India, China and the Growing Salience of the Indian Ocean

21 November 2018 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


At a time when international attention is focussed on the Trump-Xi power plays, other developments in its immediate neighbourhood have equally captured New Delhi’s attention. In the Maldives, the opposition leader, Ibrahim Solih, won the general election, which was conducted on 23 September, and was sworn in as President of that country. His unexpected win has given India renewed hope of reclaiming its influence in the Maldives, which it ceded to China under the previous president, Abdulla Yameen, who appeared to be, if not a complete Sinophile, at least leaning more towards Beijing than he did New Delhi. Mr Solih’s victory seemed to be a win for India.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, President Maithripala Sirisena, who India initially perceived to be, if not an ally, definitely a leader who was wary of dealing with China, sacked the incumbent Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with the China-leaning former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was an unexpected blow to India, which had sought to reclaim its influence in that country too, influence that it had ceded to China under Rajapaksa’s administration.


India has long viewed the Indian Ocean as being in its region of influence. As an extension of that thinking, the island states in the ocean automatically fell under that same influence. The usual explanation given for that thinking is that as a growing power – indeed, the country with the largest economy and military in the region – India had a vested interest in projecting its influence across the region. It was with that in mind that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, soon after being elected to office, stated that his immediate task would be to enhance India’s relations with its neighbours. Taking office at a time when China was expanding its own influence across Asia, Mr Modi was only too aware that India was in danger of being overshadowed by China. Even more worrying for him, China was making huge inroads into South Asia, building new relationships with countries that previously leaned towards India and deepening its relations with those countries with which it already had close relations. Not only was India in danger of being overshadowed by China, it was also in danger of being isolated in its own region.

China was also creating points of influence in South Asia that appeared to encircle India. This gave rise to the “String of Pearls” theory, wherein each of the “pearls” was a port in the region to which China had access. Leaving aside such ports in the Western Pacific, China managed or had access to ports in Sittwe (Myanmar), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Pakistan). It has also recently established a military base in Djibouti. China, furthermore, has negotiated the construction and management of a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar and persuaded Thailand to revisit the idea of constructing a canal across the Kra Isthmus, which would allow vessels to travel from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal without having to pass through the Strait of Malacca. If China could send its naval vessels through that canal into the Bay of Bengal, India could, in a conflict, find itself fighting on two fronts against Chinese forces, including in its north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory, and possibly against China’s all-weather ally, Pakistan, which would take advantage of the situation to attack India from its west, thus opening up a third front.

The ascendance to power of a China-leaning leader in the Maldives only added to India’s worries about Beijing’s presence in the Indian Ocean. India feared that if China established a naval presence in that country, it would overlook India’s manufactured exports, the vast majority of which travel by sea. India’s attempts to build a base in the Seychelles were ended by the government there for unstated reasons. It is possible that the leadership in Victoria did not wish to be involved in Sino-Indian power plays.

The return to power of an Indophile President, therefore, would have appeared to Prime Minister Modi as a stroke of good fortune. Little wonder then, that he travelled to Malé to attend Mr Solih’s swearing-in ceremony. He also took the opportunity to invite President Solih to visit New Delhi, which was accepted. In a statement, the Maldivian Ministry of External Affairs announced that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives would make an official visit to India on 26 November to hold further discussions and to prepare for the forthcoming State Visit of President Solih to India. President Solih invited Prime Minister Modi, in turn, to make an official visit to the Maldives in the near future, the announcement said, adding that Mr Modi ‘gratefully’ accepted the invitation. India will, undoubtedly, wish to reassert its influence in the Maldives.

If India achieves that goal, it could give it an advantage against China, whose maritime energy imports from Africa and the Middle East must travel close to the Maldives and then India. In any conflict between the two, that could place China at a decided disadvantage. India’s combined military base in the Andaman Islands could relatively easily monitor the passage of Chinese vessels through the Strait of Malacca and its naval vessels could intercept those, while its naval assets in the Arabian Sea could restrict Pakistan’s maritime forays.

It is for these reasons that the Indian Ocean is growing in strategic importance for both countries. As their economies develop further, that importance can only grow alongside them. The Indian Ocean has become the latest theatre of competition and will remain that way for a long time to come.

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