Coexisting in the Indo-Pacific


back to issue

THE emphasis in recent years on the unity of Asia’s vast maritime geography – exemplified by the idea of the Indo-Pacific – might suggest this is a new idea. However, a deeper look at the history of these spaces suggests Asia’s key economic centres were connected through the oceans. For over a millennia, the geopolitical norm was interdependence rather than exclusive sway over the seas. This pattern of inter-regional exchanges was disrupted only after the arrival of the European colonialists in Asia who fragmented the Indo-Pacific into spheres of influence. Those ideas have had a long after life and Asian powers today must resist reproducing concepts that have historically proven to increase conflict and competition between states.

In a rare study, K.N. Chaudhuri mapped the Indian Ocean as an area spanning the Red Sea to the South China Sea. The rationale for this definition was the pre-19th century geo-economic networks between West Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia. For over a thousand years, transcontinental trade occurred through the Indian Ocean and included connections between many different civilizations and regions. This was, in many ways, a people-centric trading system that had evolved organically more through the initiatives of merchants, traders, sailors and coastal communities than grand political visions or imperial dictates. People ‘could sail from one end of the sea to the other until they reached the barrier of the Pacific, which remained practically closed to sailing ships.1

Early Chinese historical works were aware of the eastern and western divisions of the Indian Ocean and the distinctive nature of the contacts between them created by foreign seafarers.2 Contemporary Arab accounts from the 9th century also reveal that the inter-regional maritime and caravan trade of the Near East (West Asia and the subcontinent), important as it was, existed alongside the highly profitable trans-oceanic trade originating further east (in South East Asia and China).3

The other factor that historically defined the limits of the Indian Ocean was its navigability being determined by monsoon winds, which determined the precise sailing patterns from both ends of the ocean. Recent official Indian reflections attest to such a past: ‘No other part of the maritime world has its fundamental economic activities so directly derived from cycles of nature. This unity was expressed over the ages primarily through maritime trade rhythms, that then carried over into migration, traditions, practices and faith. As a result, this ocean evolved its own special identity that is based on mobility, acceptance and inter-penetration... the overall ethos of the Indian Ocean was one of co-existence and adjustment, where respect for diversity was intrinsic to the promotion of trade.’4

Instructively, even the European powers had relied on pre-existing networks among the Indian Ocean regions, which they revived or further developed in some cases and obstructed in others. It is also worth recalling that in terms of volume and profit, intra-Asian commerce, until the onset of the Industrial Revolution era, dwarfed what the European powers could generate through Europe-Asia trade. In other words, Europe needed Asia far more than Asian countries needed markets outside the vast Indian Ocean area, and early European geo-economic activity in Asia was in large measure a continuation rather than a dramatic interruption in older trade links and cultural contacts.


It was only in later phases, especially with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, that Europe gained undisputed military ascendance over Asian civilizations and severed the traditional political economy in the wider Indian Ocean area. The narrower or fragmented definitions of the Indian Ocean were a reflection of imperial policies, particularly of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, who sought to control the freedom of navigation between the subregions of Asia, militarized commercial interactions, and created their own spheres of influence, particularly in the central and western Indian Ocean.

These colonial powers, as Indian policymakers note, ‘created artificial firewalls through their administrative jurisdictions that diluted centuries of natural movements and contacts.’5 The image of the Indian Ocean as a self-contained space or a ‘closed sea’ from Aden to Malacca was very much a construction of these great powers that sought exclusive economic privileges via their geopolitical control over India and the surrounding west-east sea lanes.


During the postcolonial period, regional powers sought to adapt these imperial ideas for defensive purposes to secure their heartlands. Since both India and China had faced a similar historical experience of maritime intrusion and subsequent subjugation through external power projected via the sea, the memory of maritime weakness and a determination to avoid a repeat of that traumatic past became ingrained in the strategic cultures of both countries. And, when India and China confronted pressure and coercion from the sea during the Cold War, they quickly recognized the value of sea power and the destabilizing role that their maritime peripheries could play to disrupt domestic and regional stability. But, it was largely homeland and territorial concerns that shaped Indian and Chinese maritime thinking. Commerce and connectivity was rarely the driver of state behaviour.

Given that the present era of globalization has not only restored the traditional connectivity between the Indian Ocean’s constituent regions, but also significantly enhanced it, the logic to revive an expansive mental map for the Indian Ocean based on open regionalism and social, economic, and cultural interdependence has again become compelling.


At the outset, we must first identify the main interests for India and China in the Indian Ocean today. For China, its outlook and policy priorities depend on which part of this vast ocean we are referring to. The attitude towards the eastern fringes of the Indian Ocean, or where the western Pacific begins, appears to be more geopolitically driven, that is, aimed at the security of China’s heartland and eastern seaboard. Chinese interest in the central and western areas of the Indian Ocean appears to be primarily linked to the security of its sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for the vast strategic commodities and energy supplies that flow from West Asia and Africa to coastal China.

