Deep thinking on the Indian Ocean

Ram Ganesh Kamatham
4 min readMay 23, 2018

Book Review of: India & China at Sea — Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean David Brewster (Ed) OUP; 272 pages; Rs 950

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is where India and China’s strategic ambitions in the maritime realm converge. The degree to which both countries will be able to manage this competition, disentangle overlapping interests and chart mutually beneficial engagements in the near future, remains ripe for discussion. Can there be a positive sum outcome, or is this region destined for confrontation? The 13 essays in this edited volume by David Brewster, Senior Research Fellow with the National Security College — Australian National University, are a luminous contribution to this debate.

The IOR accounts for 50% of global seaborne trade and is home to the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It is often described as India’s “backyard” or “near abroad”. The catch, is that about 84% of China’s energy imports also pass through the IOR as it pursues its own qiang guo meng(great power dream). Chinese sensitivity towards vulnerabilities in its sea lines of communication (SLOCs) are predicated on its geostrategic disadvantages in the IOR. China’s inability to exert any real control over maritime chokepoints in the region, being one example. As China seeks to increase its security infrastructure and influence in the region with forward deployments, India will find its own influence challenged.

The strong theme that emerges from the essays is the tension between China’s stated goals of economic development and the degree to which it has been unable to convince India and arguably the rest of the world, of the sincerity of its intention. This is what John Garver, in his essay, characterises as China’s “autism”, a self-involved inability to understand the views and emotional states of other people, which he attributes to domestic and historical factors.

Discomfort with the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Route are evidence that China’s peaceful rise narrative has more than a few caveats. In defence of these initiatives, Jingdong Yuan’s essay argues that it is a “cognitive divergence” that accounts for India’s perception of Chinese economic initiatives in highly securitised terms.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more vexing than in multiple essayists accounts of Chinese port construction activities including those in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which provide dual-use infrastructure to Chinese vessels. The lack of transparency in these deals is a recurring point of concern. The Chinese dismissal of plans of establishing overseas bases a decade ago, has given way to the coyly titled “naval logistics facility” at Djibouti, now a de facto military base that cost US$590 million.

Where this edited volume shines is in the meticulous hard-power focussed analysis. Essays by Raja Menon, Srikanth Kondapalli and Iskander Rehman stand out. Rehman’s essay is noteworthy as it investigates the sub-surface dimensions of the maritime rivalry. In his analysis, the submarine is the most cost-effective and survivable response to blunt naval power projection, in a theatre characterised by “creeping coercion”. Another point raised by Rehman is that China produced 2.5 diesel electric submarines (SSKs) per year over the last decade, with an estimated fleet of 78 SSKs possible within the next few years. Exponents of a more robust defence manufacturing base in India would do well to note this metric of productive capacity.

The long logistical line required for the PLA Navy to operate in the IOR, coupled with the difficulty of the PLA Air Force providing tactical air cover as argued by Raja Menon mean that India can capitalise on her implicit geographical advantages in the region. Menon’s analysis introduces the crucial role of maritime domain awareness (MDA) and maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) into the strategic calculus. Kondapalli’s essay evaluates China’s Two Ocean strategy, as it expands its influence both Westwards into the Pacific, and eastwards into the IOR. He argues that the Mahanian “flag-following-trade” policy will increasingly be displaced by semi-military alliances, dual-use ports, arms transfers to the region, and military operations other than war (MOOTW).

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri’s essay is a succinct insider’s account of India’s policy decisions and reasoning through successive Manmohan Singh governments, up until a “more muscular” change occurred with the Modi government post-2014 and a slew of initiatives since. As he points out in his excellent essay, India’s traditional weak link in grand strategy has been policy implementation.

In a 2009 media interaction, the former NSA of India joked that “a string of pearls” is not a murder weapon, referencing the popular board game Clue. The former NSA was dismissing alarmist claims at the time, about Chinese encirclement of India through a series of military bases in the IOR. A decade later, India would do well to think of the IOR not as a game of whodunit, but as Brewster’s book suggests, a grand game of Go. In Go, there is no innocuous placement of pieces, and encirclement is not an end, but the meansto control more space by the end of the game.


Ram Ganesh Kamatham is a Research Fellow, and part of the pioneer cohort of the Graduate Certificate in Strategic Studies (GCSS), at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru. He holds masters degrees in anthropology from SOAS, London and international relations from RSIS, Singapore.

(This article appeared in the Business Standard on 23/05/2018.)