Myanmar has received its first submarine, the 3,000 tonne INS Sindhuvir, from India and has deployed it to Mayanmar Navy as UMS Min Ye Thein Kha Thu during the country’s “Bandoola” fleet exercise this week.
India’s foreign affairs secretary said – “this is in accordance with the vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), and building self-reliance in all neighbouring countries”. However, experts believe this is India’s many moves to counter China’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region countries.
Earlier in October, India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Indian Army Chief MM Narvane visited Mayanmar and met senior leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander in Chief of Defence Services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Media also reported India’s proposal to build $6 billion petroleum refinery project near Yangon.
India will also be providing a $2 million grant for the construction of a border haat bridge in Chin state for increased economic activity between the northeast Indian state of Mizoram and Myanmar.
Rup Narayan Das, a senior fellow at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, believes it is extremely necessary for India to engage with the countries in the Indian Ocean Region because “China is now making a foray into the entire South Asia, including the Indian Ocean”.
Commenting on New Delhi’s recent endeavours in Myanmar, Das, the author of ‘India-China Relations: A New Paradigm’, says: “It is aimed at countering Chinese influence in the region. Myanmar is very important in strategic point of view for the Indian security”.
China’s Maritime Aggression
India has been in a border stand-off with China in Ladakh region since early May but thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean Region, there is a potential of another showdown between the Asian giants.
Das says, from Myanmar, they (Chinese) are monitoring the activities of the Indian Navy in Andaman and Nicobar and the Indian Ocean but the good part is that India has started picking up its infrastructure in Andamans also.
Stressing upon Chinese penetration in the Indian Ocean Region, he says: “Chinese are going down to the oceanic depth in the name of commercial exploration, which also has security implications for India”.
Indian Navy claims to have a dominant position in the region despite Chinese naval buildup due to the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and is 200km from South Andaman island.
The Indian navy warships, fighter jets and spy planes are deployed along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points.
As part of its strategy to enhance its ability to conduct surveillance of Chinese warships and submarines entering the India Ocean Region (IOR) through the nearby Malacca Straits, India has built ‘Submarine Optical Fibre Cable’ in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Chinese Presence in the Indian Ocean is also visible in its partnership with Pakistan where it is developing Gwadar port and may turn into an establishment for the Chinese navy and air force.
Beijing is operating a military base in Djibouti, it has taken a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and is building deep-water ports in Tanzania and Myanmar’s New Yangon City and Kyaukphyu.
In the IOR, Maldives’ Feydhoo Finolhu Island, which was leased to a private Chinese company for 50 years in 2016, is feared to be a similar establishment to South China Sea-like artificial island, where it deploys its military assets.
Breaking the String of Pearls
The US consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton in its 2005 report “Energy Futures in Asia” had introduced a political theory “String of Pearls”, Beijing’s strategy to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building maritime civilian infrastructure in friendly countries.
Talking about India being encircled with the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region, Day emphasizes this is high time for New Delhi to counter Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
He highlights: “With Maldives, we have strengthened our relationship and we have sort of ousted Chinese influence in the Maldives. Similarly, we are trying to improvise our relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other countries in the Region”.
In September end, India handed over Dornier aircraft to the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF). India and China have been in a tussle in the island nation, adjacent to the main regional shipping routes, making it an important Indian Ocean toehold.
Beijing had been long trying to increase its footprint in the island but the tables turned when in August India snatched a $400 million infrastructure project that will help connect the capital Male with three neighbouring islands — Villingili, Gulhifahu, and Thilafushi (a new industrial zone).
Meanwhile, India has accelerated its ventures in Mauritius, where the new Supreme Court building was inaugurated recently as part of India’s special economic package worth $ 353 million. In Sri Lanka, India South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) framework with Sri Lanka and is fast-tracking infrastructure development and defence cooperation in Bangladesh.
Quad An Option?
India’s Himalayan conflict with China has resulted in the US, Australia and Japan offering its open support in countering Beijing. The tensions between China and the three countries in the Indo-Pacific region have been making headlines as they have openly condemned Chinese actions in the region.
Das says: “We have to see the larger picture of Indo-Pacific. Indo-Pacific needs to be linked to Quad. Australia, Japan and USA are grouping to contain Chinese influence. There 2+2 talks underway between India and USA and India and Japan. These are the strategies”.
India has been hesitant in accepting the Quad – comprising the US, Japan, India, and Australia – as an option to counter China. The recent QUAD security dialogue did not see any path-breaking outcome.
While the US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo named and blamed China at the meeting, India maintained a safe distance and called for territorial integrity without naming China.
Pompeo said “as partners in this Quad…it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s (Communist Party of China) exploitation, corruption, and coercion. We have seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits”.