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China warships dock in Burma, rattling rival naval power India

China and India have overlapping ambitions in the Indian Ocean. So as China flexes its naval reach, India is left debating how to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

By Staff writer / August 30, 2010

New Delhi

Two Chinese warships docked at a Burmese port Sunday, highlighting China’s expanding naval presence near Asia’s other rising giant, India.

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Chinese news agency Xinhua described the friendly port call as a first-ever in Burma – also known as Myanmar – by Chinese warships. It comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, including India's reported suspension of military exchanges with China.

Though the two Asian heavyweights share a disputed border in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean could become a more serious flashpoint for their overlapping ambitions. Beijing is developing ports around India to help secure Chinese maritime routes while India’s security establishment is debating how best to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

“With this particular port of call I don’t think there is anything that needs to be done. Just watch very closely,” says P.K. Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a retired Navy officer. But China, he says, is sending a signal. “The underlying message is a strategic message: ‘Look, we are in the area and we can operate in the region.’ ”

China's 'string of pearls'

In recent years, China has expanded port facilities in countries that border India, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Indian strategists refer to the projects as a “string of pearls” encircling India in its strategic back yard.

Dr. Ghosh points out that the ports are commercial structures, not designed to be naval bases. But, he adds, “if a push comes to a shove, they can definitely use it for a base.”

The Indian Ocean will only grow in importance for both India and China as their interconnectivity with the global economy grows. The Indian Ocean is the Silk Road of the 21st century, moving Gulf oil and African minerals to the world’s two most populous nations.

The securing of the sea lanes – once the province of Great Britain, then the US – could evolve cooperatively, rather than competitively, to include India and China. Indeed, both countries have participated in a global effort to protect ships from pirates off Somalia.

But for India to realize its ambition to be able to project its Navy over a distance to secure economic access abroad, it will need access first to regional ports – some of which are now under Chinese expansion.