In Indian Ocean waters, India, China show maritime prowess

March 22, 2014 04:49 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:57 pm IST - BEIJING:

Earlier this week, China requested India for permission to deploy four naval vessels in the waters of the Andaman Sea, as the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 widened across the waters of the Indian Ocean.

India turned down the Chinese offer to search its own backyard, and replied to the formal request by detailing its extensive search efforts under way in the Indian Ocean, including the deployment of four naval warships and the new P-8I aircraft, all demonstrating the capabilities of the Indian Navy.

The search for MH370 is undoubtedly an entirely humanitarian exercise, and one that has become unprecedented both in scale and in terms of international cooperation - a dozen countries, including several embroiled in maritime disputes over the South China Sea, have put aside their spats as they have willingly followed Malaysia's lead in the search for the Boeing.

At the same time, the search has also served to demonstrate the new capabilities of the navies of Asia - navies that have been fast modernising at a time of record increases in military spending across the region.

China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has in recent days rapidly deployed eight vessels to scour the South China Sea. On Friday, warships were sent to search the southern Indian Ocean, where four Indian naval warships are also deployed in the search for debris.

Experts in India and China said this week the search has underlined an often ignored aspect of India-China relations.

While the long-running boundary dispute across the Himalayas has remained at the focus of attention for most observers, the fast-expanding engagement - and encounters - between their navies as they spread their presence across the Indian and Pacific Oceans has sometimes been ignored, said Lou Chunhao, a strategic affairs expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing.

"Now, China under [President] Xi Jinping is paying more attention to 'going west', and as India 'looks east', there will be more interaction [in the Indian and Pacific oceans]," he said.

Mr. Lou was speaking at a rare event in Beijing highlighting India-China relations in the maritime domain. The event was being held to mark the launch of what is possibly the first ever Chinese translation of an Indian book on foreign policy, according to the Chinese publishers, authored by foreign affairs expert C. Raja Mohan on the growing India-China maritime rivalry.

"China's dependence on the Indian Ocean region is continuing to grow, for energy imports from the Gulf, resources from Africa, and trade with Europe," Mr. Raja Mohan said.

Since December 2008, China has been involved in Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operations. Earlier this year, the PLAN held its first-ever major exercise in the Lombok Strait in the southern Indian Ocean.

This year, President Xi Jinping also launched a new "maritime silk road" initiative aimed at boosting trade links and maritime engagement with littoral countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

With China's maritime presence in the Indian Ocean set to expand along with its economic interests, the question for India - and its strategic community - was how to engagement with this new reality.

"You cannot build a great wall against Chinese maritime presence," Mr. Raja Mohan said.

In India, most commentaries still highlight China's so-called "string of pearls", referring to port projects China is involved in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh that some analysts suggest may later become military bases, although there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest so.

China has maintained these are purely commercial. "Chinese ships going to the Indian Ocean region and the only purpose is for security of energy supplies," said Ma Jiali, a senior South Asia scholar at the China Reform Forum. About the Hambantota project in Sri Lanka, he said it was to be remembered that the project was first offered to India, which turned it down.

Mr. Raja Mohan said Indian and Chinese strategic communities were "talking past each other for most of the time". He hoped the translation of his book would "begin a process of getting Chinese books translated into English, and Indian books into Chinese, and getting strategic communities to understand each other a lot better".

His book has been translated by the official China Publisher Group. Xiao Qiming, who heads the China Democracy and Legal System Publishing House, which is a subsidiary, said the idea was to begin direct interaction between both countries on strategic issues, rather than, as was the case at present, rely on third-party works from western sources.

"By publishing in China, this will given an opportunity for us to understand political and diplomatic ideas of India, and we hope this will add value to taking forward maritime cooperation between the two countries," he said.

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