Ever since Beijing started stretching its muscles into the Upper Western Indian Ocean (UWIO), New Delhi has refused to be a passive spectator. Some Indian policymakers interpreted Chinese actions in the area through the lenses of the “String of Pearls” theory, according to which China aims to gain access to a series of strategic locations (i.e., “Pearls”) in the Indian Ocean in order to project power. Such a scenario of strategic encirclement frightened New Delhi, which had enacted policies often clashing with Chinese interests in an effort to defend its security and economic priorities in the area.
As a consequence, the two countries found themselves entrapped in mutual mistrust and misperception, depicted by some scholars as a Sino-Indian “security dilemma”, in which each side perceives itself as acting defensively, while attributing to the other hostile intentions.
New Delhi has several interests in the UWIO. Just like China, India is one of the world’s largest energy consumers, and its energy security is fundamentally linked to the region. The control of chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, and the strengthening of security and economic ties with littoral countries thus are strategically important to India. Such ties are also crucial for the provision of those mineral and resource supplies that fuel the Indian economy. Moreover, New Delhi attaches great importance to the UWIO as a source of security, status and national identity. As a victim of colonialism, India developed its own “Monroe Doctrine”, according to which the control of adjacent waters and the establishment of a defence perimeter in the Indian Ocean remain at the core of its national strengths and economic independence. Therefore, New Delhi relies upon the development of an exclusive sphere of influence in the area that fulfils its aspiration to become a regional great power. An objective that would seriously be jeopardised if China attempted to achieve regional hegemony.
Therefore, like China, India sought to consolidate its strategic position in the UWIO by expanding the scope and breadth of its navy, establishing multilateral cooperative maritime security initiatives and securing key regional allies. Some commentators noticed that India has its own “Pearls” in the area, negotiating agreements with strategically located states (such as Oman) to obtain access to their military bases. Moreover, as enshrined in the 2015 Indian Maritime Doctrine, New Delhi projects the image of a “benign, law-abiding net security provider” in the Indian Ocean, committed to promoting mutual cooperative diplomacy with regional countries to address maritime security concerns and non-traditional security issues. Intriguingly, without explicitly mentioning China, the doctrine identifies “states with a history of aggression against India, and those with continuing disputes or maintaining adversarial postures to India’s national interests” as major security threats.
Significantly, the U.S., Japan and Australia actively supported India’s efforts to be a maritime security provider, and officially adopted Narendra Modi’s renaming of the Asia-Pacific the “Indo-Pacific”, thus placing New Delhi at the heart of regional strategic interactions. Moreover, the initiative to establish a quadrilateral security dialogue (the “Quad”) between Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra is aimed to counter China’s projection into the Indian Ocean.
With respect to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing attempted to involve New Delhi in its land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and sea-based “Maritime Silk Road”, yet India maintained an ambivalent position. Despite participating in some BRI projects, New Delhi never officially joined the Initiative, and launched a series of counter-initiatives, such as “Project Mausam” and the “Spice Route”.
New Delhi’s strategic moves have not gone unnoticed by Beijing, which started to feel encircled by India and its Western allies. In such a predicament, a heightening of Sino-Indian competition in the WIO in the next few years should not be excluded. Mutual feelings of fear, mistrust and resentment loom large in Sino-Indian relations and are further fuelled by the ongoing border dispute over Tibet and their fight for status recognition as great powers. Nevertheless, new security threats in the Indian Ocean, namely piracy and terrorism, also opened up unprecedented prospects for Sino-Indian cooperation and confidence-building, especially in the Gulf of Aden. Framing each other as partners, rather than competitors, could help the two sides to promote – together – their common interests in the area. Whether the UWIO will remain a non-militarised, secure and peaceful area depends on the willingness and capability of Chinese and Indian decision-makers to understand and accommodate mutual interests, concerns and fears in the coming years.