For India, the northern Indian Ocean is a space that has been part of the subcontinent’s evolution through hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In addition to civilizational factors, geopolitics is another variable that shapes how many Indians think about the Indian Ocean. A part of this image, as alluded to earlier, has been influenced by British ideas that promoted a ‘closed sea’ to exclude rival powers from accessing the subcontinent.

The one factor that both countries recognize as vital for their economic growth and domestic transformations is maintaining open maritime trade routes. So, can India and China envision themselves as joint stakeholders in the maritime commons? After all, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo, 50% of the world’s container traffic and 70% of crude and oil products pass through Indian Ocean sea lanes. These staggering statistics reflect the Indian Ocean’s status as a ‘global commons’ and an economic highway. About 75% of India’s oil imports also use these waterways. For China, too, the share of seaborne energy trade traversing from the western Indian Ocean to the eastern part and into the South China Sea is also high with 80% of its oil imports passing through the Malacca Strait.

China is also said to face a Hormuz Dilemma because 40% of its oil imports transit the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.6 More broadly, nearly all of China’s trade with Europe, West Asia and Africa travels through the west-east sea lanes just below the South Asian peninsula. This high dependence on Indian Ocean trade routes has reflected in China’s maritime strategy where it has gradually developed a presence beyond the Malacca Strait, the historical choke point and transit between the central and eastern Indian Ocean.


In October 2008, a Chinese naval flotilla engaged in its first long distance operation into the western Indian Ocean. Since that year, China has maintained a small but regular presence in the Gulf of Aden as part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLA-N) counter-piracy deployments. Between 2009 and 2014, the PLA-N also made 49 port calls around the northern, central and western Indian Ocean.7 Presently, the Chinese deployment in Aden, near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, accounts for four to five warships at any given time.8

The Indian government’s reactions to these developments generally have been pragmatic. Then Defence Minister A.K. Antony had welcomed cooperation with the PLA-N stating that, ‘If ever there was a need for consensual and cooperative effort, it is in relation to piracy.’9 In 2013, India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon remarked that an India-China maritime rivalry ‘was not inevitable’ as both countries had a ‘common interest in keeping sea lanes of communication in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans open. These lines are vital to India’s trade and energy flows. So are they for China.’10 In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too acknowledged the global interest in the Indian Ocean: ‘We recognize that there are other nations around the world, with strong interests and stakes in the region.’11 As we can see, Indian policymakers have recognized Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean.


China’s strategy to mitigate the vulnerability of its extended Indian Ocean SLOCs is still evolving. Rather than concentrating its maritime attention to a few ports and harbours, China has been dispersing its logistics over a large number of littoral locations: Djibouti, Aden, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Pakistan and Myanmar.12 A parallel dimension of China’s strategy has also been to pursue continental lines of communication to the Indian Ocean to bypass the South East Asian archipelago altogether. These include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, and China-Myanmar corridor. Of these, only the Myanmar link has so far been operationalized.


The Myanmar-China crude oil pipeline originates in Made Island in Rakhine and runs further for 771 kilometres through Myanmar until it reaches Yunnan. This pipeline began operating in May 2017 and has a transmission capacity of 22 million tonnes of crude oil per year. It is expected to reduce China’s reliance on the Malacca route by about one-third and cut the transport distance for African and West Asian oil shipments by about 1,200 km.13 Yet, as a recent United States government report notes, these new pipelines will alleviate only slightly China’s maritime dependency on either the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite China’s efforts, the sheer volume of oil and liquefied natural gas that is imported to China from West Asia and Africa will make strategic SLOCs increasingly important to China.14 In short, there seems to be little alternative for China but to focus on a combination of national and multilateral efforts to secure its maritime trade routes.

The rapid expansion of China’s merchant shipping fleet, the world’s third largest today, and investment in South Asian and West Asian ports and harbours is part of a conscious attempt at maintaining economic security. Over the past decade, China’s merchant fleet has expanded by 300%, from about 44 million gross tonnes at the end of 2005, to over 130 million gross tonnes at the end of 2015. Since 2010, Chinese and Hong Kong companies have completed or announced deals involving at least 40 port projects worth over $45 billion,15 the largest five of which are in the Indian Ocean area.


China’s 2015 white paper on military strategy has obliged the PLA-N to protect ‘the security of sea lanes of communication and overseas interests.’16 Interestingly, such a pattern is different from the typical mode of maritime transformations. The Soviet Union, Germany and Japan, for instance, built their navies first and then promoted merchant marine development. China’s current maritime transformation is led largely by an exceedingly dynamic commercial maritime sector, which in turn is creating synergies for naval development.17 It seems clear that China’s presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean is driven largely by China’s massive economic footprint on the world trading system.

For India, the littoral is seen more as part of some kind of order-building process where the area can be steered towards a common regional identity and purpose. As a former official notes, India’s policy is to ‘create the connectivity that promotes a sharper Indian Ocean personality to emerge.’ The Mausam project is aimed at constructing and reviving ‘the ocean’s identity.’18 So, for India, the maritime space around it has a geo-cultural dimension as well as a geopolitical dimension. For the same reason, India appears more interested in intra-regional economic cooperation,19 where the littoral states can be persuaded to craft sub-regional or plurilateral cooperation mechanisms, in contrast to China’s interest in inter-regional economic connectivity.


