Importance of keeping Indian coastal waters power-neutral
by Ramtanu Maitra on 30 Sep 2009 1 Comment

Significant economic growth in the world’s two most populous nations - China and India - over the last two decades has also ushered in an awkward development, which is often tied to rivalry between these two large nations. Just beyond India’s coastal waters, the presence of the Chinese navy is growing. It is difficult to tell at this point in time whether the Chinese naval presence is entirely maritime, or is fairly tinged with the intent of power play.

No matter what is the exact nature of Beijing’s naval presence in and around India’s coastal waters, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea will remain the essential supply route for many nations around the world - the lifeline, in fact - and that includes both China and India. Therefore, the issue really is how to keep this waterway free of rivalry, bullying or hostile postures and ensure that world trade is not interrupted because of power plays between these large nations. But, first, let’s review recent developments.

One thing must be kept in mind at all times:  because of their own interests and closeness, or hostility toward one or both of the nations under discussion here, external powers will be interested to fish in the troubled waters should China and India fail to come to a clearer understanding of the importance of keeping the waterway power-neutral. Things may get rough in the coming years and the planned growth of almost all the nations, China and India in particular, could be gravely jeopardized. There is no dearth of students of geopolitics, trained in the British imperialists’ school or believers in the Kissingerian balance-of-power myth in each country. These troublemakers will spare no time in revving up one or the other nation, urging the authorities to adopt negative policies that will lead to a worsening of the overall bilateral relationship. 

Since this waterway involves the lives of at least 2.3 billion people - considering only China and India - it is, in a very direct way, a subject of much more importance than most of the crisis stories that dominate the international media today. The impact of India’s coastal waterway becoming hostile would be felt throughout the world. As a result, the degree of importance of keeping this waterway power-neutral becomes even higher.

Indian Naval Development

India is not in the process of developing a minimum-deterrent navy, where naval forces would be an adjunct of the Army and Air Force in India’s continuing land-based hostilities with Pakistan. India is not developing a sea-denial navy, either. Such a navy would be, in principle, an anti-China navy that seeks to press an anti-access strategy into the South China Sea and beyond. As one American strategist, Thomas Burnett, pointed out, this particular option is “like the old Soviet fleet: it focuses on anti-ship capabilities with an emphasis on attack submarines. In its most aggressive form, it might be construed by some as an anti-US navy in terms of its modest capacity for power projection toward the Persian Gulf.” 

India is instead building an “international coalition navy,” with the assumption of a lessening of the land-based rivalries with Pakistan and China. This is a force that favours international norms and could deploy with genuine reach when combined with the other navies in the locality in a multinational naval coalition. Although on the face of it some may fear that type of Indian Navy, in reality its long-term development would signal a secure and confident India looking to do its part for global security maintenance.

In the process of building up such a navy, which is still a work-in-progress, India has achieved a few landmarks. Across the Andaman Sea, the Sittwe Port in western Myanmar is now being built under contract to the India Maritime Company. The Myanmar junta agreed to construct the port in order to develop the region with the help of US $120 million in funding from the Indian government. The project is scheduled to take three years, beginning in 2010 and ending in 2012.

At the same time, India is involved in another project in Myanmar - a river transportation project. In addition, a river-port will be built as part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transportation Project to facilitate the movement of cargo vessels from the Indian state of Mizoram to Sittwe via the Kaladan River. Sittwe is located 250 kilometers from the Indian border on the northwest coast of Myanmar, where the Kaladan River falls into the Bay of Bengal.

India’s strengthening of its presence in the Andaman Sea is not just derived from negative developments in the region. New Delhi’s interest in, and involvement with Southeast Asia has been growing steadily over the past decade, and its concern for development of the Andaman basin has grown accordingly.

In 2003 an agreement was signed in Yangon by the foreign ministers of India, Myanmar and Thailand to develop transport linkages between the three countries. When complete, a 1,400-kilometer road corridor would link the peoples of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Another project to bring in gas from Myanmar to India through Bangladesh has since been abandoned, but were it allowed to go through, the pipeline would carry natural gas from the Shwe fields in Myanmar’s Rakhine or Arakan state, through the Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura, and into Bangladesh before finally crossing back into India, all the way up to Kolkata.

Beyond the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Navy will soon be involved in the Maldives, providing the small South Asian nation protection against pirates, reports indicate. Indian Defense Minister AK Anthony visited Male, the capital of the Maldives, recently to meet President Mohammed Nasheed. India has responded positively to allay Male’s concerns about piracy. The Indian Navy and coast guard warships will patrol the pirate-infested waters around the Maldives. This will also help New Delhi secure the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, an Indian analyst pointed out.

While the immediate reason for enhanced defense cooperation is to build military assets in the Maldives to guard against terrorists and pirates, some observers involved in muddying the waters claim that India’s military positioning in the Maldives is in furtherance of its longer-term military deterrence against China.

Alex Vines of Chatham House (RIIA), in his report on Indian and Chinese initiatives in Africa, also noted increased Indian overtures toward nations such as Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar and coastal African countries such as Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania. “An Indian surveillance base was opened up recently in the northern part of Madagascar,” said Vines, “It is mostly about protecting shipping.”

