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India takes its tussle with China to the high seas

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New Delhi has shifted focus from the Himalayas to the oceans to send a warning to Beijing.

After 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Chinese troops along the Himalayan border this summer, New Delhi quietly dispatched a frontline warship on an unusual voyage to the South China Sea.

Little was revealed publicly about the vessel or its mission. But Indian security analysts saw its unexpected presence in the heavily disputed waters as a clear warning to Beijing, which has made vast maritime claims there.

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“The message was: Don’t mess in my backyard or otherwise I’ll mess in your backyard,” said Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based think-tank.

The incident highlights how India’s Himalayan border tensions with China could have big repercussions thousands of kilometres away in the seas of Asia. New Delhi is shedding its reticence to unleash India’s maritime power and strengthen it security partnerships as it seeks to counter what is considers Chinese aggressions on its land border. 

Last week, India invited Australia to join the US and Japan in the annual trilateral Malabar naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, a move seen by security analysts — including in Beijing — as a first step towards forging a strategic alliance to curb Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

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Although the four countries, collectively known as “the Quad”, are ostensibly focused on maritime concerns, New Delhi hopes its new partnerships will strengthen its hand in the border stand-off, which multiple rounds of high-level talks have failed to defuse.

“The security of the Himalayas lies east of the Malaccas,” Mr Pai said, referring to the narrow strait linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. “If you can’t solve the problem in the theatre you have, you have to enlarge the theatre.”

Abhijit Singh, a former naval officer and head of the maritime policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, said: “There are many ways India can signal to China it is not happy with the Chinese approach to resolving our boundary problem. One ways is . . . [to] raise the temperature at sea.”

However, Liu Zongyi, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, wrote that India’s decision to “dance closely with Washington’s war waltz” in the Indo-Pacific was risky. “This is an obvious step to create a mini version of Nato in India,” he wrote of the Malabar exercises in the Global Times, China’s nationalist tabloid. “The formation of the military alliance in the Indian Ocean will inevitably stimulate other countries to take counter measures. Chances for military confrontations will intensify.”

India is outgunned by China’s navy, which boasts more sailors and weapons platforms such as guided missile destroyers, aircraft carriers and submarines. China is expanding its naval capacities far faster than India, too. But retired naval commodore Uday Bhaskar said India still had a significant geographical advantage over China, given its location in the Indian Ocean, through which most of China’s energy supplies pass. “Geography favours India,” said Mr Bhaskar, who is now director of the Society for Policy Studies, a think-tank. “Even with relatively modest capabilities, given India’s peninsula location, its like having a permanent aircraft carrier.” A coterie of Indian strategists has long urged New Delhi’s navy to be assertive, including in the volatile South China Sea, as part of a long-term strategy to check Chinese power. But India’s past Congress governments were reluctant to provoke China while Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also courted President Xi Jinping, seeking Chinese investment.

However, Beijing’s development of a network of Indian Ocean ports, including in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti, created unease in New Delhi because of their potential military use. So, too, did China’s plans for a deepwater port in India’s neighbour Myanmar.  “China’s presence in the Indian Ocean to our east and west is changing our perceptions of maritime security like nothing since the Europeans arrived at the end 15th century,” said Ashok Malik, policy adviser in India’s foreign ministry.

Analysts said it was the violence in the Himalayas that led New Delhi to shift from a defensive strategic posture towards greater maritime assertiveness after concluding that its relationship with China was fundamentally adversarial. “India is becoming more realistic,” said Mr Bhaskar. “Earlier, India was trying very hard to appease China.”

What form India’s maritime strategy will take is still being fiercely debated. Some hawks advocate responding to Beijing’s pressure by obstructing Chinese shipping. But Indian strategists are divided on such an approach, given the risks of affecting third countries and inadvertently creating a backlash. India is planning to strengthen maritime infrastructure in its Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as well as building a $1.3bn deepwater port on Great Nicobar island. It is also strengthening defence co-operation with Washington, its old cold war nemesis. An American P-8 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft refuelled at an Indian base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the first time last month, and on Tuesday the two countries signed an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing.

While Indian and Chinese troops look set for a protracted stand-off through Ladakh’s brutal winter, analysts said the Indian Ocean and other Asian waters could well emerge as the more active theatre for Asia’s rival powers. “It makes sense for India to be part of a multinational coalition countering China in the South China Sea,” said Mr Pai. “Apart from it being in India’s geopolitical interest to needle China, what China has done there is completely illegal.”

Source: Financial Times