Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Wuhan, China, on 27 April 2018. Even as tensions simmer, both leaders want to prevent an escalation that could lead to conflict. Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs. - Photo: 2024

India-China Geopolitical Battle Intensifies in the Indian Ocean

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE | 17 March 2024 (IDN)—China and the Maldives signed a military assistance agreement earlier this month. Indian troops have started withdrawing from the Islands. Simultaneously, China, Russia, and Iran are holding war drills in the Indian Ocean. Though the geopolitical battle in the Indian Ocean is intensifying, it could assist the region’s economic development rather than trigger military conflicts.

Some 89 Indian military personnel began withdrawing from the strategic Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives, which elected a pro-China leader late last year. India had some 70 military personnel deployed on the island under a “humanitarian assistance” agreement signed with the earlier pro-India regime.

After President Mohamed Muizzu was elected last September, he asked India to withdraw the troops. He later agreed to have a contingent of non-military personnel to man the program in the islands.

Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on 14 March, citing Chinese defence ministry sources, that on 13 March, a People’s Liberation Army delegation had visited and met President Muizzu in the Maldivian capital Male. Without mentioning the agreement, the Chinese statement said the Maldives trip was part of a three-nation tour that included Sri Lanka and Nepal—also India’s neighbours—that focused on promoting defence cooperation with Beijing.

According to the Chinese statement, the new agreement with the Maldives is part of “normal cooperation” between the two countries and is not directed at a “third party.”

Meanwhile, SCMP reported on 15 March that China had announced five-day joint military exercises with Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Oman. The military exercises are designed to “jointly maintain regional maritime security”, a Chinese statement pointed out.

The latest exercises come amidst increasing confrontation in the Red Sea, where Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have attacked mainly Western and Indian ships in support of Hamas’s war with Israel in Gaza. China, which has its only foreign naval base in Djibouti, has not officially condemned Houthi attacks, but SCMP says that Beijing has privately urged Teheran to reign in on attacks in the Red Sea.

As India began to withdraw its naval contingent from the Maldives, the Indian navy announced that it would open a new naval base near the Maldives. The new base, which opened on 6 March on India’s Lakshadweep islands, will turn an existing small detachment into an “independent naval unit,” according to the navy’s statement. India’s Lakshadweep islands lie about 130 kilometres north of the Maldives, with the new naval base on the island of Minicoy situated at their closest point.

China is expanding its influence through massive investment in ports

In a commentary published on the Indian Council of Global Relations (ICGR) “Gateway House” website in August last year, it was noted that China is rapidly expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through massive investment in ports.

From smaller investments of $78 million in Djibouti to large ones like $1.6 billion in Gwadar in Pakistan, Chinese state-owned enterprises are building some 17 ports across the Indian Ocean area, including a 99-year lease of Australia’s Darwin harbour signed in 2015 where a government-linked Chinese company has invested an estimated $390 million. Gateway House article says these ports will be “important strategic, economic and political outposts” for China.

The IOR is a significant part of China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative. It accounts for 80 per cent of China’s energy imports and is essential for China’s trade activities, making it a strategically and economically significant geography.

“For the past three decades, Chinese investment and construction activity in the IOR has increased. In this context, Ports have become important sites of strategic, economic, and political investments for China,” notes Saeeduddin Faridi, ICGR’s research intern.

Maldives is a key player in the Indian Ocean

Associate Professor Dhananjay Tripathi, Chairperson of the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, in New Delhi, argues that the Maldives is a key player in the Indian Ocean and is positioning itself to benefit from the rivalry between China and India in its neighbourhood. He adds that it is not a complete picture to argue that President Muizzu is a pro-China leader.

“It ignores the underlying intensity of the Sino-India competition in the region,” notes Tripathi in a commentary published by Australia’s ‘360info’ website. “Tension on the China-India border in the Himalayas remains high, and India is apprehensive about the increasing footprint of China in South Asia, while China is suspicious of the growing defence cooperation between India and the West.”

A larger political tussle between India and China

He predicts a larger political tussle between the two Asian heavyweights in the Indian Ocean, and it is likely to be ongoing and not limited to only the Maldives. He notes that it is a “toll gate” between the western Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits.

More than half of India’s external trade and 80 per cent of its energy imports pass through the sea lanes close to the Maldives. For China, 80 per cent of its crude oil imports from the Gulf pass through the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca. Because of a possible scenario in which an antagonist blocks the sea lanes, China has invested heavily in its navy, with a particular focus on the Indian Ocean.

“Beijing is especially apprehensive of U.S. and Indian influence in the Indian Ocean. It seems to believe that a deepening Indo-US partnership, especially in the Indo-Pacific context, would make things difficult. Aware of these potential challenges, China has sought to increase its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean,” argues Tripathi. “It now has a formidable presence at strategically located ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.”

India to consolidate its position with SAGAR

In 2022, China launched the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development and Cooperation. At its second meeting in 2023, more than 350 representatives from 30 countries participated under the central theme of “Boosting Sustainable Blue Economy to Build Together a Maritime Community with a Shared Future”.

India has taken serious note of Chinese strategic expansion and has followed a two-pronged strategy to safeguard its interests. In 2015, India launched the’ SAGAR’ initiative (Security and Growth for All in the Region) to consolidate its regional position.

According to Tripathi, the SAGAR plan seeks to build a climate of trust and openness and increase maritime cooperation to resolve maritime issues peacefully by encouraging all Indian Ocean countries to adhere to international maritime rules and norms.

Associate Professor Jabin Jacob, Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation in India, cites recent Indian development and economic assistance to Sri Lanka and Mauritius and its continuous development aid to Maldives under Muizzu. He says arguing that India is merely responding to China’s Belt and Road Initiative with its development projects is to misread India’s approach.

“Indian foreign policy in its neighbourhood has always been to support its neighbours in their development objectives,” he argues in a commentary published by “This is a recognition of the fact that the consequences of the lack of development and economic or political instability in the neighbourhood inevitably spills over into India, which it is then forced to address.” [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Wuhan, China, on 27 April 2018. Even as tensions simmer, both leaders want to prevent an escalation that could lead to conflict. Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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