India has expressed strong concerns to Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese submarines to dock at its port this month. China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region has opened a new area of rivalry for the two Asian countries.
When the Chinese submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao docked at Colombo harbor for five days this month, alarm bells rang in New Delhi.
It was the second time a Chinese submarine docked at a Sri Lankan port - after the first arrived seven weeks ago, India quickly warned the island nation on its southern tip that their presence was unacceptable to New Delhi.
Both China and Sri Lanka dismissed Indian concerns. Beijing’s Defense Ministry said the submarines were on refueling stops during anti piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. A navy spokesperson in Colombo pointed out that in the last four years, more than 230 warships had called at Colombo port for goodwill visits or refueling.
That has failed to allay India, where worries are rising about China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean, according to Sukh Deo Muni at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi.
“The fact is that the Chinese naval reach is increasing very fast, and that obviously creates some concern in India, because most of this area, particularly Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean have been a kind of strategic turf for India," Muni said. "Particularly submarine movement is a cause of main concern. Submarines are considered to be a more potent attack vehicle.”
While the two Asian giants' territorial disputes in the high Himalayas have grabbed the most attention, analysts say their rivalry in the Indian Ocean is steadily building up.
An Indian Defense Ministry report last year warned of the “grave threat” posed by the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. It suggested that China is widening its orbit of patrols beyond Chinese waters to jockey for control of highly sensitive sea lanes.
The reason: much of China’s booming economy is fueled by oil shipped through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East. Resources from Africa and trade with Europe ply through the same waters.
In recent years, China has helped to build a network of ports or facilities in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar and secured docking rights in Seychelles. China is also developing key ports in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa.
Security expert Uday Bhaskar in New Delhi says China’s efforts to find a toehold in the Indian Ocean are the result of its growing global presence.
“So for China given the profile, it would seek to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean and China also internally believes that it is vulnerable as far as the sea lines of communication are concerned from Asia and Africa," Bhaskar said. "So China has been methodically trying to increase its political linkages and access in the Indian Ocean.”
While many security experts worry about the “undue Chinese presence” in South Asia, some see no reason for alarm. They point out that ports cannot be quickly converted into naval facilities.
“Because the fact is in war time no port in the Indian Ocean is going to be available to the Chinese navy," noted strategic affairs analyst Bharat Karnad at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "No port. Because none of these countries can afford to alienate India. They all rely and have relied heavily substantively on Indian security for their protection both in the past and in the present. I see this more as a shadow play.”
In Sri Lanka, political observers say that the maritime rivalry between India and China has provided an opportunity for the small country to play off both rivals against each other. They say Colombo is increasingly relying on Beijing for both military and development support as the Asian giant invests billions of dollars to develop infrastructure.
However, Paikiasothy Saramvanamuttu at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo sounds a note of caution about Colombo’s strategic tilt toward Beijing.
“It is a game, a balance of power game Sri Lanka is playing which could be quite dangerous, for a small country to do that, because as the old saying goes, when elephants make love or war, it is the grass that gets trampled on," Saramvanamuttu said.
For the time being, India has responded to China’s growing forays in the Indian Ocean by shoring up its own partnerships with South East Asian nations such as Vietnam and taking steps to modernize its navy.