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.

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

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.

“We saw that happen in Sri Lanka. When Delhi slept over Colombo’s invitation to build a new port at Hambantota, China stepped in,” said C. Raja Mohan, the strategic affairs editor of the Indian Express, at a talk given before a packed public audience in New Delhi last month.

India and China: a complicated relationship

Compounding the issue is the wariness in New Delhi about China. While the two Asian giants have found common cause over climate change and expansion of bilateral trade, diplomatic tit-for-tats dating back to the 1962 Chinese invasion continue to hamper better relations.

The two countries failed to resolve their border disputes in the Himalayas earlier this decade, prompting India to beef up border infrastructure in the face of Chinese incursions.

Recently, Beijing denied a visa to an Indian general who planned to join a military delegation to China – reportedly because he oversaw Army operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir. An Indian newspaper reported Saturday that India had responded by suspending military exchanges. When asked by the Associated Press, China said this was news to them while India refused to comment.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported Saturday on Page 1 that the state-run People’s Daily posted in a discussion forum an article titled “How likely is China’s launch of a limited war against India?”

While the Indian press plays up Chinese “provocations,” officials in Delhi tread lightly, taking care to avoid direct clashes with Beijing.

India's next steps

But among Indian naval experts, China’s moves have spurred along a debate over how India should assert itself in the Indian Ocean.

During his talk in New Delhi last month, Dr. Mohan argued for a more assertive approach that includes basing agreements and naval assistance to “weaker states of the Indian Ocean littoral.”

“No great power has built a blue-water navy capable of projecting force without physical access and political arrangements for ‘forward presence,’ ” said Mohan. “This would mean creation of arrangements for friendly ports and turnaround facilities in other nations that will increase the range, flexibility, and sustainability of Indian naval operations.”

Mohan says this makes Indian strategists uncomfortable. For decades they have rejected anyone building “foreign bases” in the Indian Ocean – something India itself must now do, Mohan argues.

Ghosh argues against becoming the big brother of the region. In 2008, he helped organize the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, a forum for talking and cooperation on common issues between the naval chiefs of 28 Indian Ocean nations.

“Initially there was a lot of apprehension in the minds of a lot of countries as to what was the hidden agenda,” says Ghosh.

India, he says, went to great lengths to explain this wasn’t an effort to become big brother but to create a forum with the Indian Navy – the largest in the region – as the “unintrusive fulcrum.”

For now, that’s the right posture for India, argues Ghosh.

“I firmly believe that if you’ve got to carry a big stick, please talk softly,” he says. “I think there are a lot of negativities associated with being visualized as a hegemon.”

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