As India settles into an extended military standoff with China in the Himalayas, it can’t afford to take its eyes off Beijing’s maritime forays in the Indian Ocean. Over the weekend in Sri Lanka, Colombo, after much internal wrangling, handed over the Hambantota port, sitting astride the sea lines of communication of the Indian Ocean, to a Chinese consortium.
Similarly in Myanmar, despite many political anxieties about economic over-dependence on Beijing, the government is reportedly close to a deal with a Chinese company for the commercial development of the Kyaukpyu island on its Bay of Bengal coast. Once Yangon signs on the dotted line, the Chinese company will start building a deep seaport, special economic zone and an industrial park. The Bay of Bengal is unlikely to be the same after that.
On the face of it, comparing the two port contracts in Lanka and Myanmar with the raw struggle for land in Bhutan seems inappropriate. While contests over territory are indeed far more serious, they tend to be contained by the costs of the military conflict and the potential loss of face for the two Asian giants from even a small military setback. In contrast, the port contracts lay the foundation for China’s long-term economic influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
Chinese companies are promising that the two deep sea ports will integrate Lanka and Myanmar into the global trade and production networks. The 80 per cent plus stake for the Chinese companies in the two contracts and the nature of the long-term lease — 99 years for Hambantota and 50 to 75 years for Kyaukpyu are facts that speak for themselves.
That these two contracts have been won against popular protests in both countries suggests how difficult it has become for the ruling elites in our neighbourhood to fend off Chinese demands for a big slice of their economic pie on very favourable terms. China’s political influence, so visibly demonstrated in the negotiations with Colombo and Yangon, must only be expected to rise with time.
India no longer has the luxury of contesting Chinese strategic incursions into the Subcontinent one piece at a time. While India’s army is settling down for a long haul in the Doklam plateau, its diplomats in Colombo were working overtime to get Colombo to appreciate and address India’s concerns on Hambantota. While some of India’s concerns have been addressed in Colombo, Delhi has not been a part of Myanmar’s discourse on Kyaukpyu. It should have been.
After all, India is building a small port at Sittwe not far from Kyaukpyu and is aware of the island’s significance. Kyaukpyu is all set to become the energy gateway for petroleum imports into western China through a twin oil and gas pipeline system running from the Bay of Bengal. But Delhi did not have the bandwidth to compete with China on the Kyaukpyu project worth $10 billion. Nor did other international players provide an alternative to China in Kyaukpyu.
If China keeps its word in turning Kyaukpyu into a commercial hub like Singapore and Hong Kong, Indian decision-makers are likely to spend a lot of time thinking about the island in the coming years. Especially since Beijing is bound to devote considerable naval and military energies to securing its expanded commercial interests in Kyaukpyu.
China’s multiple advances tend to reinforce the popular proposition in Delhi that China is embarked upon the “strategic encirclement” of India. But the idea is misleading. The constriction of India’s strategic space is a second-order consequence resulting from China’s rise. Beijing does not have to deliberately contain India. Beijing’s exercise of its growing comprehensive national power — economic and military — will inevitably have that effect. Put simply, the question is not about Chinese intentions, but the massive surge in its capabilities.
Four other factors add to India’s problem. China, under Xi Jinping, has brought abundant political will to match the expanded national power resources. Xi thinks the era of China deferring to other nations’ sensitivities is now over. According to Xi, it is now others’ turn to adapt to Beijing’s rise as the foremost power in Asia.
Second is the widening strategic gap between China and India. Although India has done well since 1991 and has emerged as one of the largest economies in the world, the gap with China will remain enduring for the foreseeable future. China’s current GDP is five times larger than that of India and its defence spending is four times as big. Even if India grows faster than China in the coming years, the huge gap with China will remain unbridged.
Third, India had severely underestimated the implications of China’s rise for India. Facile talk of the world being large enough for China and India masked the prospect that the changing power balance in Beijing’s favour could alter the dynamic on India’s long and disputed frontier with China. India also lulled itself into the belief that it had created sufficiently strong mechanisms to limit conflict on the border. Peace and tranquility on the Sino-Indian border were the consequence of a different set of circumstances — when China was integrating itself with the world. They may not survive the assertive phase in China’s foreign policy.
Fourth, India had taken its regional primacy for granted all these decades. China had never accepted the proposition that the Subcontinent is India’s exclusive sphere of influence. It now has the will and resources to challenge that premise on a routine basis. That leaves India scrambling to restore its economic and strategic centrality in the region.
To be sure, Delhi is now far more conscious of the existential challenges that the power gap with Beijing generates. This awareness, however, is yet to be matched by a sense of urgency across the government. Consider the following: China has been transforming the southern tip of Sri Lanka and the western seaboard of Myanmar over the last few years. But Delhi can’t seem to bestir itself into doing something with its forgotten national asset in the Bay of Bengal — the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain.
The longer Delhi takes to act vigorously on its frontier region development, military modernisation and regional economic integration, the greater will be its degree of difficulty in coping with China’s rise and future Doklams, Hambantotas, and Kyaukpyus.