Clash of Titans: India’s ‘Act East’ Policy Meets China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ in the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 2015.

Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). The ship arrived in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, to resupply May 13 after a weeklong routine patrol in international waters and airspace of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. While Fort Worth has transited the South China Sea many times, this patrol marks the first time an LCS has operated in international waters near the Spratlys. Source: Flickr.

Gordon G. Chang

As Beijing seeks to exert influence westward, into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is looking east, into the South China Sea.

The two powers, acting on each other’s periphery, can reach compromises and cooperate in many areas, but on some points resolution of differences will be difficult.  China, from all appearances, is trying to exclude the vessels and aircraft of other nations from most of the South China Sea, and India insists on freedom of navigation.

Their clashing maritime initiatives suggest ties between the two giants will remain troubled.  Chinese President Xi Jinping likes to use the phrase “win-win,” but the South China Sea looks for China and India to now be a zero-sum contest.

For decades, the two nations had almost no interaction in international water.  India had announced a “Look East” policy in 1991, but its outreach was limited, more aspiration than core policy.[i]  Moreover, there was no element of competition with China for control of sea lanes.  The phrase “South China Sea” rarely passed the lips of Indian diplomats or security analysts, and the Indian navy did not venture far from its ports.  China’s fleet, for its part, stayed in coastal waters, the Indian Ocean being well beyond its capabilities.

This benign period passed, however, as both nations expanded ambitions.  Even before the turn of the century, Beijing was scouting the rim of the Indian Ocean for facilities.  In 1999, for instance, China leased Marao Island in Maldives for “maritime traffic management”[ii] purposes.

The fear in New Delhi was that Beijing would turn maritime traffic management facilities into surveillance posts and berths for container vessels into havens for vessels of war.  The concern was not misplaced.  There are persistent reports that China will upgrade Marao, now used to monitor Indian and U.S. warship movements, into a submarine base, some predicting that will happen “in the near future.”[iii]  And in both September and October 2014 the Sri Lankan government allowed a Chinese submarine and its tender to dock at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal.

In addition to Marao and Colombo, China is constructing facilities in Payra in Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Kyaukpyu in Burma.  There is a Chinese-funded port with obvious military applications in Seychelles, and soon there will be what looks like a military base in Obock in Djibouti.  Namibia’s Walvis Bay, in the South Atlantic near the Cape of Good Hope, anchors the western end of Beijing’s Indian Ocean facilities.

In November 2014, a Namibian newspaper noted that China is setting up 18 “naval bases” in the Indian Ocean.[iv]  The Chinese military labeled the report “utterly groundless”[v] and Beijing has repeatedly said it will never establish such presences overseas,[vi] but China’s facilities in that body of water look military-related.  Some call them “Overseas Strategic Support Bases,” Chinese analysts use the term “depots,” and foreigners liken them to a “string of pearls.”

Whether they are pearls, depots, or naval bases, Indian analysts do not have to read Henry Kissinger’s discourse on wei qi, the Chinese game of encirclement, to understand Beijing’s moves in the Indian Ocean.[vii]  In fact, India’s thinkers say that port-building on the fringes of that body of water is proof of Chinese “strategic encirclement theory.”[viii]  “China’s strategy toward South Asia is premised on encircling India and confining her within the geographical coordinates of the region,” writes Harsh Pant of King’s College.  “This strategy of using proxies started off with Pakistan and has gradually evolved to include other states in the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.”[ix]

Beijing officials, understandably, deny that concepts from ancient Chinese board games underpin their foreign policy of today.  “There is no strategic competition between China and India in our relationship and there is certainly no such word as ‘surround,’ ” said Liu Jianchao, assistant foreign minister, in September 2014.  China, he said, “has never, and will not, use so-called military or other means to try and hem in India.”[x]

Despite the repeated assurances, Xi Jinping’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, unveiled in October 2013, concerns New Delhi.  The grand project is designed to connect the great cities of China’s coast to Africa, the Middle East, and ultimately Europe.

To secure the “Road,” as Chinese media now call it, China must dominate the seas surrounding India, and so far the country has expanded its reach there.[xi]  The People’s Liberation Army Navy, as analyst Vijay Sakhuja notes, has “graduated” from diplomatic port calls to training cruises, to regular operations and missions in that expansive body of water.[xii]  Chinese naval vessels began continuous operations in the Indian Ocean in 2006 when they started participating in the anti-Somali piracy patrols.

Since then, China’s activity off India’s shores has increased “exponentially” according to Admiral Robin Dhowan, India’s navy chief, speaking in December 2014 to New Delhi Television.[xiii]  Chinese vessels now prowl the Indian Ocean almost as if it were home waters.  Many in India, therefore, view Beijing’s Silk Road initiative as a Trojan Horse, a precursor to a permanent Chinese presence just off their shores.[xiv]

And the sense of encirclement is enhanced because Beijing’s Road is just half of its program.  Xi, in September 2013, also announced his “Silk Road Economic Belt,” which seeks to build a trade route through Central Asia.  Together, the Belt and Road initiatives flow around—and possibly constrict—India.  “The idea of one belt and one road is based mainly on the economy, but has political and strategic components and implications,” admits Zhuang Jianzhong of Shanghai’s Jiao Tung University to Defense News.[xv]  The effort, said to involve three continents, 65 countries, and 4.4 billion people, is considered not only the centerpiece of Xi’s foreign policy but it is also touted as defining China’s role as a world leader.[xvi]  And as reporter Wendell Minnick notes, the Belt and Road projects “could usher in a new era that sees China as the undisputed geopolitical powerhouse in the region.”[xvii]

Many agree with that assessment.  “There is no alternative for India but to become a part of this order or remain unintegrated, since it is too late for India to set up its own Asian order,” writes  Akhilesh Pillalamarri of the Diplomat website.[xviii]  Yet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not agree.  He has his “Mausam Maneuver” and “Spice Route and Cotton Route” projects connecting ports in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, alternatives to Xi’s Maritime Silk Road.

Beijing wants to coordinate its Silk Road with Modi’s initiatives,[xix] but the joint concept is not going anywhere, as is evident from two rounds of maritime dialogue between China and India.  From New Delhi’s perspective, there is no point in being absorbed into a project directed from the Chinese capital.

Instead, Modi is looking to exert influence in the waters off the Chinese coast.  So while China is acting across the Indian Ocean region, India is working with nations surrounding the South China Sea and engaging in activities in that body of water itself.  The most visible Indian presence is off the shore of Vietnam.  India started looking for hydrocarbons in Vietnamese waters in 1988, and since then there have been a series of deals, including those signed in 1992, 2006, 2011, and 2014.[xx]

While Indian drillers have been busy off Vietnam’s coast, India’s leaders have increasingly recognized the importance of the South China Sea to their country.

India first sent naval vessels into the South China Sea in 2000.[xxi]  In 2007, the Indian navy, after designating the Indian Ocean its “primary responsibility,” recognized its role to protect India’s interests in the South China Sea, an area of “secondary importance.”[xxii]  As a practical matter, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea have become an integrated area of operation, best symbolized by a long deployment of four vessels in mid-2015.  The Indian warships visited ports in both bodies of water—Jakarta in Indonesia, Kuantan in Malaysia, Sattahip in Thailand, and Sihanoukville in Cambodia—as well as participated in Singapore’s Simbex exercise.[xxiii]

India’s diplomacy is now also directed to the South China Sea.  In 2011, the “usually meek” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Bali told the Chinese in no uncertain terms that, despite how they might feel, his country would continue to explore for oil and gas in that body of water.[xxiv]  New Delhi appeared to abandon traditional reluctance on the matter in 2012 at the ASEAN Regional Forum Summit in Phnom Penh, where India expressed its support for freedom of navigation.[xxv]

Then Singh went further, assuming a broader role in South China Sea matters in both 2013 and 2014.  “We welcome the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus,” he declared in 2014.[xxvi]  At the same time, Shankar Menon, his national security adviser, signaled India also had an interest in the adjoining body of water, the East China Sea.  “What happens in the South China Sea or the East China Sea concerns and affects the entire region,” Menon said.  “Conflict would roll back the gains to each of our countries of 40 years of stability and peace.”[xxvii]

Modi, Singh’s assertive successor, has not let up on Beijing since assuming office in May 2014.  His government, for example, has publicly issued three joint statements on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, one in connection with his October 2014 meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung,[xxviii] and the other two with President Obama, one in September 2014[xxix] and the other in January 2015.[xxx]  And in 2015 New Delhi issued comments directed against China’s controversial reclamation activities[xxxi] and condemned Beijing’s refusal to arbitrate its South China Sea sovereignty claims.[xxxii]

As Ankit Panda of the Diplomat website notes, “the rhetoric coming out of New Delhi seems to be growing more specific and pointed as time goes on.”[xxxiii]  In short, India now sees itself as a stakeholder in China’s coastal waters.  Modi has signaled that India will move beyond symbolic and rhetorical moves to a policy of substance.  “Since entering office six months ago, my government has moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn our ‘Look East Policy’ into ‘Act East Policy,’ ” he declared at the East Asian Summit in Naypyidaw in November 2014.[xxxiv]

Why is Modi raising India’s presence?  Shen Dingli of Shanghai’s Fudan University believes, as the Communist Party’s Global Times puts it, that “India is not happy about the rise of China.”[xxxv]   Many Chinese analysts agree and are sure that India is acting in the South China Sea as a means of countering China’s interest in Indian waters.

Some Indian analysts concur.  For instance, the prolific Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University thinks of New Delhi’s interest in the South China Sea—and the East China Sea—as merely “counter-strategies.”[xxxvi]

The conclusions of Shen and Kondapalli sound logical.  Are they in fact correct?

There are many reasons, of course, for New Delhi’s increased attention to South China Sea waters.  There is, as discussed above, a natural broadening of ambition when a country goes from weak and poor to rich and strong.  India has not completed that transition, but Modi apparently believes his country will do so.  He even talks about this era as “India’s century.”

As he goes about making that so, Modi is strengthening India’s links with the ASEAN states, especially those in the organization’s southern tier, which are embroiled in maritime disputes with China.  ASEAN’s Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam have territorial claims overlapping with Beijing’s in the South China Sea.  So Acting East, the result of India’s increasing ambitions, necessarily makes New Delhi interested in the resolution of the maritime conflicts in the seas off China’s coasts.

There are other reasons, however, and two of them are really the two sides of the same coin.  That coin is the People’s Republic of China.

First, countries worried about Beijing’s provocations have been pulling India into the fray.  Vietnam, in particular, has been looking for protectors.  Beijing had grabbed the Paracel Islands from Hanoi and killed more than 70 Vietnamese servicemen in 1974, and then the country lost about 60 more when China occupied Johnson Reef, which Vietnam claimed, in 1988.

So Hanoi has wanted India to drill off its coast, a visible sign of Vietnam’s links to big powers.  As Ton Sinh Thanh, Hanoi’s ambassador to India, noted in April 2015, because India is drilling in his country’s waters “nobody can prevent it.”[xxxvii]  And Hanoi’s stratagem appears to be continuing.  Vietnam has apparently offered to India berthing facilities in Haiphong and Nahthrong.[xxxviii]

Moreover, in May 2015, just before Modi left on his first trip to China as India’s leader, Van Nghiem, the chief of Vietnam’s Directorate of External Information, pointed out that China had threatened those Indian oil companies exploring in Vietnam’s water.  “We don’t know if the issue of marine security in southeast Asia will be raised in the meeting between PM Modi with his counterpart in China,” said Nghiem but if it is “it could be beneficial for both Vietnam and India.”[xxxix]  And that same month, after Modi’s summit in Beijing, Vietnam’s defense minister visited India to sign various defense cooperation agreements.[xl]

As a practical matter, India from the 1980s to today has served as Vietnam’s shield from further Chinese encroachments.  In the future, defense cooperation is bound to tighten beyond the training and equipment New Delhi now supplies.  As the Indian prime minister said in October 2014, “India remains committed to the modernization of Vietnam’s defense and security forces.”[xli]

Hanoi’s general strategy has seemed to work.  In addition to everything else, Vietnam has not lost possessions in the South China Sea to China since 1988, the first year of Indian exploration in Vietnamese waters.

Other Southeast Asian capitals have also seen the benefit of Indian involvement, and this is especially true today.  In March 2015, for instance, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen publicly called on New Delhi to take a more active role in his region.  “We hope that their presence and participation will increase—that really adds up to engagement and confidence building and mutual understanding,” he said.  “We’ve said so to our Indian counterparts, we feel that we benefit from their presence, from their voice, and we’ll continue to take that line.”[xlii]  Laura Del Rosario, a Philippine deputy minister, says “India should go East, and not just Look East.”[xliii]

India is an ideal partner for those ASEAN states that feel threatened by China.  It is large enough to give them support but has no territorial claims in the South China Sea.  Therefore, there is no “strategic trust deficit,” as one diplomatic source put it, and “the bilateral cooperation seems to have got a new boost from India’s current Look East and Act East policy.”[xliv]

It is not only South China Sea parties that want India to take a larger role.  Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in April 2015 talked about maritime cooperation with India[xlv] and said the two countries should together work for the adoption of a South China Sea Code of Conduct.[xlvi]

Moreover, there seems to be a concerted push by Washington to get India involved.  “The South China seas are international waters and India should be able to operate freely wherever India wants to operate,” said Admiral Harry Harris Jr., then commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and now commander of Pacific Command.  “If that means the South China Sea, then get in there and do that.”[xlvii]

Furthermore, there is applause from the normally China-friendly State Department.  In December 2014, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel called Modi’s activist policies “appealing to me and my colleagues.”  “He has shown in word and deed his interest in involving India in the thinking and the affairs of the broader region,” said Russel.  “That’s very much to be welcomed.”[xlviii]  As a result, Washington, says Richard Rossow of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, is beginning to look at India “as a regional global provider—or as a global provider of security.”[xlix]

On the other side of the coin, India, like other nations, is beginning to think it has no choice but to oppose, if not confront, Chinese expansionism.  New Delhi may not have a “Grand Strategy,” as some contend,[l] but it does have immediate interests.

One of its immediate interests is the water off its coasts.  “China’s consolidation of power in the South China Sea will have a direct bearing on India’s interests in its own maritime backyard, the Indian Ocean,” writes Brahma Chellaney, the noted New Delhi-based author and analyst.  “In fact, China’s quiet maneuvering in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South China Sea.”  So, as he notes, “If China gets its way in the South China Sea, it will become far more assertive against its other neighbors, including India.”[li]

Yet this is not just about the Indian Ocean.  Chellaney views that water as where broad issues will be settled as well.  “The South China Sea is critical to the contest for influence in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific region, which extends from the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean.  That contest is central to China’s intent to fashion a Sino-centric Asia.”[lii]

The theory that India feels it must become involved in East Asia gains support from recent developments.  Consider, for example, the exchange of visits of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in 2014 and 2015.  Before coming to India in September 2014, Xi visited Maldives and Sri Lanka, two countries where China’s maritime presence has troubled New Delhi.  Modi, as Chellaney told the Financial Times, repaid Xi “in the same coin.”[liii]  The Indian leader after touring China in May 2015 went to Mongolia, the first official visit by an Indian prime minister to that country, and South Korea.

“India’s trying to augment its limited power by joining hands with countries around China’s periphery,”[liv] Chellaney has noted.  When Modi agreed with Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg that India is Mongolia’s “third neighbor”[lv]—that country in fact is completely surrounded by China and Russia—the message was surely intended for ears in Beijing.[lvi]

So India looks like it is learning to play wei qi on a rather large board.  Yet “counter-containment” is not the only story.  In reality, New Delhi’s interests are broader than merely countering, in a tit-for-tat way, a neighbor’s expansive moves.  Modi’s foreign policy seeks to accomplish big objectives.

For one thing, New Delhi is shifting its focus from reinvigorating traditional relationships—“revisiting its civilizational links” in the words of Amit Dasgupta, a former Indian diplomat—to a much bigger project, “crafting an Asian architecture.”[lvii]   And unlike the structure that China’s Xi Jinping seems to want, India’s concept is an open one.

For instance, India’s architecture is directed to protecting trade flows, especially to and from Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and the ASEAN states and ensuring the transportation of oil and gas to Indian ports from Russia’s Sakhalin and the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam.  About a quarter of India’s sea-bound trade passes through the South China Sea, and the percentage seems to be growing.[lviii] As Madhav Nalapat of Manipal University points out, “Modi’s ambition is to replicate the success of Deng Xiaoping in India, and for this, freedom of transit through land, air, and sea is crucial.”[lix]

Yet as Nalapat notes, there is great concern that Beijing will seek to deny to India and others “unfettered access” to the South China Sea.[lx]  Chinese claims there—the infamous “cow’s tongue” defined by nine or ten “dashes” on official maps—is widely interpreted as an attempt to exclude other nations from about 80% of that water.  As such, Beijing’s notions of its sovereignty threaten this commerce.

Freedom of navigation is not just an abstract notion to New Delhi.  In July 2011, INS Airavat, an amphibious assault ship, was heading to Haiphong in the northern part of Vietnam from the Nha Trang port in the southern portion of the country.  A caller identifying himself as the “Chinese navy” on an open channel demanded the Indian vessel leave the area: “You are entering Chinese waters.  Move out of here.”[lxi]  The ship was 45 nautical miles from the coast at the time and therefore in international waters.

The Airavat ignored the demand[lxii] and New Delhi tried to minimize the incident, but the call, almost certainly made on the instructions of Beijing, forced the Indian policy establishment to realize it had a stake in the South China Sea.  India’s diplomats downplayed the event but did issue a statement.  “India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law,” declared the Ministry of External Affairs.[lxiii]  In sum, the Chinese military left New Delhi little choice but to work with other nations to protect India’s right to ply international waters.

In response to Chinese moves, Modi has not only taken Look East and turned it into Act East, he has, both as a defensive measure and as an expression of long-term ambition, extended Act East to “Look East, Link West.”[lxiv]  Linking West means, in the first instance, working with Washington.  As Modi said at the White House during his 2014 visit, “America is an integral part of our Look East and Link West policies.”[lxv]

Working with Washington, in turn, means cooperating with a network of states defending the global commons in the seas off China’s coast.  Those nations are now banding together, a fulfillment of the vision of Taro Aso, when he was Japan’s foreign minister in 2006.  In November of that year he proposed an “arc of freedom and prosperity” for Asia.  The concept, however, was soon forgotten as regional diplomats thought they could maintain cooperative relations with China.

Yet as questions about China are turning into doubts that are fast becoming fears, Aso’s arc is forming, and as it does, nations in East Asia are looking to India, which anchors the arc’s southern end.  India, not surprisingly, features in Aso’s speech announcing the concept,[lxvi]  and New Delhi is also an integral part of the “values diplomacy” announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  Moreover, India is one of the four corners—along with Japan, Hawaii, and Australia—of Abe’s “democratic security diamond.”[lxvii]  As Modi said of America—but as he could have said of any number of countries that are now working together—“We are natural allies.”[lxviii]

For those two natural allies—the world’s most populous democracy and its most powerful one—the issue is not what India can do for the U.S. or what the U.S. can do for India, Modi has said.  “The way we should look at it is what India and the U.S. can together do for the world.”[lxix]

As Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London said in May 2015, India has picked sides.[lxx]  Beijing, in one of its more self-defeating geopolitical moves, is forcing New Delhi to abandon its long-held notions of non-alignment.

