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Vigil at high seas

India must redouble its efforts to assert dominance in the Indian Ocean region to protect strategic interests from Chinese encroachments

Vigil at high seas

Earlier this month, India was made an observer of the Indian Ocean Commission, recognising India's dominant role in the Indian Ocean. The Commission, set up in 1982, has on it Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles and the Reunion Island. Four countries have observers' status – the European Union, the International Union of La Francophonic (OIF) and two Asian nations – China and Malta. Now India, too, has been admitted to it.

In the eighteenth, nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans played a pivotal role in geopolitics. The situation started changing after the Second World War. The decline of the colonial West, the rise of two Asian nations, India and China with mutually hostile relations and the conscious choice of the West, especially, the USA, to support India vis-à-vis China, made the Indian Ocean geopolitically important.

Who dominates the Indian Ocean assumed paramount importance not only to India and China but to the whole world because 80 per cent of the world oil trade passes through this ocean; there has been a four-fold increase in commercial shipping through the Indian Ocean since 1970 and some 36 million barrels of oil, equivalent to 40 per cent of global oil supply and 64 per cent of oil trade passes through the Indian Ocean. Naturally, the whole world has a stake in the freedom of passage and safety of navigability in the Indian Ocean.

Some years ago, a team of scientists from India's Oil and Natural Gas Commission, the US Geological Survey and the Japan Drilling Company reported the finding of "large deposits of potentially producible gas hydrate" in the Indian Ocean, though they refrained from giving an estimate of the reserve. As both India and China are energy-hungry nations, both will be interested in laying hands on this gas, giving rise to an intense naval power rivalry.

According to Walter Guidroz, coordinator of the USGS Energy Resources Programme: "Advances like the Bay of Bengal discovery will help unlock the global energy resources potential of gas hydrates as well as help define the technology needed to safely produce them." It would not be an exaggeration to say that at times of war, he who dominates the Indian Ocean will be able to hold the entire world to ransom. India's urge to retain its dominance of the Indian Ocean and to checkmate the naval power of China has drawn it into closer naval cooperation with the Western nations, especially the United States. In 2015, the two countries signed the "Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region."

Next comes France. Last year, during Prime Minister Modi's visit to France, India and France agreed on a Joint Maritime Domain Awareness in the Indian Ocean as a result of the two countries' realisation that they have a convergence of interests in the Indian Ocean region.

India has stepped up its naval cooperation with Australia also. In 2008, the two countries signed a Joint Declaration on Security and Cooperation which laid great importance to greater maritime cooperation. Having the longest coastline, Australia has a stake in the Indian Ocean region. Strategic cooperation with India thus becomes important for Australia. The Australian Navy has 46 ships against 137 of India. Besides, India has undertaken a massive expansion programme of its navy, including the induction of 24 new submarines, six of them nuclear submarines.

China has a long-term vision of ensuring its accessibility to the Indian Ocean. It has already established its access to the Arabian Sea on the western seaboard of India through Pakistan. It has taken over control of the Gwadar port from Pakistan. By building and buying out the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, China has set up a strategic base in the Indian Ocean.

Beijing is also trying its best to persuade Myanmar to allow it to build a 1,215 km long railway line from Kunming right through the middle of Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal where it intends to set up a deep seaport. The proposed Muse-Mandalay-Kyakphyu line will give China direct access to the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean on the eastern seaboard of India. Strategically, this will be very important for China because India's Eastern Naval Command is headquartered in Visakhapatnam and India's only tri-services unified command of army, navy and air force is located in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. All this is part of China's long-term policy of encirclement of India.

These developments make it incumbent on India to increase its naval strength to prevent China's ascendancy in the Indian Ocean. Ensuring the safety and security of navigation through the Indian Ocean all through the year is necessary not only in the interest of India but of the world as well. The primary responsibility for keeping the Indian Ocean safe for the world devolves on India.

As things stand now, a naval war between India and China will be decidedly tilted in favour of India. China will have to wage the war from a far distance, while India will fight it in its home waters. To China's further disadvantage, no other Asian country is prepared to offer its air bases to China in a possible war with India. Replenishment of men and materiel will be a big headache for China. For all that, India will have to maintain its naval superiority over China in the Indian Ocean. Strategic experts believe that a full-fledged war between India and China is a very remote possibility. But if such a war does break out, it is more likely to be fought on the high seas rather than the high Himalayas.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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