The rise of China and India in the post-Cold War global power configuration is now universally accepted. What is less well known is back in the eighteenth century, these Asian giants accounted for nearly one half of the global manufacturing output. A potential reversal to that era is beginning to unfold. China and India now not only face the largest consequential socio-economic and political changes for their developmental imperatives, but also the challenge of shaping their bilateral relationship. A rising and assertive China and an emerging and restrained India need peace and stability in Asia, which is said to be large enough to accommodate the interests of both powers. But two huge neighbouring civiliza-tional states, having unresolved territorial frontiers, seeking power and influence as they cooperate and compete and engage and contain each other, could run into an enduring rivalry. A contrarian perspective envisages India and China deftly calibrating their competition, along with other great powers, within a mutually appreciated strategic environment, in which both could pursue their core interests. The jury is still out.
Drawing upon the Indian fable of angels and demons churning the oceans in their mutual struggle, C. Raja Mohan’s seminal volume, Samudra Manthan posits an enduring rivalry between the two Asian giants, most notably in the maritime domain. His broad hypothesis appears sound: sustenance of high growth rates and capacity building by China and India would depend on their crucial access to and transportation of hydrocarbon and mineral resources from the rest of Asia and Africa, and vastly expanded sea-borne trade volumes, along sea lines of communications (SLOCs), across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
As rightly averred, a resource security driven India-China rivalry could extend from Latin America to Siberia, and Africa to the South Pacific. The security driven extraordinary transformations would compel 2.5 billion people of India and China to take to the seas with vigour, and reshape their maritime strategies, that may well collide. In analysing the consequential geopolitical implications of these developments, Raja Mohan sees the United States as the predominant Asian maritime power, ‘shape’ and be ‘shaped by’ the India-China oceanic rivalry, not unlike the presiding deity, Vishnu, in the Indian legend.
Raja Mohan makes a well-reasoned prognostication on the Indo-Pacific—the expanded maritime space of Bay of Bengal, Malacca Strait, and the open expanse of South China Sea leading to East China Sea—becoming a fulcrum of great churning. On the other hand, sceptics question whether the seas of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean could be perceived as one geo-political theatre. In the Pacific, the US would remain the preeminent maritime security provider—given that the Indian footprint there would expand at a relatively slower rate—while the Indian Ocean in recent years has witnessed some cooperative impulses.
Central to the Indo-Pacific construct, the logic of geography is self-evident with Central Asia, South Asia and South East-East Asia forming part of the peripheries of India and China. Also palpable is the ‘Security Dilemma’, in which one nation’s security moves to protect its interests are perceived by the other as undercutting its position. China’s nautical vectors into South Asia and the strategic islands of the Indian Ocean, like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Madagascar, among others, are seen by India as a means to counter its traditional influence in these parts. This compels India’s endeavours towards counter forays in the Pacific.
Unsurprisingly, the maritime and aerospace dimensions are acquiring far greater traction in both countries. Raja Mohan has rightly accorded importance to missiles, military space and informationalization. But the decisive impact of land-based, long-range, oceanic combat air power on the Indo-Pacific maritime domain has not been addressed and analysed. The Air Sea Battle doctrine emanating from a review of US strategy is emblematic of this air power imperative. Not least because China’s Defence White Papers have repeatedly foregrounded the need for Command of the Sea and Command of the Air (emphasis added) to cause strategic paralysis of the enemy. All these make for enhanced maritime-aerospace competition and related deterrence, and rivalry.
Many questions arise: Have threats of blockades been deliberately overblown? Is China-India rivalry in the Indo-Pacific maritime space inescapable? Would not open SLOCs advance the interests of both India and China, regional powers, as also the US, and form part of a cooperative security framework for management of the global commons? Perhaps the converging interests of the US, China, India and other major regional players may lead to the evolution of a more collaborative maritime regime.
Cooperative security is also one of the constituents in Raja Mohan’s perspective of three possible alternate scenarios that include great power concert and balance of power system. A concert of democracies in the Asia Pacific tends to cause strategic neuralgia in China. But a concert of great powers kept peace in Europe after the Napoleonic War, an arrangement that may find resonance in the Indo-Pacific. Driven by shared interests, such a grouping could bring about a malleable, accommodating and enduring Asian order. China unjustifiably views the US ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ as ‘containment,’ and not as means to cope with the distribution of power in Asia, the world’s future economic powerhouse. In overall terms, the answer may perhaps lie in incentivizing China to join a maritime architecture in the Indo-Pacific that is inclusive, rule-based and flexible. This would develop a sense of mutual confidence and also find ready acceptance among all the regional powers. To alleviate the unavoidable evolution of possible maritime security dilemmas, the key first step is to recognize the danger of rivalry and evolve mechanisms to tone it down. China’s embrace of strategic trans-border road-rail and oil-gas linkages along Xinjiang-Gwadar (through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) and Yunnan-Myanmar-Bangladesh could be seen as a counter to its Malacca Dilemma. China’s overall focus on trans-border mega projects are clearly a component of its long term access strategy. India too needs to impart greater energies and speed to its trans-border communication networks.
Bilaterally, the foremost requirement is to be sensitive to each other’s core concerns. But complexities arise when one side unilaterally raises new issues: China’s recent inclusion of the maritime dimension to its core concerns is a case in point. The decision by India and China in April 2012 to commence a maritime security dialogue, as part of political and maritime confidence building mea-sures, could be a constructive way forward.
Given the trend-lines of the future Asian strategic landscape, US-China-India triple dynamic would endure for decades, within which regional influentials would justifiably find accommodation. For India, containment of China would be a strategically questionable option. On the other hand, continued engagement along multiple dimensions constitutes the key to a constructive partnership that would have resonance in the Indo-Pacific maritime space as well.
Building of coalitions and strategically viable groupings on national interest-driven, issue-based and function-specific considerations would represent creative initiatives, as India is unlikely to join any military or other alliances. Further strengthening of India’s established strategic partnerships with regional powers like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore, among others—the so termed ‘Necklace of Diamonds’—which have the economic and military heft would effectively serve Indian security interests. This India-led and West-supported framework would not only function as a bulwark against any Chinese military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific but serve to palliate and counter the maritime rivalry Raja Mohan in his seminal work considers inevitable.
Samudra Manthan is a thoughtfully crafted and exhaustively researched critical introspection on the ‘big picture’ of the security dimensions of the Indo-Pacific maritime domain, as it impacts future India-China relations. Dense in analyses and inferences, it should prove invaluable to academia, think tanks, the armed forces, security/foreign policy shapers and practitioners alike.
Kapil Kak is an independent researcher and commentator on strategic and defence policy issues.