While the Chinese are quite vocal about their claims on most of South China Sea, they don't similarly tom-tom about their objectives in the Indian Ocean from rooftops. China's operations in the Indian Ocean are clandestine.
India, on its part, has started a mission to strengthen its presence in the area. Garnering support from countries that have a stake in the South China Sea is part of India's efforts to spread its influence in the region.
The interests of both nations are not exactly in congruence. Both parties view each other sceptically and each one tries to consolidate its gains and snatch a bit from the other's kitty.
As part of its efforts to increase its influence in the region, China has been pursuing a policy of providing massive funding to developing economies and the move has been paying rich dividends. The problem starts when the countries receiving the funding are unable to pay back the loan and get caught in Chinese debt trap. It is under these circumstances that these countries feel bound to lease out land and other strategic facilities to China.
An example of such an exchange is the Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka. Unable to bear the burden of debt repayment, the facilities at the port have been leased out to China for 99 years. Generations of Sri Lankans will have to live with the reality of a Chinese writ on Hambantota. Recently, Hambantota airport was in news; this time with India taking over the loss making venture.
China Daily Mail on November 22, 2014, quoted Sri Lankan sources and reiterated an old report about the "Chinese plans to build 18 naval bases in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), in Pakistan and Myanmar, Walvis Bay (Namibia), in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Madagascar and other parts of Indian Ocean".
An article in The Economist on October 11, 2017 stated that China has invested in ports in 34 countries, globally. They had plans of investment in 12 more countries, at that stage.
Indians suffered a setback in the IOR recently in Maldives. The problem actually started in 2012 when Maldives decided to oust an Indian company that was given the contract to construct an airport at Hulhule Island, close to Male. Even as relations between the countries continue to deteriorate, China has stepped in with millions of dollars in investments. The Chinese are reportedly in the process of constructing a naval base at Gaadhoo Island, over 260km from Male.
Indian efforts to establish itself in Assumption Island, Seychelles are also not proving to be a smooth sail. An agreement reached in 2015 was not accepted by the opposition in Seychelles National Assembly. It had to be modified in 2018 when Seychelles President Danny Faure visited India. There is hope of the new agreement being accepted by the Seychelles National Assembly now with the President having consulted the opposition in advance.
Post a cabinet meeting, the statement made on the scope of the agreement said, "To enhance military capabilities in control and maritime surveillance of our EEZ, protection of our EEZ and outer islands and in search and rescue in the region for the benefit of air and shipping traffic". India also extended a $100 million credit line to augment Seychelles' defence capabilities.
India has also been developing the Chabahar Port in Iran. Chabahar provides India access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics through Iran. In 2018, India secured naval facilities in Oman, proximate to the Straits of Hormuz, an extremely critical water channel for sea borne traffic. India has also signed a 20-year pact with Seychelles that includes building an airstrip and a jetty.
China has also been investing in projects of strategic import in the region. Among these are ports in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti. Djibouti is a major base and home to Chinese marines.
Beyond ports, the Dacca Stock Exchange of Bangladesh sold 25 per cent of its shares to a consortium comprising the Chinese Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges. They paid $156 million, 56 per cent above the offer of the only other bidder, a consortium of Indian National Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Will such a hold provide China an avenue to influence Bangladesh economy?
The status in South China Sea has a spillover effect on the Indian Ocean region. Indians have not been able to create bases in the area, but its Act East Policy has led to improvement of bilateral relations with a host of ASEAN countries. India and ASEAN nations already have a free trade agreement in place. A pact with Singapore for access to Changi naval base has been signed. India and Vietnam have been cooperating for decades. In 2016, they upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. However, the relationship has been primarily limited to naval exercises. No agreements to provide logistics at each other's bases have materialised.
India-Malaysia relations have also been on an upswing. Indian origin people make 7 per cent of Malaysia's population and as such good relations with India matters in Malaysian domestic politics too.
India and Indonesia have decided to jointly develop a deep sea port at Sabang in Aceh province, located at the mouth of the Malacca Straits. It obviously has strategic significance for the Indo-Pacific region. These countries are also discussing economic cooperation between Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, with the Andaman Islands of India, to include tourism, trade and other economic activities.
The Chinese string of pearls to confine India has been strengthened by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that it has launched. While it's touted as a purely economic activity, the BRI has immense strategic potential. An example is the development of Gwadar Port that while providing Chinese western provinces a shorter route to the sea, can also provide logistics to Chinese Navy. China is also constructing a military base at Jiwani, close to Gwadar where it can billet its marines.
Obviously, both countries are racing to increase their influence, reach and capabilities. While China graduated beyond South China Sea to Indian Ocean and west Pacific, India attempts to consolidate its capabilities in the Indian Ocean and enhance influence in South China Sea countries.
For China to be forced to display greater responsibility, it's important for India to have dependable partnerships. In the last Malabar naval exercises that the Indian Navy hosted, Japan and the US participated. The Australians, though keen, were not invited. However, it's only a partnership of major powers that can stop the Chinese from trying to extend dominance in the South China Sea and beyond to the Indian Ocean region.
The Indian defence outlook post-Independence has been centered around to its land borders. The repeated wars with Pakistan, and the 1962 defeat at the hands of the Chinese, both along its land borders, had conditioned the country to such an orientation in its defence preparedness. However, having now graduated to a level where it can defend its land borders effectively, India has turned seawards. The realisation that it has a role in ensuring stability in the IOR has also reoriented its approach.
There is also a requirement for India to increase its defence spending. Growth and security of nations have to be simultaneously pursued and resource allocations on both counts are important in shaping its future.
The requirement is to speed up its naval forces upgradation, build strong relations with South China Sea countries and win over island states in Indian Ocean. Simultaneously, the quadrilateral of USA, Australia, Japan and India needs better coalescing.
A problem that's creeping in is the increasing trust deficit that most nations are facing when it comes to relations with the US. If this deficit dives any deeper, the big gainers would be the Chinese.