One of the fallouts of the rise of China as an economic and military power in recent times has been the militarization of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
The campaign to keep the Indian Ocean a â€œZone of Peaceâ€ has failed with even the proponents of the campaign now participating in its rapid militarization, whether willingly or unwillingly, due to force of circumstances.
China has strengthened its military relations with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and of course, Pakistan, through the supply of military equipment, and has cordial political relations with them, which cannot be said about Indiaâ€™s or the Westâ€™s relations with these countries.
Thus, in contrast to the West and India, China is operating in a friendly political environment in the Indian Ocean Region, aside from the persistent conflict with India, the regional power, and the developing conflict with the US, the global power.
As Adm. Jayanath Colombage, a Sri Lankan scholar on maritime security points out, the next theater of an international armed conflict or cold war, will be the Indian and Pacific Oceans and not the Atlantic and the Pacific as was the case until the end of World War II.
The anxieties generated in Japan, the US, India and Australia by Chinaâ€™s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, have spread to South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as China is pushing its envelope in South Asia and the Indian Ocean also, though not in the brazen manner it does in the South China Sea.
Since these moves have been made in tandem with Chinese President Xi Jinpingâ€™s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and roads across Asia, China is seen by India and the US as an economic and military juggernaut on a roll.
Those countries with a vested interest in the continuation of the existing power structure in the Indian Ocean feel threatened and are actively pushing their interest through their own similar economic, political and military initiatives.
Three situations created by Chinaâ€™sentry
Adm. Colombage describes the strategic environment in South Asia as comprising three situations: Strategic Competition; Strategic Alliances; and Strategic dilemma.
â€œThe Indian Ocean is geo-strategically, geo-politically and geo-economically important in the current global security landscape, with a contest for power and influence among major powers in the region and beyond. But in this situation, apart from Strategic Competition, there is Strategic Convergences also. Major powers have begun to strike alliances. But this has resulted in a Strategic Dilemma for smaller, less powerful countries as they are often forced to choose between major powers,â€ Colombage notes.
The naval officer-scholar notes that the entry of Chinaâ€™s Navy into the Indian Ocean occurred around 2009, mainly to counter piracy in the Horn of Africa. Piracy in the Horn of Africa, which held the world merchant marine fleet to ransom is near zero at present. But the navies,both Western and Chinese are still present.
China has two â€˜all-weather friendsâ€™ in South Asia for different reasons. They are Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
â€œThe Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka during the long drawn out violent conflict is noteworthy. Although India, Pakistan, USA, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine supported the government of Sri Lanka to battle the most ruthless terrorist organization, the LTTE, the biggest contribution came from China. China provided weapons when many other nations shied away citing human rights considerations. China even established a bonded warehouse for arms and ammunition that was required to fight the war in Sri Lanka,â€ Colombage recalls.
â€œThe post-conflict period also witnessed the West and other powers staying away from Sri Lankaâ€™s development programs. China became the number one development partner and biggest Foreign Direct Investor in Sri Lanka, mainly focusing on much needed infrastructure projects such as highways, ports, airports and power generation sectors,â€ he adds.
Chinese maritime infrastructure projects were taking place in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives also. Chinese funded ports, highways and bridges and economic zones are coming up in multiple places in the region.Â China maintains that it does not have any strategic and military objectives in investing in these projects and that they are purely of an economic or commercial nature.
But this is taken with a pinch of salt by India and the West. Chinaâ€™s economic entry into Sri Lanka has thrown open its doors to military entry also, at least theoretically they fear. This apprehension has led to the militarization of Sri Lanka and the region.
â€œIt is important to note that this region is heavily militarized and nuclearized. An example of this militarization is evident from the number of warships that belong to different countries visiting Sri Lankan ports. From 2009-2017 a total of 398 war ships have visited Sri Lankan ports. A breakdown of this is as follows: India- 82; Pakistan- 24; Japan- 67; Bangladesh- 23; China -31; USA- 18; and Russia- 26,â€ Colombage points out.
Along with militarization, anti-China strategic alliances are being formed in the Indian Ocean Region. The US, India and Australia have formed the â€œQuadrilateralâ€ or â€œQuadâ€ foe short. India has embarked on the ambitious multi-million-dollar â€œSagar Malaâ€ development project to develop its ports along the eastern and western coasts consistent with the name of the project which is Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). The US is rebalancing its strategy in the Indo-Asiaâ€“Pacific and envisions that soon it will be called the Indo-Pacific Region.
Meanwhile, India is building two Advanced Off-shore Patrol Vessels (AOPV) to strengthen the Sri Lanka Navy and gifted an additional OPV. Japan has indicated that it will give two 30-meter patrol craft to Sri Lanka coast guard and would build three 85-meter OPVs in collaboration with Colombo Dockyard Private limited in Colombo.
Meanwhile, the US also announced that it will gift another Coast Guard cutter to boost Sri Lankan navyâ€™s capabilities.
India has involved Sri Lanka in naval and military exercises. Only recently,India held exercises with the Maldivian military. The Maldives had come under the Indian scanner because of Chinaâ€™s hyper activity in that Indian Ocean archipelago since Abdulla Yameen became President in 2013. In place of the Indian company GMR of Hyderabad, a Chinese company is now building the international airport in Male. China is into other major infrastructure projects also, while India is not. There is a lot of Western private sector investment in the Maldivian tourism sector, but very little in other sectors.
Maldives feels that it must build up the non-tourism sectors because climate change could eventually destroy its atolls and in the process destroy the tourism industry also. While the Chinese have come forward with the money for infrastructure development, others are busy plotting the overthrow of the pro-China Yameen, using alleged negation of human rights and fostering of Islamic radicalization against him.
Colombage feels that Chinaâ€™s getting the upper hand is inevitable, given its growing economic strength and its willingness to spend money. But he also feels that sharp contradictions and dangerous flare ups may not arise. He notices that both India and China have been restrained in their dealings with each other, even in an explosive situation like that which prevailed at Doklam on the India-China border.
And even in the small countries caught up in the cross fire, like Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives and Bangladesh, there is an eagerness to avoid a confrontation. South Asian countries have indeed developed the art of tightrope walking.