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India needs to assert as China makes inroads into Indian Ocean Region

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By- Surbhi Moudgil

Reaching new heights, China invested $46 billion for an ambitious 3,000-km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which would shorten the route for Chinese energy imports from the Middle East by 12,000 km. This is the biggest overseas investment announced by China yet.

The project would link China’s far-western region to Pakistan’s Gwadar port (built with Chinese investment and technical expertise) and would provide 14,000 MW electricity towards easing out the Pakistan energy famine.

The corridor will pass through India’s Gilgit Balistan (a disputed territory claimed by Pakistan). This part of the Indian territory, claimed by India after a long dispute, is a part of Jammu & Kashmir. This corridor can hamper the current geo-demographic segmentation of India, directly threatening the geographical significance of India in the subcontinent.

This would further affect India’s stature in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as China would have the access to Pakistani port of Gwadar. At present India is the largest and most influential nation in the IOR because of its huge coastline as well as navy might with regards to its smaller neighbours like Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In December 2014, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua published a government statement announcing the closure of the strategic Khunjerab Pass and, in the process, referred to Gilgit Baltistan as part of Pakistan. Until then, China had maintained that J&K was a bilateral problem/dispute between India and Pakistan. It is clear that terming Gilgit Baltistan as part of Pakistan reflected a shift in the Chinese position on the J&K— a change from its previously held neutral position.

Recently, a multibillion dollar deal was sealed between the two neighbours, to provide eight submarines to Pakistan. Four of the submarines will be built in China, while the other four are to be constructed in Pakistan as part of a technology transfer agreement.

The announcement of these two deals in a small time-frame raises a question on China’s vested interests. Can it be seen just as an economic deal or has it something to do with increasing Chinese presence in a region where, traditionally, India has enjoyed a strong hold.

Whatever be the Chinese intentions, but this CPEC project would expand China’s strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region and change, even if small, the equation in the regional power structure.

China would then gain geo-political influence in the IOR even though it is, geographically, nowhere near the Indian Ocean. It would accelerate China’s string-of-pearls strategy of surrounding India from all the sides.

Clearly, India needs to take a stand on this matter as it can cause grave danger to its security strategy. In a situation where India is already tardy on its response on this situation, significant steps are needed to be taken in this regard.

In June this year, India showed its changed approach to tackling terror when it asserted its stature in the region by allowing Indian army to conduct a raid in Myanmar as it pursued the militants. This raid, and change in Indian policy, was a cause of worry for Islamabad as it thought that India might pursue the same moves against them.

India, while announcing its “Cold Start” strategy, as executed Myanmar, has made it clear that it would pursue similar threats/activities with an iron feast and wouldn’t hesitate to target those terrorists even if they are based in Pakistan. India also asserted that it would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the event of Pakistan’s use of short-range nukes.

It is good to see India displaying its authority in the region with tackling the issues head on, rather than playing the wait and watch game. India has had a long history of being passive towards security threats, inside and outside the borders. Rise of naxals and northeast militancy are examples of such passiveness which is eating India’s vision of developing the region.

India can’t afford to fight this ‘war’ on two fronts. As a rising global power, and the big brother in South Asia, India can’t allow China or Pakistan to intimidate it. So, India would have to keep a balanced approach towards power politics in the region while saving its own pride and national interests. This shows our nation as a political and military power and asserts its ethical egoism (self-interest).

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Gwadar Port Vs Chabahar Port: Muscle-Fight Over Eurasian Trade

Both the ports can only yield best results when there are no major regional threats

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China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC), which opens gates for China to enter middle-eastern and in-turn Eurasian markets, also stabilizes Pakistan’s economy. One of the most major assets of CPEC is the Gwadar Port, as it the link between One Best, One Road (OBOR) and Maritime Silk Road projects. Gwadar Port was aimed at linking northern Pakistan and western China, also the deep-water seaport will be a site of a floating liquefied natural gas facility as part of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.

Inaugurated by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Gwadar Port started operating on 14th November 2016. Main benefits of Gwadar Port:

ALSO READ: Gwadar Port: China Turning Pakistan Port Into Regional Giant

  • It could act as a port for western China via Karakoram highway
  • It could act as a port for the new land-locked central Asian states
  • It could enable development of Balochistan
  • It would lie on the important sea route through the straits of Hormuz

However, only 72 kilometres away lies New Delhi’s latest bid to flex its economic muscles i.e. Chabahar Port. India signed an agreement with Iran to develop the $500 million Chabahar port. It is currently being seen as a gateway for Indian goods into Central Asia. Both ports pose tangible economic, commercial, and strategic challenges to each other. However, Gwadar possesses the advantage from many angles:

Gwadar Port is a major part of China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. Wikimedia Commons
Gwadar Port is a major part of China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. Wikimedia Commons

Geographical Advantage

  • Though Chabahar is a geographical outreach for India (since it is not in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where India has many functional ports and the shielf of Indian Navy), it still will be a guest state whose borders and territorial waters are at far away distance.
  • The vessels transporting goofs to Chabahar would be subjected to active monitoring by the Pakistani Navy.
  • Whereas, Gwadar Port’s control is with China. We need to note here that Iran won’t do the same with India.

Afganistan Dilemma

  • Following Chabahar, Indian goods will land in Afghanistan; following which, suspected outreach towards Central Asian states is possible.
  • Even though the two governments of India and Afghanistan share good relations, non-state actors like insurgent groups pose a security threat. For example, the Taliban poses a major threat.
  • Gwadar Port is also witnessing security threats since it is in the Balochistan province. Though separatist brawls have decreased in recent years, militant groups still are a major concern.

ALSO READ: India and Iran sign agreement to develop Chabahar Port

Chabahar Port will open gates for India towards Central Asian Markets. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port will open gates for India towards Central Asian Markets. Wikimedia Commons

Iranian Angle

  • Iran is facing sanctions after violating a UN Security Council resolution because it launched a nuclear-capable missile. The sanctions could have negative consequences for the India-Iran Chabahar deal.
  • On the other hand, Gwadar has no such problems. There are no restrictions on China’s investment anywhere nor is Pakistan subject to any kind of UN sanctions.

Rivalry Between Partners

  • There is absolutely no competition between Pakistan and China. Even, Chinese investment is aimed at boosting trade with the rest of Asia.
  • Moreover, Pakistan is currently on the receiving end of the huge Chinese investment, hence it won’t become a hurdle in China’s quest to reach the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
  • Whereas, following July 2015 agreement, Iran is trying to come into the mainstream international arena by accelerating trade and it won’t allow India’s Central Asian dream to come true at the cost of Iranian interests.

In the end, both Gwadar port and Chabahar port can assist millions of people. Both the ports can only yield best results when there are no major regional threats. Above all, South Asia needs economic cooperation and integration.