The docking of the Chinese surveillance vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, is, in itself, of little significance. Chinese submarines and a warship had earlier docked in the Colombo Port in 2014, with little lasting ramification.
As part of a wider strategy of dominance, testing the waters for a ‘nibbling expansion’, however, such events have critical consequences, unless India evolves a blueprint to effectively counter China’s persistent intent, as well as the growing resources it brings to the contest.
China seeks ‘a powerful and strong two oceans layout’ in the Pacific and Indian Oceans for its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), strong enough to challenge both the US and Indian dominance in the region. It uses the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its debt trap diplomacy as strategic instrumentalities to this end.
It is useful to recall the trajectory of the Doraleh Base at Djibouti, which started as a commercial and logistics base in 2017. The pressure of debt forced Djibouti to allow the establishment of a full-fledged military hub. China’s debt trap strategy, compounded by Beijing’s rising military power, is likely to force many weak states to eventually concede similar facilities. China has already established a presence—principally civilian but potentially military—in Pakistan’s Gwadar and Keti Bandar (Karachi) ports, Bangladesh’s Chittagong Port, the Maldives’s Feydhoo Finolhu Port, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Port, Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu Port and Thailand’s Laem Chabang Port. In March 2021, China signed a $400-billion deal with Iran, and alarms have been raised about Tehran being ensnared in a potential debt trap as well. Beijing may then secure multiple berths at Iranian ports, potentially hemming in the Chahbahar Port developed by India.
Crucially, over time, China would seek to transform these civilian ports into ‘military bases and logistical centres’, and would succeed in the measure that it is able to bring each of these countries to the point of economic distress necessary to secure Beijing’s colonising objectives, or to apply other diplomatic or coercive means to secure its ends.
Despite Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean Region, India’s natural advantages and its geographical command over most choke points along the principal international shipping lanes, are significant. The question, however, is: can India maintain its dominance?
Given the wide gap between India and China on economic, technological, defence investment and military parameters, no purpose can be served by attempting a head-to-head competition—ship for ship, port for port, base for base—against the PLAN. India simply does not have the economic muscle to compete directly, nor is it presently developing its scientific and technological capabilities at a sufficient pace to keep up with China’s military modernisation.
A strategy of denial across the widest possible spectrum is the one approach that can make Chinese adventurism too expensive for Beijing to risk. Deterrents particularly need to be evolved for Beijing’s lesser forays—the nibbling expansion that remains below the threshold of violent retaliation—that can prove even more devastating, and far more difficult to counter.
BRI and Chinese aggression are now attracting increasing opposition across the world. Every adversary, however strong, has weaknesses. The world focuses constantly on China’s strengths; China focuses on the vulnerabilities of its adversaries. This is the equation that needs to be turned on its head.
Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal