Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 1, 2 (2014): 187–201
188 Harsh V. Pant
China to set up a military base to tackle piracy off its coast and Beijing played it down
by underlining that it was standard global practice for naval fleets to resupply at the
closest port of a nearby state during long-distance missions (Times of India, 2011).
But there was no ambiguity for the rest of the world: Chinese footprint in the Indian
Ocean was getting bigger and will continue to expand even further in the future.
The Indian Ocean is increasingly playing an important role in Chinese efforts
to establish a position as a leading maritime power in the region. And this is
resulting in Sino-Indian competition for influence in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Despite a significant improvement in Sino-Indian ties since the late 1990s, the
relationship remains competitive and China has succeeded in containing India
within the confines of South Asia by building close ties with India’s key neigh-
bours, in particular with Pakistan (Pant, 2007, p. 59). The very steps that China is
taking to protect and enhance its interests in the Indian Ocean region are generat-
ing apprehensions in Indian strategic circles, thereby engendering a classic secu-
rity dilemma between the two Asian giants. And it is India’s fears and perceptions
of China’s growing naval prowess in the Indian Ocean that is driving Indian naval
posture. This article examines this budding maritime rivalry in the Indian Ocean
between Asia two rising powers and argues that unless managed carefully, the
potential for this maritime rivalry turning serious in the future remains high, espe-
cially as Sino-Indian naval competition is likely to intensify with the Indian and
Chinese navies operating far from their shores.
The Indian Ocean has long been the hub of great power rivalry and the struggle
for its domination has been a perennial feature of global politics. It is third-largest
of the world’s five oceans and straddles Asia in the north, Africa in the west, Indo-
china in the east and Antarctica in the south. Home to four critical access water-
ways—the Suez Canal, Bab-el Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz and Strait of
Malacca—the Indian Ocean connects the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with
Europe and the Americas.1 Given its crucial geographical role, major powers have
long vied with each other for its control though it was only in the nineteenth cen-
tury that Great Britain was able to enjoy an overwhelming dominance in the
region. With the decline in Britain’s relative power and the emergence of two
superpowers during the Cold War, the Indian Ocean region became another arena
where the US and the former Soviet Union struggled to expand their power and
influence. The US, however, has remained the most significant player in the
region for the last several years.
Given the rise of major economic powers in the Asia-Pacific that rely on energy
imports to sustain their economic growth, the Indian Ocean region has assumed a
new importance as various powers are once again vying for the control of the
waves in this part of the world. It has been rightly observed that:
the Indian Ocean would be the world’s single most important region in the next 20 years
because of the dependence on oil as the primary energy source, the competitive pressures
arising from the economic growth of many countries along its rim, and the traditional
rivalries that have built volatile relations (Morton, 1993, p. 17).