Author : Abhijit Singh

Originally Published 2019-09-21 09:52:41 Published on Sep 21, 2019
Countering China may be harder than India imagines. For one thing, regional countries aren’t willing to support any Indian moves to balance China in the Bay.
India, Singapore & Thailand navy exercise is Delhi’s chance to one-up China in Bay of Bengal

With the navies of India, Singapore and Thailand coming together for a trilateral exercise in the Andaman Sea this week, it is apt to reflect on the dynamics of maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. The region has emerged as a critical strategic space, where India’s primacy is increasingly being challenged by China.

Beijing has sought to expand its influence in the region, not through hard naval presence, but arms deals and infrastructure projects. Since 2008, when it first forayed into the security affairs of the Indian Ocean Region, China has methodically cultivated smaller regional states in the Bay of Bengal, emerging as an indispensable partner.

Yet, countering China in South Asia may be harder than Indian experts imagine. For one thing, regional states aren’t willing to support any Indian moves to balance China in the Indian Ocean. Wary of being drawn into the India-China rivalry, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand have positioned themselves as independent actors in South Asian politics. Each is willing to engage with and benefit from all major regional players. Sri Lanka, in fact, is even keen to take up the role of a prime facilitator for non-traditional security cooperation.

China extends its claws

Thailand – a critical link-state between the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific – presents an interesting example of China’s military diplomacy in this region.

In April this year, the Thai government cleared a proposal to procure a second Type 041 Yuan-class submarine from China. Bangkok wants a fleet of three submarines from China, its ambition seemingly driven by a need to compete with Vietnam and Indonesia, both of which have plans to develop their own submarine force. Bangkok is also in talks to procure a 20,000-tonne Type 71E amphibious ship and battle tanks from China.

More worrying, from an Indian perspective, are Thailand’s plans to construct the Kra canal – a 120-kilometre waterway linking the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea – an enterprise many Indian observers believe serves principally to mitigate China’s “Malacca dilemma”, making it easier for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to project its power in the Indian Ocean.

In Bangladesh, China’s strategic inroads are clearer than ever. The Bangladesh Navy, which already operates two Chinese Ming class submarines, received the last two (of four) Chinese corvettes in April, demonstrating a worrying reliance on China for specialised defence platforms. Meanwhile, Chinese companies are set to assist Bangladesh in the construction of a naval base at Cox Bazaar, building wharves, barracks, an ammunition depot, with repairing arrangements and even training provisions. Dhaka is building another naval base with submarine berthing and ops facilities at Rabnabad – not far from Payra port – portending greater PLAN presence on the Bangladesh coast.

The picture in Sri Lanka is a lot more complex, thanks to the brewing rivalry between China and the United States. In recent months, Washington has tried to be strategically closer to Colombo, with visits by US Seventh Fleet vessels to Sri Lankan ports, including a visit by aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis at Trincomalee. US forces have also trained Sri Lankan marines and discussed the possibility of an air-logistics hub. Yet, it is China’s investments in the $1.4-billion Colombo Port City project and the 99-year-long lease over the southern port of Hambantota that seems to have garnered greater influence in Colombo.

In July, Sri Lanka rejected an attempt by the US to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), even as the Sri Lankan navy warmly acknowledged the gift of a 2,300-tonne warship by Beijing. Colombo isn’t revealing details of its agreement with China Merchants Port Holding Ltd at Hambantota, raising suspicion that the latter has more agency and control over port operations than Sri Lanka is willing to admit.

Thinking beyond ‘sphere of influence’

To be sure, India is pushing back against China with a new, robust diplomacy. In recent months, New Delhi has reached out to Bay countries, offering capacity-building assistance, shipbuilding services, specialist training, humanitarian and hydrographic assistance. India is keen to invest in a new commercial port at Sri Lanka’s northern harbour of Kankesanturai, and also develop the existing port, oil terminals, and refinery at Trincomalee.

New Delhi and Tokyo have teamed up to jointly develop a container terminal at Colombo port. To counterbalance growing Chinese naval presence in the Bay, New Delhi has offered a refurbished Kilo class submarine to Myanmar, and the Indian navy has strengthened its ‘mission-ready patrols’ in the Bay of Bengal.

Bay countries have sought to expand their navy interactions with other Western and Eastern powers, including Japan, Britain, the United States, and Australia. The US has been the most active, holding regular capacity building and training exercises with the Sri Lankan Navy and the Bangladesh Navy. Earlier this month, when the US Navy carried out its largest maritime exercise with ASEAN navies, it was co-led by the Royal Thai Navy and the Myanmar Navy was a participant.

Japan and Australia too have raised the tempo of its regional operations, ensuring a more robust presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Bay of Bengal’s emergence as a multi-polar space conjures up a future where there may not be any single pivotal actor in the region. Regional security would depend on the strategic interplay between various actors manoeuvering to optimise gains and reduce conflict. New Delhi must then think beyond its presumed ‘sphere of influence’ in South Asia, forging partnerships with states in Southeast Asia and beyond. To preserve a favourable balance of power, India will need a tactful and imaginative approach – one that avoids confronting China, yet expands the sphere of play to include areas that Beijing is sensitive about.

This commentary originally appeared in The Print.

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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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