The South China Sea is one of the most important reasons why democracies—and other nations—are coming together as Aso envisioned a decade ago and as Abe supports now.  As a result of Beijing’s provocative behavior there, vessels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force may end up patrolling those waters and India could also be drawn more deeply into that area as well.  After all, Modi sees India’s future tied with the region’s democracies.[lxxi]

The risk of entanglement for New Delhi is increasing because China is creating a showdown with an important group of India’s friends, the South China Sea claimants and the United States.  Beijing, sometime beginning in the middle of 2014, embarked on an accelerated program of reclamations in the Spratly Island chain, dredging, filling, and cementing over coral, adding about four square kilometers of land.

Its work continues despite opposition from other nations.  At the end of March 2015, Admiral Harris called China’s “unprecedented land reclamation” the “great wall of sand.”[lxxii]  Because China will undoubtedly use the new land for military purposes, the reclamations are causing alarm and helping create a coalition of nations.  That coalition now looks to New Delhi for support, giving India a prominence that otherwise would not have come so soon.  Beijing has noticed India’s participation and now publicly tells New Delhi that it has no legitimate interest in South China Sea issues.[lxxiii]

Of course, the South China Sea, as important as it is, does not define Prime Minister Modi’s external policies, and his external policies do not so far define his tenure in office.  He has been and will remain focused on what he was elected in 2014 to do, delivering prosperity to more than a billion people.  That was evident from his May 2015 three-day, three-city China visit, which the New York Times aptly described as “essentially a business trip filled out with displays of good will and ancient cultural kinship.”[lxxiv]  The highlight of that trip, at least from the Indian side, was the signing of 26 memos of understanding, valued by New Delhi at $22 billion, between Indian and Chinese businesses.

Modi “needs a window of relative strategic calm in his backyard to build the Indian economy.”[lxxv]  And because the potential disturber of the regional peace is Beijing, India’s prime minister will do his best to keep a subsidiary issue like the South China Sea from derailing his high-priority economic goal.  As the Wall Street Journal’s Sadanand Dhume noted about Modi on the eve of that trip, “He is certainly not looking to pick a fight with China.”[lxxvi]  More broadly, nobody in India, Dhume says, wants to do that.

Nonetheless, the rivalry between the two countries is unmistakable, with competition now the defining theme of Chinese policy toward India and Indian policy toward China. Significantly, despite all the good will gestures Modi extended to Xi in September 2014 and Xi extended to him the following May, neither has given an inch on the central issues that divide their countries.  And as Vietnamese officials had earlier signaled, Modi did not compromise on secondary issues like the South China Sea.

For instance, the Indian prime minister did not endorse Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature project, the “One Belt, One Road.”[lxxvii]  Moreover, in public Modi startled observers by telling the Chinese to be more accommodating.  “I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing [the] full potential of our partnership,” he said while in Beijing. “I suggested that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations.”[lxxviii]

Modi’s assertive public comments signal a slow-forming but nonetheless fundamental shift in thinking in the Indian capital about China.  There is a sense that, although India thirsts for Chinese money to develop its economy, it should no longer placate Beijing, which cannot be moved by gestures of friendship.  And so it should have come as no surprise that there was virtually no progress on substantive issues and little was accomplished during the two summits in 2014 and 2015.

In 2005, Manmohan Singh said “India and China can together reshape the world order.”[lxxix]  He was correct of course, but these two titans are not cooperating.  They are, if anything, challenging each other, working against the other’s interests in various arenas, including the South China Sea.  That body of water may not be where Modi wants to focus his energies, but the controversies there are becoming impossible for his India, with its broad ambitions, to avoid.

Today, there is a growing perception, as the International Crisis Group has noted, that the South China Sea is “the cockpit of geopolitics in East Asia.”[lxxx]  Robert Kaplan even called it “Asia’s Cauldron,” a location “on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.”[lxxxi]

Kaplan believes Asians do not fight over ideas.[lxxxii]  Yet whether or not he is correct, their struggle to control the South China Sea will result in one vision—an open architecture or a closed one—prevailing.  India, whether it wants to or not, will increasingly take a role in shaping the outcome in the waters where Asia decides its future.

Dr. Anders Corr provided editorial oversight for this article. JPR Status: Working paper. Archived 6/3/2015.


