On the 10th of August, the Chinese naval vessel Hai Yang 24 Hao, a vessel dedicated to surveillance, made its presence known in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. This occurrence coincided with the unfolding of the Malabar drills along the eastern shores of Australia. This expansive exercise spanning ten days incorporates submarines and aircraft from the nations of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States – all integral participants within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
En route to the coastlines of Sydney, the naval warships of India navigated through the domains of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, a conspicuous manifestation of India’s burgeoning interest in forging robust military and diplomatic bonds with nations of the Pacific.
These unfolding events encapsulate the deepening maritime rivalry between China and India. In recent epochs, India’s persistent efforts to counterbalance China’s increasing influence within the Indian Ocean region have begun to attain fruition, extending into the expanses of the South China Sea and the Pacific.
The maritime route delineated by China stretches through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, ultimately converging at the ports of Sri Lanka. This nautical path bifurcates, with one branch leading towards the Persian Gulf via the northern expanse of the Arabian Sea, while the other traverses the Gulf of Aden to access the Mediterranean Sea. Deemed as maritime “vital arteries” by the leadership of China, these conduits find protection through the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), bolstered by the intelligence and logistical support proffered by Chinese corporate entities that oversee or operate numerous ports along these routes.
The maritime bounds of India primarily encompass the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, coursing through the Malacca Strait and Singapore, before extending their reach towards the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden, and the Eastern African coast.
The inaugural occurrence of the Malabar exercises in Australian waters is demonstrative of their geographic fluidity, having previously transpired in the Indian Ocean, East China Sea, Philippine Sea, and Guam. India has refrained from participating in maritime exercises within the disputed domains of the South China Sea. This disposition, currently improbable, would inherently evoke confrontation – a prospect that would materialize only upon China’s establishment of a permanent naval foothold in strategic locales such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, Pakistan’s Gwadar, or Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port.
Should China indeed pursue such a course, it would attain exclusive dominion over India’s maritime activities within the Indian Ocean region, thereby augmenting its awareness and operational acumen across the regional waters.
In order to preempt such an eventuality, India seems to have embraced a multi-faceted strategy. This strategy encompasses the augmentation of its naval warfare capabilities, the cultivation of military and diplomatic bonds with nations spanning the Indian Ocean region – a feat achieved by establishing maritime surveillance facilities overseas – and the orchestration of collaborative endeavours with like-minded nations through naval exercises and mutual defence accords.
India harbours plans to reinforce its capacity for anti-surface and submarine warfare by the year 2030. This undertaking entails the deployment of three aircraft carriers, in excess of 200 naval fighter aircraft, five nuclear-powered submarines, and a heightened contingent of P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. Simultaneously, there exists a concerted effort to enhance the military prowess and deterrence capabilities within the expanse of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Such augmentation stands to facilitate the monitoring of China’s naval endeavours encompassing Myanmar’s Coco Islands and beyond.
In addition, India has introduced a network of coastal surveillance radar systems, characterized by the establishment of radar stations within pivotal littoral states. Noteworthy among these are Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, and Myanmar. Furthermore, India’s establishment of a military base upon Mauritius’ Agalega Island, purportedly equipped with docking infrastructure for Indian naval vessels and a runway conducive to P-8I aircraft, has the potential to amplify India’s vigilance over Chinese submarines.
The trajectory of India’s initiatives and investments denotes a trajectory of continual expansion, holding sway as long as China curbs its activities within the Indian Ocean to sporadic deployments of warships.
Yet, India has also laid down legal frameworks and operational logistics in conjunction with strategic partners, manifesting its readiness to embark upon collective military action in the face of a scenario necessitating such recourse.
India’s series of exercises, including the Malabar, is orchestrated with the aim of elevating its military harmonization with Japan, Australia, the United States, and France. Its military accords with the United States offer the added advantage of shared intelligence and access to regional naval logistics.
Furthermore, if China were to escalate its military footprint within the Indian Ocean arena and apply pressure upon India within their contested border along the Himalayas, India could potentially explore various avenues to curtail China’s expansionist aspirations.
Tell-tale indications of a shifting stance are on the horizon. India’s focus extends beyond its immediate vicinity, casting its gaze upon Southeast Asia as a promising market for its armaments. This intent is substantiated by India’s participation in the recent maritime exercise under the aegis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While these manoeuvres were meticulously confined to non-disputed regions within the South China Sea, aimed at sidestepping provocations of China, they were reportedly monitored with keen interest by the Chinese authorities.
In a momentous departure, India has extended its support to the Hague ruling of 2016, a decisive verdict that invalidated Beijing’s assertions over contested waters, favouring the claims of the Philippines. Moreover, India’s engagement with and outreach towards member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations persist, particularly in the development of a network of coastal surveillance radar systems and an amalgamated information fusion centre.
While India’s interests within the South China Sea hold a secondary stance, their prominence within India’s strategic calculus is burgeoning. Simultaneously, the expansion of India’s diplomatic ties and maritime presence within the South Pacific Islands serves as a testament to India’s escalating preparedness to engage in a competitive stance vis-à-vis China within the broader Indo-Pacific region.
However, India’s diplomatic overtures towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Pacific Islands are primarily oriented towards accruing diplomatic accolades and securing economic advantages. The domain of naval exercises and patrols functions to bolster India’s soft power projection within the Global South. Nonetheless, India’s capacity, both economic and military, remains underwhelming in comparison to China’s influence traversing the Indo-Pacific panorama.
Considering India’s inability to reclaim territory following the 2020 border altercation with China, the prospects of nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines seeking India’s military backing in their maritime contentions with China remains remote. In its place, India is inclined to forge alliances with other preeminent powers within the region, collectively intensifying the pressure upon China, all while avoiding military measures that would invite a blowback.