The People’s Republic of China’s rising interest in the Indian Ocean is causing tensions for its neighbors. While Chinese intentions regarding the South China Sea are known in the international community, China's increasing movement in the Indian Ocean have sparkled a sense of tension and uncertainty for India, which raises a new question – is the Indian Ocean going to be the new South China Sea?
India’s growing tensions in the subcontinent are not just restricted to China and Pakistan. In recent times, countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh, have been on India’s radar due to their increasing closeness with China. While some of them are under the debt of China, in the recent years, a neutral stand by India, have created divisions between India and its neighbors in the region.
China and Maldives
India’s positive and friendly approach towards its neighbors was dealt with a blow when the Maldives, one of India’s closest allies in the Indian Ocean, allowed China to construct an observatory which will be used as shipping route in the future to support China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. While the Chinese, as well as the Maldives government, have agreed that the route will only be used for trade, which will help the economies of both the countries, experts in both the Maldives and India argue that these facilities could easily be converted for military purposes. (Marshal, 2018)
India is concerned, because China constructed a similar observatory in the South China Sea which was said to have been built for civilian purposes. But since then, the observatory has mostly been used as a Naval Base by the Chinese against nations in the Pacific Ocean. This fact has increased India’s concern as it feels that observatory in Maldives will only be used for military purposes considering the intentions of the Chinese. (Parashar, 2018)
India’s influence over the Maldives started fraying after Mohammed Nasheed, who was considered friendly to India, was forced to resign in 2012. India’s Grandhi Mallikarujuna Rao (GMR) Group contract to upgrade the Male Airport was then terminated by the new Yameen led government. The agreement was given to the Chinese construction companies.
The observatory at Makundhoo in Maldives creates a problem for the Indian fleet because it could also act as a naval base for the Chinese. It was actually Mohammed Nasheed, former Prime Minister of Maldives, that brought the Chinese into the country by allowing them to build an embassy in the capital city, Male. In order to develop an established network in the region, China has made huge investments in the infrastructural projects of the government, the most prominent one being the $845 million Hulhule Island that will establish the Maldives as one of the major tourist destinations around the world. The China – Maldives Friendship Bridge that connects the capital city, Male, to Hulhuleland along with also building 5000 permanent homes in and around Male, have clearly established China as one of the closest allies in the Indian Ocean raising the tensions for India. (Dutta, 2018)
China and Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, one of India’s closest allies in the Indian Ocean, has slowly started being wooed by the Chinese. In 2017, Sri Lanka officially granted the Hambantota Port to China for a 99 year lease. The acquisition of the Hambantota Port happened due to Sri Lanka’s inability to pay the $8 million dollars it borrowed from China for the development of the port.
Sri Lanka assured India that the port will only be used for civilian purposes, citing India’s concern regarding the proximity with the Chinese. Though Sri Lanka has assured India, the Chinese have been docking their warships as well as submarines at the port, which is an indication of China's changing attitude.
Relations between India and Hambantota Port go back to several centuries. In 2004, after the tsunami that devastated Hambantota, one of fastest growing cities at that time, Sri Lanka requested India to invest and help them in developing the Hambantota Port. Because the Indian government declined the proposal, the Chinese then capitalized on this opportunity, by later investing $1.5 billion in 2010 for the Hambantota Port. Later, China even acquired a 70% stake in Hambantota Port.
In recent times, seeing the growing existence of China in Sri Lanka, India tried to take control of the Hambantota Airport in order to restrict the Chinese in the island nation. India is trying to acquire the Hambantota Airport for a 40-year lease. The airport, which is considered by many as the emptiest airport in the world, will not necessarily provide India with a new strategic base in Sri Lanka but it will restrict China’s movement in the region. India’s acquisition of the airport will be a major setback and blow to China’s highly ambitious OBOR (One Belt One road) Initiative.
China’s highly ambitious One Belt One Road Initiative has led it to expand its reach in the Indian Ocean with countries like the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Though India shares a friendly relationship with the nations, the tilt towards China has raised the concerns for India and its strategic position in the region. It is likely that the future of India and China’s fate in the Indian Ocean will be decided by their small neighbors.
- Dutta, P. K. (2018, February 7). India Today. Retrieved from India Today World - How Maldives became China’s pocket borough under President Yameen, India sidelined: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/how-president-yameen-turned-maldives-into-a-chinese-theatre-to-push-india-back-1162824-2018-02-07
- Mashal, M. (2018, February 14). The New York Times. Retrieved from The New York Times - Asia Pacific: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/14/world/asia/maldives-china-india.html
- Parashar, S. (2018, February 26). The Times of India - India News. Retrieved April 24, 2018, from Times of India: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/chinas-ocean-observatory-in-maldives-sparks-fresh-security-fear/articleshow/63072040.cms
- The Times of India. (2017, December 9). Retrieved from Times of India - World - South Asia: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/sri-lanka-formally-hands-over-hambantota-port-to-china/articleshow/61997671.cms
- The Times of India. (2017, September 2). Retrieved from Times of India - World - South Asia: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/sri-lanka-allays-indian-concerns-on-hambantota-port/articleshow/60333457.cms
Mridul Jha is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Business Administration in Karnataka, India.