In a perceptive essay for Foreign Affairs, "Center Stage of the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean," Robert Kaplan, National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote, "The Indian Ocean, the world's third-largest body of water, forms center stage for the challenges of the twenty-first century."
"The dramatic economic growth of India and China has been duly noted," Kaplan points out, "but the equally dramatic military ramifications of this development have not. India's and China's great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries to redirect their gazes from land to the seas. And for the first time since the Portuguese onslaught in the region in the early 16th century, the West's power there is in decline. The Indians and the Chinese will enter into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters."
The Indian Ocean connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and the waters between the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden is what Kaplan described as the "Center Stage of the 21st century." Viewing from New Delhi, some 500 years ago, Portuguese Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque established supremacy for Portugal in the East Indies by capturing the Strait of Malacca and today, a greater power, China, is aiming to do the same.
Indian strategists believe that India is encircled by China's "String of Pearls" strategy. Commenced in the 1980s with an aim to give China increased energy security with refueling stations, the String of Pearls strategy has helped China project its political and military influence into the Indian Ocean region. "The Chinese interest," warns former Indian Additional Secretary Bahukutumbi Raman, "is clearly more strategic than purely commercial."
"The 'String of Pearls'," defined U.S. Department of Defense, "describes the manifestation of China's rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Persian Gulf."
"Slumbering as usual," says Balaji Chandramoha of Institute of Defense and Strategic Analysis in New Delhi, "India finally came to understand China's intentions recently and embarked on a counteroffensive. If India is to graduate from being a regional power in South Asia to a greater power in the Asia Pacific, it is the pivotal India Ocean with its vital waterways that it should seek to control-whether directly, through hard power, or indirectly, with a soft power approach. Whatever its choices, India needs a clear naval diplomacy."
To counter China's encircling in the Indian Ocean and to become a major player in shaping the emerging maritime order in Asia, India has developed a distinctive "Look East" strategy.
"A review of India's Look East strategy," writes Anindya Batabyal at India's University of Kalyani, "reveals that one of the important objectives behind the strategy is to play a new balancing game against China. This becomes clear if one evaluates recent Indian efforts to improve relations with Myanmar, its attempt to forge sub-regional cooperation in the form of Ministerial Meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Economic Cooperation, its effort to promote the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Forum, the reasons behind its inclusion in the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asian Summit as well as the evolving strategic linkages with countries like Japan in the Asia-Pacific region."
As part of India's "Look East" strategy, the Indian Navy is also pumping up the muscle of its Eastern Command. "For decades," reports Sudha Ramachandran of Asia Times, "the Indian Navy's Eastern Command played second fiddle to the Western Command. That appears to be changing. Strategists are assigning an increasingly larger role for the Eastern Command. The enhanced attention being paid to the Eastern Command is prompted by apprehensions over China's looming naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Eastern Naval Command has grown remarkably in recent years. In 2005, it had 30 warships under its command. Six years later, that number has grown to 50. It is poised to expand further. India's only aircraft carrier, Viraat, is to be assigned to the Eastern Command. All five Rajput-class guided-missile destroyers, which were with the Western Command, have joined the Eastern Fleet. It will be the Eastern Command that will take charge of India's nuclear submarines."
New Delhi and Beijing are focusing their naval strategies on each other and the potential for conflict is brewing in the Indian Ocean, involving two great Asian nations, with far-reaching geopolitical consequences for Asia and beyond.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.