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  • New Delhi at Sea:The China Factor in the Indian Ocean Policy of the Modi and Singh Governments
  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri (bio)

India has been more conscious and concerned about China’s Indian Ocean policy from the mid-2000s onward, but it was not until 2013–14 that this concern began to manifest itself in tangible Indian policies designed to counter a larger Chinese footprint in the region. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was in office from 2004 to 2014, the official policy was to repeatedly offer to engage China in dialogue on common interests in the Indian Ocean. By 2013, however, many saw this policy as a failure, and with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, a more muscular Indian Ocean policy came to the fore. There were several reasons why this policy shift took place, including Beijing’s negative response to New Delhi’s overtures; its announcement of the One Belt, One Road initiative; a deepening Indo-Japanese strategic relationship; and a hardening U.S. response toward the expansion of Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific. This essay will chart the evolution of Indian government policy toward China’s presence in the Indian Ocean since 2004 and the likely future trajectory of engagement on this issue.

Singh and the Indian Ocean

India’s security establishment, and particularly its naval contingent, expressed heightened concerns about the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean all through the 2000s. Analysts claimed that China was seeking access to ports and developing a plan to project naval power into the Indian Ocean to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC). China’s antipiracy efforts off the Somali coast in 2008 and the release of a defense white paper that significantly widened the scope of what Beijing perceived as its national interests were seen as dangerous signs by observers subscribing to this school of thought. The idea of China dotting the Indian Ocean littoral with points of influence was also picked up by the media, which adopted the phrase “string of pearls,” coined by a U.S. naval analyst in 2005, to describe this supposed strategy. [End Page 27]

All these developments had only minimal influence on the policies of the Singh government. A complex battle to get multilateral nuclear sanctions lifted against India with the help of the United States was Singh’s primary foreign policy interest during his first term. In his second term, foreign policy was largely handled by Singh’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, while military issues were left to his defense minister, A.K. Anthony.

Anthony’s term was marked by a general passiveness toward external threats and a naval policy concentrated on coastal defense. He strongly resisted India joining international efforts against Somali pirates and was happy to let other countries take the lead in the largest military effort in the Indian Ocean. Influenced by a spike in confrontations on the Sino-Indian border, Anthony saw the main threat as coming from the Himalayas rather than the Indian Ocean. This passiveness was visible again when India chose to play a marginal role in the search for MH370, which disappeared in the southern Indian Ocean in March 2014.

For his part, Menon was a strong proponent of engagement and dialogue with China on the Indian Ocean and other issues. He was influenced by the seemingly inexorable rise of Chinese economic power, the relative decline of the United States in Asia, and a perception that U.S. president Barack Obama wanted to accommodate China’s ambitions to be Asia’s dominant power. In a meeting in 2013, Menon remarked that “the inconstancy in stated policy and U.S. actions towards the Asia-Pacific over the last two years doesn’t inspire confidence.” For India, “the danger is that we must not be drawn into choosing sides or becoming a pawn of either side in their game.”1 His conclusion was that India would have to deal with China independently and that the United States should not be trusted as a source of geopolitical balance.2 Menon believed that given the disparity in size between India’s and China’s economies, it was logical that New Delhi...


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