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China and India need to talk, Navy to Navy, to prevent Indian Ocean hostilities

Should China and India talk about confidence-building in the Indian Ocean? On the face of it, this shouldn’t be an issue. The Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean. And unlike the Line of Actual Control in the border areas between China and India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has yet to be verified, the two countries have no maritime disputes in the Indian Ocean.

But the waters in the Indian Ocean are getting warmer, in part because China’s full-fledged maritime Silk Road initiative has attracted India’s small neighbours (to whom India usually takes a “big brother” attitude) and in part because China has taken a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean with a military supply station in Djibouti.

In 2014, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, triggering fierce opposition from India. Then, in 2017, New Delhi was widely believed to have put pressure on Sri Lanka, a sovereign state, to reject a request from China to let a Chinese submarine dock in Colombo for resupply.

Behind India’s angst is a fear that the Indian military might lose to the Chinese military on all fronts. Indian strategists traditionally believe that in a possible conflict, India may have a disadvantage along the China-India border, but certainly an advantage over China at sea in the Indian Ocean, given the geographic proximity to India.

But such confidence is waning. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, China has built more naval surface ships and submarines since 2000 than India, Japan and South Korea combined. The only question is how soon a Chinese carrier strike group will come into India’s “backyard”.

The rub is how China might possibly convince India that the Chinese military presence in India’s traditional sphere of influence is not necessarily to India’s detriment. This will take time, but is not impossible.

China should make clear to India about her legitimate rights and interests in the Indian Ocean. As the largest trading nation in the world, China is rightfully concerned over the safety and security of the sea lanes, since 90 per cent of global trade is maritime trade. Besides, China has huge investment in South Asian countries, including India, and in the rim land of the Indian Ocean. In 2011 and 2015, Chinese warships helped evacuate Chinese nationals and foreigners from Libya and Yemen.

There is no indication that an ever-stronger Chinese navy wants to challenge India’s navy in the Indian Ocean. Given China’s sensitivity to its own sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, China can be expected to pay equal regard to those of India.

In fact, China and India have joined others in fighting against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin since the end of 2008. And after the Indian Navy rescued the Chinese ship MV Full City when it came under attack by pirates in 2011, China expressed its thanks.

Maybe the best way for China to mollify India is to raise the fact that China has never attempted to meddle in India’s relationship with countries in China’s “backyard” – Southeast Asia. Modi’s “Act East” policy has led to tremendous Indian trade, investment and ever-closer military exchanges with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including joint military drills in the South China Sea. Fifty-five per cent of India’s international trade goes through the South China Sea, and like any other maritime trade through the region, it doesn’t encounter any interference from China.

Now that confidence-building measures have been introduced to ensure overall peace and tranquility in the border areas, it is time now for Beijing and New Delhi to think about such measures at sea. The chances of encounters between the Chinese and Indian naval vessels are on the rise, be it in the Indian Ocean or in the South China Sea, therefore mutually recognised rules are needed to reduce the chance of misperception and miscalculation and – in the event of an incident – to prevent it from escalating.

One of the most useful instruments to avoid incidents is the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. This code offers safety procedures, a basic communications plan and manoeuvring instructions when naval ships or naval aircraft of one state meet casually or unexpectedly with a naval ship or naval aircraft of another state.

Both navies have agreed to observe the code, but they haven’t discussed how it might be applicable to them to ease a conflict. Furthermore, they need to do familiarisation exercises to make sure sailors follow good seamanship.

Finally, Beijing and New Delhi should make good use of the existing consultation mechanisms between the defence and foreign affairs establishments for regular reviews of the situations at sea.

Should these happen, it will be a sea change for the Chinese navy in that this is the first time the Chinese military practises a code of conduct with others in other oceans than the Pacific. This would be a big step forward for a “world class” navy of tomorrow. And it is no less significant for India, which vows to become a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

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