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Will Xi sign up on Modi's SAGAR vision?
Posted:Dec 14, 2017
 
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By C Uday Bhaskar
 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi  outlined  India’s maritime potential and current profile  in a commendable manner at the commissioning ceremony of INS Kalvari, a Scorpene-class diesel submarine at Mumbai on Thursday (Dec 14). Modi’s fluency and grasp over  the fine-print of the Indian Ocean is indicative of the maritime/naval empathy that South Block has exuded in recent years.
 
However the abiding challenge for India’s aspirations  in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the realization of the Modi acronym – SAGAR  (security and growth for all in the region)  will depend to a large extent on the Chinese footprint and intent in this domain.
 
In the last week, Beijing has  dropped  anchor in Hambantota, the Sri Lankan port  astride the Indian Ocean, and, earlier this year, China  set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
 
Why is  China in the IOR?  To briefly recall the big picture as it were in the maritime domain -   in the post Hiroshima/ World  War II period, the Indian Ocean  had a relatively dormant and below the median strategic relevance in the global context. During the Cold war decades ( 1945 to 1991) , the global maritime focus  shaped, as it was,  by the  two super powers (USA and  former USSR) was on the Atlantic-Pacific ocean combine. This progressively shifted towards  east Asia  in the post-Cold War years and  was symbolized in the phrase  'Asia-Pacific’ – however incongruous the yoking  of an ocean with a continent.
 
Towards the late 1990s the economic relevance of Asia began to rise,  powered by the growth of  China and India. Over the next decade,   the trade dependency of major  economies in east,  southeast and south Asia increased in a visible manner and two phrases were introduced  to the regional security lexicon. 
 
Then Chinese President  Hu Jintao  spoke about the ‘Malacca dilemma’ – being reference to China’s  high dependency,  hence vulnerability,  to hydrocarbon  imports  from the Persian Gulf.  This was  the resurrection of the centuries old ‘Silk Route’ that became the  New Silk Route in the 21st century. This  denoted  the  growing  white-shipping trade transit from the Hormuz towards the Malacca and  onward to (ASEAN)  southeast and east Asia.
 
The enormity of 9/11 and what followed by way of the US-led war on global terror added to the security dimension and very soon the global maritime focus shifted from the  Atlantic-Pacific  continuum towards the Pacific-Indian and has now become the extended to what is being called the Indo-Pacific region.
 
The entry of  Chinese naval ships  in December 2008  into the IOR as part an anti-piracy effort was an event of  deep strategic import and this has been corroborated  by more recent events.    Chronologically,  the two initiatives of Beijing  in 2017 that can be deemed ‘strategic’ in  relation to the IOR and of considerable relevance to the powers that be in Delhi are - first, the setting up of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti;  and, second, the priority accorded to the OBOR (One Belt- One Road)  by Chinese President Xi Jinping at his ‘coronation’ speech at the 19th Party Congress.
 
In dispatching its  PLA (Peoples Liberation Army )  marines to Djibuti in the Horn of Africa (July 12 ) by amphibious ships, from the southern port of Zhanjiang, China has taken a significant step in enhancing its  trans-border military footprint in the IOR.  A permanent Chinese military presence in Djibouti marks the first overseas military base for Beijing and the strategic location of Djibouti in proximity of the Red Sea will make China a credible Indian Ocean power with its attendant implications,  with a high degree of salience for India.
 
It is instructive that Beijing  embarked upon  its  Djibouti initiative even as India,  USA and Japan were commencing the operational phase of  their joint naval exercise, Malabar 2017,  on July 14.   The image of three flat-tops (carriers)  operating in tandem in the Indian Ocean even as a PLA navy amphibious ship en route to Djibouti  joined  other  PLA navy units,   including a surveillance ship, may well be the abiding template for the  Indian Ocean  in the years ahead.
 
China’s  public narrative marks December 2008 as a historical punctuation when Beijing sent three naval ships to join the  international  anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia. For the naval professional, there was a certain symbolism in PLA naval ships transiting the Straits of Malacca .  The Chinese military base in Djibouti, when fully established with  appropriate assets,  will be yet another punctuation – this time in bold font! 
 
The logic from the Chinese  perspective is compelling – to break out of the US-shaped military constraints  along its Pacific Ocean seaboard – it has to access the Indian Ocean.  Overseas bases have been long favoured by major powers and China is not the first extra-regional power to seek a military foothold in the Horn of Africa and adjoining  regions.  The USA and France  are already resident in Djibouti and India has also just established high level political contact. 
 
The second major development of 2017 with strategic connotation,  relevant to Delhi,  is the manner in which President Xi Jinping has framed the OBOR initiative. It may be recalled that Beijing held a major summit meeting to unveil the OBOR in May 2017 and India was the only major nation that chose not to participate.  This decision was arrived at  by Delhi after due consideration, since Beijing was seen as indifferent to the Indian sensitivity about the disputed territory of POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) through which one strand of the OBOR traverses. 
The priority accorded to the OBOR was reflected in the speech of President Xi Jinping  at the 19th  Party Congress on October 18 in Beijing. If India remains opposed to joining the OBOR and the Xi vision has accorded this macro-connectivity project  a high degree of centrality,  as part of realizing the China Dream, the under-currents of tension  and related political-military dissonance between Delhi and Beijing will be palpable over the next few years.
 
This OBOR dissonance  is a factor that  could have potentially discordant   strategic consequences – particularly if the USA, Japan and  perhaps an Australia or Singapore come together in a maritime/naval partnership in the extended  Indo-Pacific region.
 
China’s presence and footprint in the IOR is likely to grow over the next five years and Beijing may feel encouraged to assertively display its comprehensive national power and related capability. The strategic imponderable is how this power index will be utilized. For the greater common good or in defiance of  the  prevailing status quo?  Will Beijing  agree to become a stakeholder in  Modi’s SAGAR vision ?
 
 (The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)
 
 
 
 
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