would need to deploy – offer another major advantage for India. The Indian Navy’s 2004 Maritime Doctrine argues that, “Control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.”
China’s strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean creates a dynamic of its own. John Garver, an American expert on Sino-Indian relations, argues that in the event of a conflict between the two in say the Himalayas, India might be tempted to escalate from the land dimension, where it might suffer reverses, to the maritime dimension, where it enjoys substantial advantages, and employ those advantages to restrict China’s vital Indian Ocean trade.
From this perspective, any mitigation of China’s relative vulnerability in the Indian Ocean could have a significant effect on the balance of power between India and China. But the Indian reaction to any Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not just about maintaining a bargaining chip – it is much more visceral than that. There is a sense that China is seeking to deny India its legitimate sphere in the Indian Ocean, which some see as a building block for India’s destined status as a great power. China’s refusal to acknowledge an Indian special role in the Indian Ocean is seen as part of an incomprehensible refusal by Beijing to acknowledge India’s destiny.
Despite much talk, in reality both India and China have been cautious about developing any significant naval presence in each other’s sphere, although each would like the option to create such a presence if the need arises. Each has largely resisted attempts by partners such as Pakistan and Vietnam to draw them into local disputes. China has been careful not to establish any significant military presence in the Indian Ocean beyond its anti-piracy deployment, and India has not established any presence in the Western Pacific.
An understanding between China and India not to develop a permanent presence on each other’s ‘patch’ may be helpful in reducing tensions. However, given the broader context of Sino-Indian strategic rivalry, it seems unlikely that China would be prepared to rely on India for its maritime security needs in the Indian Ocean in the absence of a broader strategic understanding between the two.
Dr David Brewster is Senior Maritime Fellow with Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai, India, and a Visiting Fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.
For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2013 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.
India Today published this article on 16 May, here.
 Arun Prakash, From the Crow’s Nest: A Compendium of Writings on Maritime and Other Issues, New Delhi: Lance, 2007, p.99.
 ‘China afraid of India’s naval presence in the Ocean’, Zeenews.com, 13 August 2009.
 James R. Holmes, ‘Inside, Outside: India’s ‘Exterior Lines’ in the South China Sea’, Strategic Analysis, Vol.36, No.3, 2012, pp.358-363.
 Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine, 2004, p. 64.
 John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian rivalry in the twentieth century, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001, p.277.