[i] See Simon Denyer, “China, India Perform Dangerous New Dance,” Washington Post, November 26, 2011 (India “had failed to put much meat on the bones of the policy”),

[ii]“Close to China But India Ties Precious: Maldives President,” Indian Express (Mumbai), January 6, 2014,

[iii] Deepak Sinha, “India and the Maldives: Not Just Another Day in Paradise,” Indian Defense Review, March 10, 2015,

[iv] Adam Hartman, “Chinese Naval Base for Walvis Bay,” Namibian (Windhoek), November 19, 2014,

[v] “China Denies Reports to Set Up 18 Naval Bases in Indian Ocean,” Economic Times (Mumbai), November 27, 2014,

[vi] For a discussion of China’s pledge in connection with the Indian Ocean, see Mandip Singh, “The Proposed PLA Naval Base in Seychelles and India’s Options,” Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, December 15, 2011,

[vii] See Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), p. 23-25.  Pentagon analyst Michael Pillsbury has also commented on the significance of the game: “Today, China’s leaders operate on the belief that rival states are fundamentally out to encircle one another, the same objective as in wei qi.”  Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (New York: Henry Holt, 2015), p. 36.

[viii] See, e.g., Singh, “The Proposed PLA Naval Base in Seychelles and India’s Options.”

[ix] Harsh V. Pant, “India and China Slugging It Out in South Asia,” Japan Times (Tokyo), December 21, 2014,

[x] Atul Aneja, “China Woos Maldives to Join Maritime Silk Road,” Hindu (Chennai), September 15, 2014,  Beijing’s position on this point has been consistent.  See, e.g., He Huifeng, “Port Projects in Indian Ocean ‘Not Strategic,’ ” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), June 19, 2008 (comments of Zhang Yan, Chinese ambassador to India),

[xi] The development of the Chinese navy to protect the country’s overseas commercial interests is one of the most important themes in China’s first white paper on military strategy.  See Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Military Strategy,” May 2015,  The paper is notable because it evidences a shift from land to the maritime domain.  On the seas, the paper signals a turn away from an emphasis on defense of coastal waters to “open seas protection.”  As Ni Lexiong, a naval analyst based in Shanghai, explained, “The white paper aims to tell the world China has formally become a great sea power and transitioned from a traditional agricultural country to a modern commercial state, which will focus on maritime development to defend its overseas interests.”  Andrea Chen, “China Charts Course for Blue-Water Navy, Extending Reach into Open Seas,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), May 26, 2015,

Open Seas,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), May 26, 2015,

[xii]See Vijay Sakhuja, “Chinese Submarines Taste Indian Ocean,” Center for International Maritime Security, October 1, 2014,

[xiii] Sudhi Ranjan Sen, “Chinese Activity Is Up Exponentially in Indian Ocean: Navy Chief to NDTV,” New Delhi Television, December 3, 2014,

[xiv] See Tim Sullivan, “India, China Quietly Struggle in Indian Ocean,” Associated Press, September 20, 2014 (comments of Kanwal Sibal, former Indian foreign secretary),  There is a reason China has been so active in the waters off India’s coast.  Brahma Chellaney notes this of Chinese President Xi Jinping: “Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment, using trade and investment to expand its sphere of strategic influence while simultaneously asserting territorial and maritime claims against its neighbors.  The Maritime Silk Road project—part of Xi’s increasing focus on the seas—is driven by his belief that the maritime domain holds the key to China achieving preeminence in Asia.”  Brahma Chellaney, “What Are Chinese Submarines Doing in the Indian Ocean?” Huffington Post, May 19, 2015,

[xv] Wendell Minnick, “China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Strategy,” Defense News, April 12, 2015,  Indian analysts have similar views.  For instance, Abhijit Singh of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi writes, “Still, with an impending $40 billion dollar investment plan, it seems highly unlikely China would have assumed responsibility for the onerous projects without the promise of future strategic gains.”  Abhijit Singh, “A ‘PLA-N’ for Chinese Maritime Bases in the Indian Ocean,” PacNet #7, January 26, 2015,

[xvi] See editorial, “ ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative Will Define China’s Role as a World Leader,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), April 2, 2015,  The Post writes: “It is the most significant and far-reaching project the nation has ever put forward, having domestic and foreign policy implications that impact the economy and strategic and diplomatic relations.  Importantly, it provides an opportunity for the nation to take a regional and global leadership role.”

[xvii]  Minnick, “China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Strategy.”

[xviii]  Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “India Needs to Join Asia’s Emerging ‘Chinese Order,’ ” Diplomat, November 20, 2014,

[xix]See Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “India, China May Sign a Pact on Joint Deep Sea Research in Indian Ocean Region,” Economic Times (Mumbai), April 24, 2015,; “Ready to Link Silk Road Plans with India’s ‘Mausam’: China,” Economic Times (Mumbai), April 5, 2015,  Beijing has also talked about coordinating its Maritime Silk Road with Jakarta’s Global Maritime Fulcrum.  See Atul Aneja, “China’s Silk Road Diplomacy Willing to Enmesh India’s Projects,” Hindu (Chennai), April 6, 2015,

