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Thursday, 12 May 2016

Modi has to deal firmly with China’s growing influence in Indian Ocean region

The tug-of-war between India and China over strategic dominance in Maldives has intensified the already-bitter maritime rivalry between the two countries. With trade and investment being cementing forces, the two do keep up the pretence of normal relations but there is little love lost between the two powerful neighbours. Not for the Narendra Modi government the laid back, passive approach of the erstwhile UPA government. As on many other fronts, the Modi government is proactive and is committed to compete with the China for dominance in the Indian Ocean. China had got a head start with the foothold they got in Gwadar port in Pakistan to watch over the sea lanes. As part of a calculated strategy, it had then worked on the Myanmar and Sri Lankan governments before shifting their attention to Maldives, another hinterland State. India is now in the catch-up mode. The recent visit of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen was a fence-mending mission. Though India was lukewarm towards him — it was still smarting from the way Yameen treated the former deposed President Nasheed who was New Delhi’s protégé, and wary of his flirtation with China — a few baits were unmistakably held out to the Maldivian President who is now in a look-up-to-India mode. Yameen, on his part, is wary of putting all the eggs in one basket. He has drawn substantial benefits from the China connection and is now looking for gains from India. That’s clever strategising. China is loath to India treating the Indian Ocean as its backyard while India is inherently suspicious of China’s barely disguised ambition to increase its influence over the ocean-rim states. Mercifully, both the Americans and the Australians look upon India as a bulwark against Chinese hegemony in the region. China discounts the String of Pearls theory that the West and India subscribe to, but the hard reality is China’s geopolitical influence in the wake of greater access to ports and airfields in the region, is growing. The Chinese government insist that its burgeoning naval strategy is entirely peaceful in nature and designed solely for the protection of regional trade interests. But there is no doubt that China can at any time switch to an aggressive stance. Symptomatic of the difficulties in India’s path, the Maldive’s China connection led Prime Minister Modi to skip the island country in March when he went on a tour of the Indian Ocean nations. That marked the lowest ebb in India-Maldives relationship when mutual suspicion was at its worst. At that point China was riding high and Maldives seemed to be in its firm grip. The economic setback in China and the shattering of the myth of its invincibility have made Maldives and other Indian Ocean states look towards India as an option not to be ignored. It truly is a high stakes battle and there are gains and losses for both India and China. Modi’s landmark visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March this year was a reflection that India is not prepared to accept a lesser role for itself. He is determined to make up for lost time in asserting Indian influence in the Indian Ocean. In fact, it almost looked as if Modi was signalling that Seychelles and Mauritius were “in play” between the two rivals. As for Sri Lanka, India has gained some ground from the defeat of ‘pro-Chinese’ Rajapaksa. There is a whiff of fresh air for India in an otherwise unresponsive environment more favourable to the Chinese in the region. The Chinese place a lot of reliance on their friendship with the Pakistanis. Not only has Pakistan allowed China to use Gwadar port, but it has also ceded land in “Azad” Kashmir to China, much to India’s chagrin. Why is the Indian Ocean such a bone of contention between China and India? The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water, covering 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface and accounting for 73.56 million square miles. About 35.7 per cent of the world’s population inhabits this region. Trade makes this ocean very important—in particular, the trade of oil. The littoral states of the Indian Ocean have immense wealth. Around two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are in this area. Moreover, 35 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, 60 per cent of uranium, 40 per cent of total gold, and 80 per cent of total deposits of diamonds are found along the Indian Ocean, making its littoral strategically important. The sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean serve as an important route for oil trade—the Gulf states produce 17,262 million barrels each day (43 per cent of the total global trade). The trade routes through the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca and Bab el-Mandeb are of immense importance. The markets and the region of Africa are a potential trade hub. A Chinese assertion of hegemony in the Indian Ocean can affect the freedom of navigation and cripple the economies of several countries. That explains the anxiety in the US, Australia and India to protect the navigation in the ocean. The future holds enormous challenge for India in the geopolitical context. India under the Modi dispensation will have to measure up to the challenge and take on the Chinese dragon skilfully and firmly.

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