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International relations

India belatedly boosts naval competition with China

New Delhi needs partnerships to make up for lost opportunities

Indian warships on parade off the coast of Mumbai   © Reuters

The signing of a military agreement between India and France granting mutual access to naval bases is a clear indication that India is ramping up its defense diplomacy in response to China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

The March 10 deal was hailed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as "a golden step" and the visiting French President Emmanuel Macron as a milestone to prevent the Pacific and Indian Oceans from "becoming zones for hegemonic power."

It paves the way for Indian armed forces to use France's defense installations in Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and Reunion Island, all pivotal locations in the western Indian Ocean.

After years of Indian policy restraint allowed China to steal a march and establish a strong maritime presence in what New Delhi sees as India's strategic zone, Modi is bolstering the country's claims in a vast watery expanse where 80% of the world's oil flows via coveted sea lanes and chokepoints.

But with access to prime ports lost to Beijing, and a much smaller defense budget than China, New Delhi must rely heavily on partnerships to try to make up the difference.

Just weeks before securing access for his warships to France's possessions, Modi gained entry to the port of Duqm through a military agreement with Oman in February that will allow Indian military vessels to dock for maintenance.

Duqm will help India to buttress its most valuable asset in the Arabian Sea, the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is New Delhi's gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Further south off the east African coast, India is working to improve surveillance and defense infrastructure by developing Assumption Island with the Seychelles and Agalega Island with Mauritius. Taken together, the French footholds and the naval arrangements with Middle Eastern and African countries help advance India's claims to be a "net security provider" in the Indian Ocean.

The proactive defense diplomatic initiatives under Modi since 2014 are a marked departure from the doubts that historically have cost India heavily as it conceded geopolitical space to adversaries, notably China.

As an independent developing country with a sense of post-colonial grievance, India once abhorred power politics and rejected the quest for overseas military bases as imperialist. During the height of the Cold War, India vehemently opposed American, British and French militarization of the Indian Ocean and sought to exclude these "extra-regional powers" from its maritime neighborhood.

Ideological objections to engage in geopolitics and use the Indian military to establish a sphere of influence continued to restrain New Delhi even after the Cold War. The port of Hambantota at the southern end of Sri Lanka, which was handed over to China on a 99-year lease in 2017, was first offered to India in 2003. Despite repeated invitations from the Sri Lankan government, Indian leaders hemmed and hawed, losing a chance to shape the central sector of the Indian Ocean region.

The huge Chinese presence at Hambantota, close to the tip of southern India, has now become a strategic nightmare for New Delhi. In 2017, Modi extracted a commitment from Colombo for India to develop the Trincomalee port on Sri Lanka's east coast to counter the Chinese. Still, Hambantota poses a risk to India that echoes the threat the U.S once faced from the Soviet Union's presence in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida's beaches.

In 2011, Vietnam offered New Delhi exclusive naval access to the port of Nha Trang, overlooking China's key naval and cyberwarfare center on Hainan Island. But India failed to move this proposition forward. New Delhi has since struggled to find a permanent base in the South China Sea region due to its relatively limited naval might and worries among Southeast Asian countries about upsetting China.

The aggressive inroads that China has made in the Indian Ocean over the last decade and Beijing's assertion that it does not accept these seas as India's "backyard" pose an unprecedented challenge to New Delhi. Regular Chinese naval activity in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Djibouti is worrying India and has increased pressure for a firm response.

Modi's government, which desires to make India a "leading power," believes vacillation and the failure to pursue opportunities in defense diplomacy have increased New Delhi's vulnerability to Beijing, which has put in place a "string of pearls" strategy to contain India with ports from Djibouti in the west to Myanmar in the east.

Myanmar's Kyaukphyu port, 70% of which is owned by China, is on the Bay of Bengal and serves as a potential barrier to the Indian navy expanding operations in East Asia. Although Kyaukphyu is a commercial venture designed as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, India is apprehensive of the dual-use nature of most Chinese port projects.

India is responding by attempting to overcome delays with its promised development of Myanmar's Sittwe port, which is New Delhi's answer to the Chinese presence at Kyaukphyu. India is rightly capitalizing on Myanmar's fear of overdependence on China. The idea is to reinforce India's eastern flank, just as, on its western side, India is planning to use Duqm and Chabahar in the Arabian Sea to counter China's showpiece project at Gwadar port in Pakistan.

While Modi is demonstrating a clear will to forge ahead and end strategic uncertainty, there are questions about whether India can bear the costs of its expanded naval strategy. India's defense spending, including advanced weapon systems, fell to a historic low in 2018 amounting to a mere 1.58% of GDP (the lowest since 1962). Domestic welfare and development needs rank high in India's democratic electoral dynamics and trump foreign policy priorities.

The economic benefits China dangles to poor nations throughout the Indian Ocean region surpass whatever grants or loans India can afford to muster. Yet, paucity of funds has not dulled India's eagerness. Aware that India cannot win a one-to-one contest with a richer China, Modi is relying on partnerships with friendly countries.

Economic links and naval interoperability programs are emerging under the "quadrilateral" defense cooperation involving India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. -- a grouping with the implicit aim of containing China's expansionism.

Bilateral arrangements such as those with France are belated but essential for New Delhi to avoid losing its strategic competition with Beijing. Gone are the days when India was indecisive in foreign defense policies and was being left behind. But sustaining the robust approach it is now pursuing demands better long-term planning and execution.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His most recent book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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