Willing to Enmesh India’s Projects,” Hindu (Chennai), April 6, 2015,

[xx] See Michelle FlorCruz, “Vietnam and India Sign Oil, Naval Agreement Amid South China Sea Disputes, Angering Beijing,” International Business Times, October 29, 2014,   China’s reaction to the drilling has been both mild and harsh.  In September 2011, the Global Times, controlled by the Communist Party, in an editorial urged Beijing to stop Indian exploration by diplomacy or “means outside diplomacy.” Indian analysts were upset by the apparent call for the use of force.  See, e.g., Ananth Krishnan, “South China Sea Project a ‘Serious Political Provocation,’ Chinese Paper Warns India,” Hindu (Chennai), September 16, 2011,   

[xxi]See Zachary Keck, “India Wades into South China Sea Dispute,” Diplomat, March 12, 2014,  

[xxii]See “India’s Role in Solving East Sea Disputes,” VietnamNet Bridge, May 11, 2014 (interview of Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University),

[xxiii] See Rajat Pandit, “India Sends Four Warships to the East, Kicks Off Exercise with Singapore,” Times of India (Mumbai), May 23, 2015,

[xxiv] See Denyer, “China, India Perform Dangerous New Dance.”

[xxv] See Jemimah Joanne C. Villaruel, “India’s Interests in the South China Sea—Analysis,” Eurasia Review, April 8, 2015,

[xxvi] Keck, “India Wades into South China Sea Dispute.”  New Delhi noticeably emphasized the South China Sea in public comments in 2013.  For instance, Singh’s statement quoted in the text echoed those he made in 2013 at the East Asia Summit in Brunei.  See Zachary Keck, “India Rebukes Beijing on South China Sea,” Diplomat, October 12, 2013,

[xxvii] Keck, “India Wades into South China Sea Dispute.”

[xxviii]“PM Modi Pledges to Modernize Vietnam’s Defenses, Which Could Irk China,” New Delhi Television, October 28, 2014,

[xxix]The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “U.S.-India Joint Statement,” September 30, 2014,

[xxx]  The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,” January 25, 2015,

[xxxi] See Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Chinese Military Bases in South China Sea Worries India,” Economic Times (Mumbai), March 26, 2015,

[xxxii]  See Catherine S. Valente, “India Backs PH in China Sea Row,” Manila Times, March 11, 2015 (comments of Indian ambassador to the Philippines Lalduhthlana Ralte),

[xxxiii]  Ankit Panda, “India’s Got a Plan for South China Sea Disputes (And China Won’t Like It),” Diplomat, March 11, 2015,

[xxxiv] “ ‘Look East’ Policy Now Turned into ‘Act East’ Policy: Modi,” Hindu (Chennai), November 14, 2014,

[xxxv]Liu Sheng, “India Makes Waves with South China Sea Oil and Gas Exploration,” Global Times (Beijing), September 17, 2011,  For additional comments of Chinese commentators, see “India’s Entry into South China Sea Aimed at Countering China: Chinese Analysts,” Economic Times (Mumbai), September 18, 2011,

[xxxvi]  “India’s Role in Solving East Sea Disputes.”

[xxxvii]“Nobody Can Prevent India’s Oil Exploration in Our Waters: Vietnam,” Economic Times (Mumbai), April 28, 2015, .

[xxxviii] See “India’s Role in Solving East Sea Disputes” (interview of Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University).

[xxxix] Sheikh Zaffar Iqbal, “Will Welcome It If PM Modi Raises Marine Security Issue With China, Says Vietnam,” New Delhi Television, May 4, 2015,   It appears Modi did not raise the South China Sea issue during his May 2015 meetings in China.  Brahma Chellaney, e-mail message to author, May 20, 2015.

[xl] See Ankit Panda, “India and Vietnam Push Ahead with Strategic Security Cooperation,” Diplomat, May 26, 2015,

[xli] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Bolstering Act East Policy: India to Train Vietnamese Intelligence Forces,” Economic Times (Mumbai), April 6, 2015,

[xlii] Sharon Chen, “India Should Play Bigger Role in South China Sea, Says Singapore,” Bloomberg Business, March 16, 2015,

[xliii] Keck, “India Wades into South China Sea Dispute.”

[xliv] Chaudhury, “Chinese Military Bases in South China Sea Worries India.”

[xlv] See “ ‘Australia Wants to Be India’s Energy Partner of Choice,’ ” Hindu (Chennai), April 15, 2015,

[xlvi] See “India, Australia Could Push for South China Sea Conduct Code: Bishop,” Business Standard (New Delhi), April 13, 2015,

[xlvii] Vishnu Som, “In South China Sea Row, Top US Commander Roots for India,” New Delhi Television, March 4, 2015,

[xlviii] Frank Jack Daniel, “As Obama Visits, Signs That India Is Pushing Back Against China,” Reuters, January 21, 2015,

[xlix] Ibid.

[l]Among the doubters of an Indian “grand strategy” is Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University.  See “India’s Role in Solving East Sea Disputes.”

[li]Brahma Chellaney, e-mail message to author, April 26, 2015.

[lii] Ibid.

