In order to counter China’s influence in South Asia, India is enhancing its maritime capability including expanding its fleet of warships and submarines by 2027. In July 2017 India’s Ministry of Defence reported that the government has engaged with various international shipyards to start building six non-nuclear submarines as part of the 75I Project, a program worth over US$12 billion.
At a naval conference in New Delhi in October, the Indian Navy announced plans to position a fleet of warships and a surveillance aircraft along critical lanes of communication and chokepoints in the Indian Ocean. The fleet’s mission will reportedly include counter-terrorism, countering human trafficking, counter-piracy and counter-narcotics, in addition to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to littoral states in the region. However, the broad focus of this mission suggests a real aim of cutting China’s influence in the Indian Ocean.
Over the past decade China has substantially increased its presence in South Asia, strengthening economic ties and developing multibillion dollar infrastructure projects. As part of its strategy, China aims to expand its maritime shipping routes, enhance port facilities in Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka and provide maritime security. The Indian Ocean is a key waterway for China as it connects maritime trade from Africa, where Chinese firms draw an approximate US$180 billion revenue each year.
A history of confrontation
China’s presence in South Asia is not only challenging India’s traditional economic and diplomatic position in the region, but has also triggered security concerns. Over the past four years China has increased the number of warships and submarines patrolling in the Indian Ocean. According to reports, more than seven Chinese warships can be spotted in the region each month and at least three nuclear and four non-nuclear submarines have been tracked there since December 2013.
India and China have a long history of confrontation, and although they have built a diplomatic relationship over the last few decades, territorial disagreements remain a threat to progress. In June 2017 tensions between the two countries increased when Indian soldiers were deployed to the Chinese-controlled Doklam plateau to prevent the Chinese from building a road through a territory claimed by India’s close ally, Bhutan. The incident was resolved without any major clash two months later, after both countries agreed to withdraw.