Over the past few years, China has expanded its footprint in the Indian Ocean through its ‘Debt Trap Policy’ and the ‘String of Pearls Strategy’.
‘String of Pearls’ refers to a geopolitical theory of network of Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Precisely, it refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities developed by China in countries falling in the IOR between the Chinese mainland and Port Sudan. It is an attempt by China to encircle India through its bases in countries around India, namely Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which helps China to confine India to its own land and limiting its influence in the neighbouring countries while at the same time, provides the Chinese an easy access and control over the vast Indian Ocean.
CHINESE PRESENCE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
Strait of Malacca– The Indian Ocean witnesses about 60% of the world’s total trade activities including the oil trade from the oil fields of the Middle East. And 80% of China’s total oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, the Strait of Malacca is indispensable for China until it develops alternative routes.
Myanmar– China has made its presence felt in Myanmar by investing about $1.3 billion in the Kyaukpyu port of the nation. This port situated in the Bay of Bengal has given China access to have a commercial maritime facility which can be exploited by the Chinese as a military base in the event of any conflict.
Bangladesh- China has developed the port of Chittagong which gives it a station to be used in the heart of Bay of Bengal. China has invested a lot in Bangladesh in recent years, and both Bangladesh and Myanmar are important points of OBOR’s much-dreamed project BANGLADESH-CHINA-INDIA-MYANMAR (BCIM).
Sri Lanka- As India had robust relations with Sri Lanka for centuries, China has found its feet in Sri Lankan soil as well. The Chinese company has developed a port Hambantota, in the South-eastern side of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan government has also allowed the control of it to a Chinese company.
Pakistan- It’s universally known how India-Pakistan relations are and require no introductory remark, and that China-Pakistan are natural ‘all-weather’ allies. Therefore, Pakistan has always been China’s tool to keep India in check. The Gwadar port developed by China for the purpose of China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is just the tip of the iceberg as the political pundits believe that China will not only assist the Pakistani Navy through Gwadar but would also launch offensive using this port in the event of another Sino-Indian conflict.
Apart from this, China is said to have a powerful presence on the African coast of Indian Ocean in Sudan and Kenya while its military base in Djibouti is posing a serious threat to the American presence in the Middle-East and IOR.
INDIA’s COUNTER STRATEGY
“The Indian Ocean Region had become the strategic heartland of the 21st century, dislodging Europe and North-east Asia which adorned the position in the 20th century. The developments in the Indian Ocean Region were contributing to the advent of a less western centric and a more multi-polar world.”
The above-cited quote is matching with the current scenario in the Indian Ocean Region and gradually it has become one of the militarized zones in the world.
To counter the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, India has also taken some measures so far lately.
Apart from changing its ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ India, though perhaps unofficially, has also launched its ‘Necklace of Diamonds Strategy’ to encircle the Chinese bases in the IOR and maintain its traditional dominance in the region. Some strategic experts have always talked about a potential necklace of diamonds (strategic bases) that India can use to garland China or deploy the very Chinese strategy of encirclement. However, a few years ago, this used to be looked upon as a distant dream for India. But, with the changing geopolitical situation in recent times and a ‘power’ push from the top Indian leadership this distant dream now seems to be achievable.
India’s Necklace of Diamonds
Al Duqm Port, Oman– to keep the Chinese military base in Djibouti under its radar, India has secured access to Oman’s strategic port Al Duqm in 2018, which earlier served as a port for INS Mumbai, a guided missile destroyer. Both the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy keeps a close watch on the ports of Djibouti as well as Gwadar from this point.
Assumption Island of Seychelles– India and Seychelles had signed a joint operation military facility deal, first in 2015 and then again in 2018. St. Thomas Anchorage, the only port of the island country is being developed by the Indian Army. Access in Assumption Island is helping India to keep a check on Chinese activities in Marao atoll. Close proximity to the Mozambique channel from this island gives another boost to Indian surveillance in the region.
LEMOA with the United States– India and USA signed the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, one of the foundational agreements America had so far signed with a few trusted allies. LEMOA basically makes countries eligible to have access in US bases across the world for multiple purposes. Indian Navy can now have access to atolls like Diego Garcia, in the middle part of the Indian Ocean, currently operated by the US Navy.
Changi Naval Base, Singapore– PM Modi paved the way for the signing of a significant agreement between India and Singapore which provided Indian Navy direct access to this naval base. This is crucial as Indian Naval Ships can now not only refuel but even rearm while sailing through the South China Sea.
Sabang Port, Indonesia– India got the military access to this strategic port in 2018, located right at the entrance of one of world’s most famous choke point, Malacca Strait. This is one of the most significant agreements, as India now holds the strategic position in the Indian Ocean through which large chunk of crude and trade oil passes on to China.
Chabahar Port, Iran– India and Iran signed the contract the development of this strategically important port in 2016. This port provides India important access to Afghanistan and a precious trade route to Central Asia. In December 2018, India took over the port to conduct operations. This will give India an unprecedented boost to India’s plan to increase its co-operation and contacts with Asian and Central Asian countries.
After looking at all the ongoing scenario, it can be discerned that China is trying to encircle India in its ‘String of pearls’ policy. However, India in recent times can be seen working incessantly towards asserting its position and achieving better strategic cooperation with other countries. India is not only developing the existing strategic bases (diamonds in its necklace) but also building newer bases as well. Resultantly, giving India the strategic access and an upper hand over China in the Indian Ocean.
The author has completed his graduation in History. An avid reader, his areas of interests include History and Defense and Security with the sub-continent and southeast Asia being his favorite regions.