Maritime security in the Indian Ocean requires much more than ships, weapons, and sailors. Assets at sea and in the air must be integrated with significant land-based infrastructure. China appreciates this fact. Apparently, the United States and India either do not, or they lack the will or means to match the Chinese.

China’s Maritime Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, is not really a “road” at all. Rather, it is a strategic model designed to transfer control over strategic sea lines of communication—the major security function in the Indian Ocean—from the United States and India to China.

Fundamental to the Maritime Silk Road model are the ports that constitute the fulcra of power at sea. Chinese strategy for development and control of these ports did not originate with the Belt and Road Initiative. As far back as the 1990s, a “string of pearls” strategy involving Chinese-promoted ports on the Indian Ocean was in the making. However, under President Xi Jinping the initial concept has been expanded and integrated with comprehensive infrastructure projects.

For the past half century, the United States and India have performed the major maritime security functions in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Navy has operated out of its facilities in Bahrain, Diego Garcia, and, more lately, Djibouti and Singapore. As India grew in strength, its facilities both on the Indian mainland and in the Andaman Islands became an integral part of the Indian Ocean security apparatus.

However, what the United States and India have in place in the way of maritime infrastructure pales in comparison to the contemplated and existing facilities of the Belt and Road Initiative. The most important of these are existing Chinese port projects at Gwadar in Pakistan, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Of even greater significance could be planned projects at Kyaukpyu, Myanmar, the Melaka Gateway on Malaysia’s Indian Ocean coast, and in the Maldives and at Mombassa in Kenya.

Unlike U.S. and Indian naval facilities, these Chinese projects are not standalone projects.  Instead, they are parts of an integrated security/economic model. The ports are intimately connected with trans-shipment and land-based infrastructure. Thus, they employ fundamentals of political economy to further Chinese strategic goals. The primary example of the integrated strategy of the Belt and Road Initiative is the Port of Gwadar. This project is not just a matter of port development. Gwadar is intimately connected with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its vast array of economic projects. These projects will bind Pakistan together with China and include territory in Kashmir claimed by India. Gwadar will most certainly play a vital support role as China increases its naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

On the eastern side of India, China has for years touted a proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor as an infrastructure project with vital port components. The Chinese government sees this undertaking, along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as integral parts of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, with India and Bangladesh skeptical of Chinese strategic intentions, the China–Myanmar component of the BCIM scheme seems most viable. China has already built pipelines sending oil and gas from ships offloading at the Indian Ocean village of Kyaukpyu, Myanmar, to Kunming in southwest China, and plans to construct a multi-billion-dollar deep-water port at Kyaukpyu.

To the south of India, the Chinese are deeply involved in Sri Lanka’s port infrastructure. The massive new port at Hambantota has received the most international attention. However, China is significantly involved with infrastructure development not only at Hambantota but also at Colombo and throughout the island. About three-quarters of Sri Lankan port traffic involves trans-shipments to India. Thus, the Chinese gain potential leverage over Indian as well as Sri Lankan trade. The Hambantota port was recently handed over to China Merchant Ports Holdings on a 99-year lease agreement.

In the face of the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States and India have an obvious congruence of interests. These two largest democracies with economies built in large part on concepts of free enterprise stand in stark contrast to the Chinese autocratic system. Prior to Xi Jinping’s rise to power, the argument could be made that China was on a liberalizing path, but this is no longer the case. With increasing one-party control in all aspects of Chinese endeavor, the path cleared for Xi as president for life, and his vowing a “bloody battle” against enemies, the stage is set for Beijing to attempt to substitute Chinese power for the existing U.S.-India security apparatus in the Indian Ocean.

In the face of the Belt and Road Initiative, neither the United States nor India has responded with a port strategy to meet the Chinese challenge. The United States apparently sees its security interests in the Indian Ocean as being served adequately through statements of concern about the Belt and Road Initiative, existing naval facilities, and maritime exercises such as the U.S.-India-Japan Exercise Malabar. But this approach is plainly inadequate. As countries bordering the Indian Ocean grow increasingly dependent on Chinese port infrastructure development, the ability of the United States to project maritime power in the Indian Ocean will decrease.

For its part, India has done somewhat better. In addition to a new base at Karwar, which is said to constitute the largest naval base East of Suez, India is making significant progress in land-based infrastructure that supports its maritime interests. India is also showing a nascent recognition that maritime infrastructure on its own soil is not enough. Unfortunately, the leading example of India’s understanding of the need to participate in international maritime infrastructure development is at the port of Chabahar in Iran. Hopefully, hostilities affecting security in the Indian Ocean will never occur, and this is the point of having an integrated U.S.-India maritime strategy. However, any such hostilities might well involve Iran, which has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative and is growing increasingly close to China. In the event of hostilities, Iran is likely to be opposed by two of India’s closest strategic partners, the United States and Israel. In that context, Chabahar would most likely be a strategic asset in contention with all the consequences that would bring.

Both India and the United States have been distressingly ambivalent when it comes to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. They have neither been willing to participate to a degree necessary to assure that the initiative adheres to the peaceful purposes the Chinese declare, nor have they been willing and able to constitute their own maritime infrastructure initiative. Such an effort should include support for infrastructure that would build relationships to counter the obvious strategic implications of the Belt and Road Initiative.

It is insufficient in a region starved for port infrastructure simply to express doubts and refuse to participate in the Chinese initiative. India and the United States need their own initiative in conjunction with such like-minded democracies as Japan and Australia. This undertaking must involve enhanced military cooperation and assets. But it must also involve an infrastructure program sufficient to assure that the Chinese Maritime Silk Road is not the only game in town.

Header image courtesy of VtTN on Wikimedia Commons. 

About Raymond Vickery

Raymond Vickery is a senior adviser at Albright Stonebridge Group, where he brings decades of experience promoting U.S.-India economic cooperation in the public and private sectors to his work with clients. During the Clinton administration, Mr. Vickery served as assistant secretary of commerce for trade development. Previously, Mr. Vickery was a government contracts partner in the law firm of Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovell’s U.S., LLP). He also served three terms as an elected member of the Virginia General Assembly and in other political capacities. He was a Fulbright scholar in South Asia and is a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School.