India and China in troubled waters

India and China in troubled waters

By Swati Gadakh

It is for more than four decades that India and China have had an ongoing dispute over its land border that is over  4000 kilometres. But the dispute might be expanding to now waters around India in the South in Sri Lanka. But this has not happened over night and the planning has been on-going for a decade.

Decade of planning

During the last decade, China has heavily invested in ports across the world spanning from Africa to Australia. In South Asia, they built the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Despite being a staggering US$1.12 billion investment, last week’s tripartite agreement between Sri Lanka Ports Authority, China Merchant Port, and the Ministry of Ports and Shipping has left many criticizing China’s investments in the Hambantota port. In light of China’s potential long-term strategic goals, many view Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka with unease. However, it is often conveniently ignored that it is the successive governments of Sri Lanka that actively sought Chinese investments. Therefore, it is important to examine why we sought Chinese investments in the first place. (

Despite the continuing border standoff between the armies of India and China in Sikkim sector, the Chinese Navy has expressed keen interest in joining hands with India to maintain security of the Indian ocean.  Throwing open its strategic South Sea Fleet (SSF) base in the coastal city of Zhanjiang to a group of Indian journalists for the first time, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officials said the Indian Ocean is a common place for the international community.  “It is my opinion China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” Capt Liang Tianjun, Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s SSF said.  Capt Liang Tianjun ‘s statement comes amid growing concerns in New Delhi over the increasing presence of the PLA fleet in India’s backyard. His remarks came as China’s Navy embarked on a massive expansion to extend its global reach.  Liang also explained the growing forays of the Chinese warships and submarines into the Indian Ocean, where China for the first time established a naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.  (

India's pain point

It is South China Fleet’s ships and submarines that cause consternation in India when they make restocking pauses at Colombo and Karachi on way to anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. But Capt Hu feels the Indian media overreacts to the docking of Chinese submarines in nearby countries. Their movement does not compare to manoeuvres of the US navy destroyers near the tightly contested islands of South China Sea. Capt Hu drew attention to a vital difference. Chinese ships transit through international navigation areas, not in the waters of “your country”. But US battleships come inside the 12 nautical mile (nm) boundary of islands claimed by China. (

“It will be different if our ships do that. It is all right for the US navy to go through SCS but we won’t tolerate their crossing of the red line of 12 nm,” he emphasised. Equipped with bombers, submarines — both nuclear and conventional — besides UAVs, destroyers and reconnaissance planes, the Indian Navy is keenly tracking this fleet’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean. (

China's new offering

Amid all the Chinese manoeuvring to extend its economic and political footprint, the Chinese navy has held out an offer to India to jointly maintain the security of the Indian Ocean. “It is my opinion China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” Capt Liang Tianjun, Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet told a group of visiting Indian journalists recently. His remarks came as China’s Navy embarked on a massive expansion to extend its global reach. Liang also explained the growing forays of the Chinese warships and submarines into the Indian Ocean, where China for the first time established a naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Defending the first Chinese overseas naval base against criticism that it would amplify China’s growing influence, he said it will act as a logistics centre and support anti-piracy, UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief missions in the region. India has indeed learnt over time to take Chinese claims with a pinch of salt so India is not jumping at the the pious intent being projected. The theory that China is in the process of surrounding India with a string of naval bases is causing understandable apprehension in this country. (

China's blue water navy

China’s positions of sea defence are closely associated with the security of the Indian Ocean and northwest Pacific Ocean. The growing magnitude of Indian Ocean gives more attention for littoral states in China’s maritime map. Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean region is rising to its image in Chinese new initiative One Belt One Road (OBOR). The port cities of island countries Colombo and Hambantota are important points of Maritime Silk Road (MSR).  Therefore, China’s huge investment in the island country reflects the maritime and economic interest of Beijing. That is why Wickremesinghe, in his speech at the OBOR forum, said: “Sri Lanka could be an economic hub within the OBOR program”.[8] In the last few decades, China’s economy has been growing rapidly and overtaking the traditional economic powers. Now, China is the world’s second largest economy measured in terms of GDP. According to World trade Organization China is the first largest merchandise exporter and the second largest merchandise importer in the world. For China, the ratio of merchandise trade as a percentage of the GDP is nearly 35.8%, whereas in India it is around 31%.[9] Hence, the comparison of ratio of GDP shows that China is much more dependent on trade than any other Asian country. In addition, China’s dependence on ‘water’, i.e., the maritime aspects for its economic growth throws light to the importance of stable and secure Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in Asia-Pacific region. Protection of SLOCs is interconnected to the economic and political stability of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. One of the main intentions of the building up of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is to secure her globally expanding economic interests. So, the query is raised on why China’s interests concentrates on Indian Ocean region and particularly in Sri Lanka. (

Indian ocean an important sea route

The vital role of the Indian Ocean region in maritime strategy and trade relations is the main reason for China’s investment in the island country since the end of Tamil Elam war.  This can be best explained in Alfred Thayer Mahan words “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia and this Ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the twenty first century the destiny of the world will be decided on its water”.[10] As the global manufacturing hub of the world, China’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean region and huge financial aid for building ports across the region are essential component for the country to keep the economy at its present growth rate and to enlarge its position all across the globe. The emerging status of Sri Lanka as a geo-strategically significant country and the growing importance of ‘Blue Water Economy’ are the main attractions in the ‘Southern tip of South Asia’. Some scholars predict that Sri Lanka will be the naval strategic point of the coming era[11]. The importance of maritime power is a vital aspect for the island country and China is trying to take advantage of the country at the same time.  China’s support for the Sri Lankan government to build new transportation infrastructure are mainly driven by its ambitions to reach the oil rich Middle East and for trade with Europe. (

According to the Sri Lankanfinance ministry data, Hambantota port project has a total loan of US $1.35 billion. Out of that US $900 million was drawn at a 2% interest rate and the remainder is with an interest rate ranging from 6.3% to 7.65%.[12] . In the Colombo financial city, China invested around $ 1.4 billion[13]. For some experts, the investments in the economically weak countries are a Chinese strategy for military presence in the region. Because of this India and Japan are competing to invest in Tricomalee port. On the other hand, China’s financial engagement with Sri Lanka is likely to deepen starting this year, with Beijing and Colombo getting ready to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), one which has been negotiated since 2014. The lower tariffs will enable Chinese products to penetrate deeper into Sri Lanka’s consumer market, widening China’s already huge $3.4 billion trade surplus with that country. Colombo had been already indebted to Beijing to the tune of $9.6 billion, given at interest rates of between 2% and 5%, and falling behind repayments.[14] This will lead the country to a huge debt crisis and chaos. Former President Mahinda Rajapakse  was criticized  by several Sri Lankan opposition parties for his inclination to China and for accumulating loans. The end of Rajapakse ‘dictator rule’ and Sirisena’s  rise was the immediate after effect of these policies. (

Peace in the oceans and regional security

The need of the hour in Indian-Ocean/209/quickSearch">Asia is to find regional security and peace. The Indian government and the US may be worried about what Indian-Ocean/209/quickSearch">China is doing but what is more important is to strenghten your own navy and build your ports. What is also required to make your businesses processes easier for countries to want to do business with you. Which would mean cleaning up the corrupt ion at India's existing ports. So instead of worrying it is time to start working.

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