A Chessboard of Maritime Power: India and China



White pawn moves to D4, black pawn to F6, white knight to C3.

The maritime strategies of India and China in the Indo Pacific are akin to a board. A board of power politics. Where pieces are moved into strategic zones, reactionary moves are made. On the rare occasion, pieces are almost taken, teetering on the edge of confrontation.

Lingering over the maritime strategies of India and China is a history of mistrust from the 1967 war, disputed territories and India’s nuclear test in 1998. This legacy fuels assumptions surrounding each other’s intentions, and how their respective strategies are placed on the board. Further complicating maritime relations is the rapid ascension of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. To an extent China’s actions in the South China Sea shrouds India’s perception of Beijing’s maritime intentions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Moving Pieces into Play:

Both sides have strategically moved pieces on the chessboard, forming economic partnerships and, to an extent, defence agreements in the Indo Pacific, which at stages threaten a fragile peace.

China’s maritime strategy has pushed pieces into areas of hostility, particularly in India’s traditional backyard of South Asia. By establishing ports in Gawdar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, China has played calculated moves not only in an attempt to protect its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), but to demonstrate the strength of its hard power strategy.

The docking of a modern Yuan-class 335 Chinese submarine in Karachi, Pakistan in May 2015, coupled with two PLA Navy submarines docking in Colombo in 2014 intensifies strategic uncertainty of the IOR and raises alarms over potential flashpoints. The subsequent docking of submarines by the PLA Navy can be interpreted as part of a strategic calculus of checking and hedging New Delhi’s power in the IOR.

President Xi Jinping has emphasised that Chinese movements in the IOR are part of China’s economic strategy and Beijing’s maritime silk road policy, with the aim of boosting economic links in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Despite Xi’s defence of Beijing’s maritime strategy, the mere presence of Chinese vessels in such close proximity to India, plays upon New Delhi’s fears of Chinese intentions in the region.

In reaction to movements in the Indo-Pacific and the necessity to project power in its own backyard, India unveiled the INS Kochi, a 7500 tonne guided missile destroyer earlier this year. This is evidence of India’s hard power strategy, demonstrating its maritime strength as a rising power, not to be dictated by a larger power.

Prime Minister Modi’s recent Act East Policy and the strengthening of relationships with Vietnam and Japan are both an economic strategy of New Delhi and a countering measure to China’s continual encroachment in the IOR. Similarly, India’s relationship with the US – and the extent to which the US is courting India as an important ally in its own ‘chess’ game with China – creates an uncertain strategic climate in the Indo-Pacific.

Perception based moves:

Overall the perception and prediction of each other’s intentions are paramount to how moves are played out on the chessboard. It is how China and India assess each other’s moves and power plays are crucial to the stability of the IOR, because it only takes one wrong misconception to ignite a conflict or flashpoint.

Moves will continue to be played, and strategies drawn out on the board. Whether maritime military strength becomes the characterisation of the Indo-Pacific rather than trade will be determined by how India and China maintain their relationship.

Thomas Penfold completed a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He has an interest in the Indo-Pacific and South East Asia regions and is currently based in Vientiane in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Defence Images (cropped and filter) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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