Another stark aspect that stands out is the nature of Sino-Indian interactions in the Indian Ocean. In the northern Indian Ocean, India’s weight is felt primarily as a naval power rather than a comprehensive and balanced maritime power with the full spectrum of commercial, merchant marine, industrial and technological capabilities. China, on the other hand, has emerged as a more active maritime power with significant investments in ports, infrastructure and pipelines, without posing itself as a major naval power in the central and western Indian Ocean. This makes their bilateral interaction asymmetric and atypical because Indian and Chinese maritime strengths and vulnerabilities exist in different domains of power and consequently, their influence is being projected in different ways and through different instruments.


One trend nevertheless seems clear: the globalization clock cannot be turned back. Both India and China are deepening their economic interdependence with other regions and the maritime spaces around these countries are still the main arteries for those connections. Hence, neither can afford to ignore the other’s maritime policies. As China’s investment in maritime infrastructure in the central and western Indian Ocean increases, it is likely to get drawn into the neighbourhood’s affairs. If Beijing does not handle this process prudently, it could heighten mistrust and fuel a costly competition. Delhi, for its part, needs to candidly reflect on the premodern geo-economic linkages in the Indian Ocean, which were inclusive and expansive, and China was often an integral part of those inter-regional exchanges. Put plainly, the notion of a closed or privileged Indian space between Aden and Malacca was an imperial aberration of British India rather than the norm in the wider span of Asian history.

Another lesson from the maritime past is that only when Indian Ocean ports assumed a politically neutral and open status to diverse and competing players did the particular location become a thriving entrepôt for different trading communities and commodities. Both Indian and Chinese policymakers ought to keep this in mind as they scramble for maritime privileges along the Indo-Pacific.


* Zorawar Daulet Singh’s most recent book is Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies during the Cold War. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2019.


1. K.N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean. Cambridge University Press, London, 1985, p. 23.

2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. Ibid., p. 49.

4. Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Foreign Secretary’s Address to the Indian Ocean Conference, Colombo’, 1 September 2017, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, htm?dtl/28909/.

5. Ibid.

6 David Brewster, ‘An Indian Ocean Dilemma: Sino-Indian Rivalry and China’s Strategic Vulnerability in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 11(1), 2015, p. 49.

7. C.S.L. Koh, ‘Sino-Indian Maritime Security Dilemma’, in Anit Mukherjee and C. Raja Mohan (eds.), India’s Naval Strategy and Asian Security. Routledge, London, 2016, p. 151.

8. Rahul Singh, ‘Chinese Warships Prowl Indian Ocean Ahead of Naval Drills by India, US and Japan’, Hindustan Times, 5 July 2017.

9. Quoted in Jonathan Holslag, ‘The Reluctant Pretender: China’s Evolving Presence in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 9(1), 2013, pp. 43-45.

10. PTI, ‘India-China Maritime Rivalry Not Inevitable: NSA’, Press Trust of India, 4 March 2013.

11. Narendra Modi, ‘Text of the PM’s Remarks on the Commissioning of Coast Ship Barracuda’, 12 March 2015,

12. Recently, China has agreed to take a 70% stake in the Kyauk Pyu seaport in western Rakhine, Myanmar (Dhaka Tribune 17 October 2017); S. Kamerling and F.P. van der Putten, ‘An Overseas Naval Presence Without Overseas Bases: China’s Counter-piracy Operation in the Gulf of Aden’, Current Chinese Affairs 40(4), 2011, pp. 119-46.

13. Myanmar Times, ‘Myanmar Exports 2m Tonnes of Oil via Pipeline over Four Months’, 21 September 2017; Financial Times, ‘China-Myanmar Pipeline to Open in May’, 21 January 2013.

14. Christopher Len, ‘China’s Maritime Silk Road and Energy Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean: Motivations and Implications for the Region’. NBR special report #68, November 2017, National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, p. 50.

15. The largest five ports for which data is available are: Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Australia and Israel. It has been estimated that, since 2015, two-thirds of the world’s container traffic passes through Chinese-owned or invested ports (Financial Times 2017); Mercy A. Kuo, ‘The Power of Ports: China’s Maritime March’, Diplomat, 8 March 2017, p.151 https://thediplomat. com/2017/03/the-power-of-ports-chinas-maritime-march/

16. Ministry of National Defense, ‘Full Text: China’s Military Strategy’, 26 May 2015, 4586805.htm.

17. Gabriel Collins and Michael Grubb, ‘Strong Foundation: Contemporary Chinese Shipbuilding Prowess’, in Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds.), China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2009, p. 345.

18. India is ‘Trying to Get Friendly Island Nations of the IOR into a Common Maritime Security Grid.’; P.K. Ghosh, ‘Evolving Indian Ocean Governance Architecture: An Indian Perspective’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 11(2), 2015, p. 238.

19, Trade with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean constitutes close to 40% of India’s total trade. MEA, ‘Speech by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, India’, 19 November 2010, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, http://www. ments.htm?dtl/816/