Vines observes that the trade links are nothing new at all, and they were deepened through colonialism. The Portuguese used Mozambique Island as a stopping-off point en route to Goa, the Portuguese colony that was set up in India. Under British colonialism, Vines states, for a while even what is now Kenya and bits of Uganda were administered from Mumbai.

Vines, who represents Chatham House, an old British imperialist outfit, sees these developments as India’s steps to counter China’s influence. The surveillance, he says, is about keeping the sea lanes open and ensuring that Chinese “expansionism” is kept under check.

China’s Assertive Presence

China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean is much discussed among international strategists. It is referred to as China’s “string of pearls” strategy, a phrase coined in a report titled “Energy Futures in Asia” that was prepared by Booze Allen Hamilton for the Pentagon in 2005. The policy is directed ostensibly to secure China’s foreign oil and trade routes so critical for peaceful development. Nonetheless, it was seen in an altogether different light in Washington and by certain influential quarters in India. The “string of pearls” extends from the coast of Hainan in China through the littorals of the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, and across the Indian Ocean to the littorals of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.

According to the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis, some Indian analysts believe that China is pursuing a two-pronged strategy of lulling New Delhi into complacency with greater economic interaction while taking steps to encircle India and undermine its security. China is strengthening ties to its traditional ally, Pakistan, and slowly gaining influence with other South Asian states. To date, China’s investments extend from Hainan Island in the South China Sea, through the littorals of the Straits of Malacca, including port developments in Chittagong in Bangladesh; in Sittwe, Coco, Hianggyi, Khaukphyu, Mergui and Zadetkyi Kyun in Myanmar; in Laem Chabang in Thailand; and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. The Chinese activity to protect sea lanes and ensure uninterrupted energy supplies extends across the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to islands in the Arabian Sea and on into the Persian Gulf.  

Suspicious of China’s intent, or suffering an attack of paranoia, India vainly attempted to persuade the Sri Lankan government not to permit Chinese development of the country’s Hambantota Port, a project that is now well underway. When it is done, Hambantota is likely to have an aviation fuel storage facility and a liquefied natural gas refinery. The first phase will have bunkering facilities to refuel ships that pass through the nearby shipping lanes, among the world’s busiest. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa says India has nothing to worry about because the project is strictly a commercial venture. But Chinese investment in Sri Lanka is expected to increase even more given the likely conclusion of the civil war and Chinese interest in drilling for oil off the coast of northeastern Sri Lanka. 

India, however, is not the only country that suffers occasionally from an attack of paranoia. There were similar outbreaks in several Asian nations when India announced the completion of its nuclear submarine, Arihant, built in cooperation with Russia. While Pakistan’s uneasiness was understandable, the Russian news media quoted military analysts saying that the target for Arihant is China, not Pakistan. These analysts apparently had no problem forgetting that an international navy that can protect India’s national interest would have to have a slew of nuclear submarines. Being a nuclear weapons nation, India must have the ability to store its nuclear arsenal beyond detection in real-time, and nuclear submarines are the best that the world has at this point in time to do that. India will also have to develop the SLBM - not because China has it, or because it would up the ante on the Chinese, but because a developed naval force must have all these to put in place a powerful deterrence.

A  Littoral States’ Agreement

The objective of both Beijing and New Delhi should be to quash the negative speculations of such analysts and clear the air. That does not mean abandonment of their maritime bases. These are particularly important staging grounds in case of a crisis, not necessarily a military crisis; but these bases should be designed to see that maritime trade is carried out peacefully and without interruption. These bases would be lifelines supplying food, drugs and other life-saving requirements in case of cyclones, tsunamis and other major natural catastrophes. The issue is how to do it.

To begin with, it is necessary that both India and China come to really understand the importance of this waterway. Allowing this waterway to become a theatre for hostility serves the interest of no one. It may provide warmth to the students of geopolitics who do not believe that nations can live in peace, providing full access to each other without belonging to a power bloc. Once this is fully realized, both these nations should work to establish a governmental organization of all littoral states. The objective of that organization will be exclusively to keep the waterway peaceful and accessible to all. No other bilateral issues will be within the jurisdiction of this organization. 

This cannot be done by Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan or the Maldives. The initiative has to come from India and China, and all preliminary discussions before setting up such an organization must involve both Beijing and New Delhi.

While such an agreement involving all littoral nations can follow some of the format of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LST), account must be taken of the variations that are necessary to make it area-realistic. For instance, “innocent passage,” included in the Law of the Sea Treaty, means the right of warships, merchant ships and fishing vessels to pass without warning through the territorial waters of a state in a manner that is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.

The Law of the Sea Treaty also refers to the “right of transit passage,” guaranteeing all vessels and aircraft the right to pass through or over straits less than 24 miles wide at their narrowest point is seemingly an adequate clause to adopt. Such straits include Malacca in the South Pacific, among others.

“Archipelagic sea-lanes passage” is another term used in the Law of the Sea Treaty. It applies the principle of right of transit passage to archipelagoes, most importantly Indonesia and the Philippines. It guarantees unmolested passage for ships and aircraft through and over archipelagic waters, defined as the area encompassed by the drawing of baselines around the outermost islands of an archipelago. Archipelagic sea-lane passage is guaranteed in part IV of the LST.

In the regional agreement, which would include all participatory littoral states, the above-mentioned laws can be modified for the benefit of all to fit the region’s requirements. But that requires a genuine effort by the major nations such as China and India.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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