The new emphasis on maritime cooperation is a positive development in the relations between India and China. The proposal came last week from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and has been accepted by India in principle. The details are as yet hazy but will likely include joint operations against piracy, and the sharing of seabed research technology. Over the past two years, China has been an active participant in escort missions in the Indian Ocean, where the security of shipping routes originating in the Gulf of Aden is crucial to the country's energy imports. Last December, it initialled an agreement with the Indian Ocean nation of Seychelles for the refuelling and reprovisioning of its naval vessels on anti-piracy runs. Underscoring its inclination and capacity to engage in maritime operations beyond its own waters, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carried out an operation to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya. China is also involved in upgrading port facilities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. On another front, the International Seabed Authority, a U.N.-established organisation, awarded China exploration rights to polymetallic sulphide ore deposits in a 10,000 sq km area of the Indian Ocean over the next 15 years. With China's increased engagement in the Indian Ocean region causing concern in some circles in India, it is good that the two sides have begun exploring ways of working together on the maritime front. A multi-ministerial group is to finalise the details of the anti-piracy proposal. Once operationalised, this may well see Indian and Chinese naval vessels cooperating with each other on the high seas.
For India, broadening its vision of maritime co-operation in the East beyond the “triangular” envisaged by the United States and Japan — or the “quad,” if one includes Australia — will also help allay Chinese concerns about Indian participation in some sort of U.S.-led alliance against it. The fact of the matter is that Indian strategic interests are not served by either a polarised maritime space or an Asia divided into blocs. As a major seafaring nation, India has a stake in the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean — where it is a provider of security for others — as well as in distant international waters like the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. As such, it has an interest in developing a working relationship with all navies in the region, including the PLAN, Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces, U.S. Navy and Viet Nam People's Navy. Apart from identifying concrete areas for cooperation, a regular Sino-Indian dialogue on maritime matters will dispel the fears both sides have developed about each other, fears the U.S. is able to take advantage of by playing the role of a balancer.