[liii] Victor Mallet, “India Plays Soft Power Game in China’s Backyard,” Financial Times, May 18, 2015,


[lv]“ ‘India Privileged to Be Considered Mongolia’s Spiritual Neighbor’ Says PM Narendra Modi,” New Delhi Television, May 17, 2015,

[lvi]Mongolia is, in words of the Financial Times, “an integral part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.”  Mallet, “India Plays Soft Power Game in China’s Backyard.”  Mallet, the FT’s South Asia Bureau chief, identifies three phases to Modi’s outreach diplomacy.  The first was the outreach to South Asia; the second to “global and Pacific powers,” including China; and the third to China’s backyard with Mongolia as the opening event.

[lvii] Amit Dasgupta, “Despite China, India Should Look East,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), December 9, 2014,

[lviii] See Munmun Majumdar, “India’s Stakes in the South China Sea,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 3 No. 13, p. 242, 243(2013),

[lix] Madhav Nalapat, e-mail message to author, April 27, 2015.


[lxi] Indrani Bagchi, “China Harasses Indian Naval Ship on South China Sea,” Times of India (Mumbai), September 2, 2011,

[lxii] See “Chinese Warship Warns Indian Navy Vessel in South China Sea?” Economic Times (Mumbai), September 1, 2011,

[lxiii]Bagchi, “China Harasses Indian Naval Ship on South China Sea.”

[lxiv] For a discussion of Modi’s new formulation of this decades-old policy, see N. K. Singh, “Let’s Look East and Link West,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), September 27, 2014,

[lxv]  C. Raja Mohan, “Modi and the Middle East: Towards a Link West Policy,” Indian Express (New Delhi), October 5, 2014,

[lxvi] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Speech by Mr. Taro Aso, Minister for Foreign Affairs on the Occasion of the Japan Institute of International Affairs Seminar ‘Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,’ ” November 30, 2006,

[lxvii] See Shinzo Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, December 27, 2012,

[lxviii] Narendra Modi, interview by Nancy Gibbs, Zoher Abdoolcarim, and Nikhil Kumar, Time, May 7, 2015,

[lxix] Ibid.

[lxx] Natalie Obiko, “Modi in China: India PM Hopes for No Xi Surprise,” Bloomberg Business, May 13, 2015,  India, Ankit Panda writes, has joined “a chorus of mostly democratic, mostly U.S.-aligned states in opposing Chinese irredentism.”  Panda, “India’s Got a Plan for South China Sea Disputes (And China Won’t Like It).”

[lxxi] Victor Mallet of the Financial Times wrote this about Modi: “He not only emphasized defense co-operation, upgraded Mongolia to a ‘strategic partner’ and said India would help the country’s armed forces with cybersecurity, but also praised Mongolia as the ‘new bright light of democracy’ in the world, implicitly linking his hosts to India and the U.S. and distancing them from authoritarian Communist China.”  Mallet, “India Plays Soft Power Game in China’s Backyard.”  Robert Kaplan, the geopolitical analyst and author, has a different take.  “It is not ideas that Asians fight over, but space on the map,” he writes in Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 33.  Maybe so, but the coalition forming against China is mostly a grouping of states supporting both representative governance and the notions of a global commons and an open international system.

[lxxii]          Harry B. Harris Jr., Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra, Australia, March 31, 2015,

[lxxiii] See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on October 8, 2014,” October 8, 2014,  For a more recent warning, see Sachin Parashar, “No Oil Hunt in South China Sea Without Nod, Beijing Tells Delhi,” Economic Times (Mumbai), May 31, 2015,  For more information, see Saibal Dasgupta, “China Warns India About Taking Up Vietnam’s Offer for Oil Exploration in Disputed South China Sea,” Times of India (Mumbai), October 28, 2014,; Ananth Kirshnan, “China Cautions India on Vietnam Overture,” India Today,  October 28, 2014,

[lxxiv]Ellen Barry and Chris Buckley, “Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping Aim to Shelve Rifts Amid Economic Courtship,” New York Times, May 13, 2015,

[lxxv] Ibid. (comments of Ashok Malik of the Observer Research Foundation).

[lxxvi]       Sadanand Dhume, interview by John Batchelor and Gordon Chang, The John Batchelor Show, Cumulus Media Network, May 13, 2015,

[lxxvii]India “remained reticent” on the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called “a Chinese initiative.”  Jaishankar said China had not raised the issue with India.  “We are open to discussing this with the Chinese whenever they want to,” the foreign secretary said.  Chris Buckley and Ellen Barry, “Modi Calls on China to Rethink Stances That Strain Ties to India,” New York Times, May 15, 2015,

[lxxviii]“Full Text of PM Modi’s Statement After Meeting Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing,” New Delhi Television, May 15, 2015,

[lxxix]John Lancaster, “India, China Hoping to ‘Reshape the World Order’ Together,” Washington Post, April 12, 2005, 

[lxxx]International Crisis Group, “Stirring Up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm,” Asia Report No. 267, May 7, 2015,

[lxxxi]Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, p. 14.

[lxxxii]Ibid., p. 33.