A 35-member delegation from the Institute for Higher National Defense Studies, France – which included sitting MPs, senators, businessmen and academic experts – visited ORF Mumbai for an interaction on maritime trade and security issues and China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region.
The delegation was headed by Vice Admiral Vallin, and the discussions were chaired by Vice Admiral Anil Chopra (Retd). The context of the discussion was set by Vice Admiral Vallin with his affirmation over moving the conversation beyond “America and Europe, only a Transatlantic approach” to a “global approach” wherein a discussion on the Indian Ocean stands imperative.
Vice Admiral Chopra acknowledged that “India and France have developed, in the recent years, a very strong maritime relationship which is mutually beneficial.” He opened his comments by giving a broad overview of the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region in global geopolitics. He said that “Indo-Pacific” had gained currency, owing to the dependence of the East Asian countries (China, Japan, and South Korea) on the Indian Ocean for oil and gas, along with the majority of trade between Europe and East Asia passing through the Indian Ocean. “So,” he added, “France, especially has vested interests in the activities within the Indo-Pacific region”. The Indian Ocean, he said, was thus the “freight corridor or the interstate for the global trade” and that “almost two-thirds of the world’s oil, half of its containers and one-third of it’s of bulk cargo transits across the Indian Ocean.”
Vice Admiral Chopra went on to specify the “peculiarity” of the Indian Ocean, the argument being that it is the only ocean to be named after a county and that it’s a “landlocked ocean” which can only be accessed through “choke points”. These choke points are the Suez Canal and the Bab-el-Mandeb to the west and Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait and Sunda Strait to the east of the Indian Ocean. He explained that these choke points are imperative because when ships pass through such points, they are “vulnerable to detection and to interdiction.”
One country severely impacted by these choke points is China, the vice admiral deemed. Calling it China’s “Malacca Dilemma”, Chopra explained the relevance of the Indian Ocean in China’s energy security calculus. Owing to China’s energy sources lying to the west of the Indian Ocean, Beijing is often left with no choice but to travel through the choke point of the Straits of Malacca. The other aspect of that dilemma is China’s “industrial overcapacity” leading to an insufficient domestic demand. This has led Beijing to look for new markets and investment destinations, without which, the Chinese economy will not be able to keep the momentum that it has maintained for the last three decades.
Vice Admiral Chopra said, “the next race for development is being contested in Africa and Central Asia,” wherein the Chinese investors along with the rest of the world, are looking for the next potential markets. Due to these reasons, there has been an increase of Chinese (civilian and military) activity in the Indian Ocean. China has been acquiring ports in South Asia from where they can direct oil and gas through the Chinese hinterland with the help of pipelines, lessening their over-dependence on the sea routes. However, the economics of transporting oil through tankers and supertankers will never really eliminate the need for China to import its humongous energy supplies through the Indian Ocean. India, with a significant naval presence at the islands of Andaman and Nicobar – directly overlooking the Malacca Strait – has added to the Chinese Malacca Dilemma, he said.
Elaborating the maritime geography of China, Vice Admiral Chopra said that China had “possibly the worst maritime geography on the planet” making the country vulnerable in the maritime sphere. He also remarked that even if China dominated the South China Sea and attained the status of world largest military in the world, “they cannot get out,” given their maritime location. If the Chinese vessels want to enter the Pacific, they have to cross the First and the Second Island Chains. The First Island Chain is “heavily defended by the US and its allies i.e. Japan and South Korea. Whereas, the second island chain is overlooked by Hawaii –– which houses the newly christened US Indo-Pacific Command.
India, on the other hand, thanks to its geographical location, will play a central role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean, Vice Admiral Chopra said. With a large volume of the global maritime trade happening across the Indian Ocean, “what the world wants in the Indian Ocean is stability.” Further, “India is not only geographically central, but it is the only country which has the size, population, economy, and the military to provide stability in the Indian Ocean”.
His briefing was followed by a round of questions from the French delegation, who inquired about the role of India’s ally, Russia, in the Indian Ocean, and the role and the state of the governance to support India’s quest for strategic autonomy.
Vice Admiral Vallin, giving his remarks, said that “we (India and France) can no longer disassociate from each other as we did in the past, because now we live in a global continuum and this shows the failure of boundaries in today’s global world.” He also said that going beyond the geopolitical discourse, India and France must also work closely on matters pertaining to terrorism, piracy and other non-traditional threats.
Vice Admiral Vallin agreed that both India and France have “a lot in common at a strategic level and especially at the level of defence and security issues, so it is very important to share our experiences.” He said he was optimistic not only for India-France partnership to become stronger, but also that both the countries would work together ensure peace and stability of the Indian Ocean.
This event report was prepared by Navin Narang, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai