The Elephant and Dragon: Geopolitics of Regional Connectivity

Archishman is a first-year International Relations student. In this article, he looks at geostrategy in Southeast Asia and the Greater Indian Ocean, with particular emphasis on power politics between the two major superpowers of the region- India and China.

 

Speaking at the ASEAN summit in Bangkok in November 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India’s intention to step up military and economic ties with Southeast Asia- with Northeast India acting as the revolving door between the two.[1] At the same event, he met Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, assuring her of India’s purpose of expanding infrastructure projects in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine province in return for cooperation in denying militants from Northeast India a safe haven in Myanmar.[2]

 

Modi’s comments have come at a particularly crucial time, when India has been working to step up its relationship with Southeast Asia. Indian foreign policy experts only truly recognized the region’s significance in 1991, formulating the ‘Look East’ doctrine. The new policy called for increased trade/military cooperation with Southeast Asia in the post-Cold War era. Under Prime Minister Modi, these ties have been hugely bolstered under his distinct adaptation of ‘Look East’- the new ‘Act East’ policy. Act East goes beyond mere increases in trade. It looks towards a holistic merging of common strategic/political interests in order to eventually establish India as a significant regional superpower.[3] Under Act East, India’s geopolitical interest in the region has become less ambiguous- a change regarded by policymakers as a crucial way to preserve economic interests. This explicit indication of India’s interest in Southeast Asia is particularly important to policymakers in New Delhi, especially in the context of the Doklam standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in June 2017.

 

Coordinated military operations appear to characterise the Act East policy and signifies the shared objective of protecting common economic and geopolitical interests. Over February-March 2019, the Indian and Burmese Armies conducted a series of coordinated strikes against two key terror outfits operating in the vicinity of the the Kaladan Multi-Modal transport network. One was the Arakan Army- a Burmese insurgent organisation, and the other was the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang (NSCN-K)- a separatist terror group in northeast India.[4] The Kaladan Transport Network is one of the many Indian-funded regional connectivity projects in Southeast Asia. It connects the Indian metropolis of Kolkata to the Northeastern city of Aizawl via several Burmese cities linked to India and each other through sea routes, inland waterways and land routes.[5] The Transport Network would massively reduce transport costs between Myanmar and India, the latter being Myanmar’s fourth largest trade partner.[6] From an Indian perspective, it eases access to the Northeast, which is connected to the mainland by the ‘Siliguri Corridor’- a thin strip of land is particularly vulnerable to being cut off by Chinese armed forces in the unlikely scenario of a military confrontation between the two countries (however this possibility was demonstrated during the 2017 Doklam standoff). India is additionally worried about the growing Chinese infrastructure projects in Myanmar, with 72 of them being approved between September 2018 and May 2019 alone.[7] These include a proposed port-construction project at Kyaukpyu (whose size and scale have been severely diminished since).[8] Such developments have significant geopolitical ramifications for India and signify the importance of military actions to Indian interests. This holds especially true with respect to China’s rapidly growing Belt and Road Initiative in the area. Such developments, it may be argued, occasioned ‘Operation Sunrise-2’, another Indo-Burmese military operation targeting secessionist Indian terror outfits such as NSCN-K and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).[9] These strikes were aimed at curbing the threat to the Transport network from such insurgent outfits.

 

Additionally, India is attempting to expand its military authority across the Asia-Pacific to gain a degree of control over the area’s numerous maritime choke points, which are crucial to Chinese trade interests. India secured access to logistical and docking facilities at Singapore’s Changi port in July 2018,[10] and has been working on the construction of a deep-sea port in Sabang, Indonesia.[11] An Indian presence in the regions can potentially prevent Chinese ships from passing through the Straits of Malacca and into the Southern Indian Ocean region respectively. Indeed, this appears to be part of a pattern playing out in other parts of the world as well. The Indian Navy secured Duqm port in Oman for docking facilities and military activities in February 2018.[12] This may be used to counter the potential threat emanating from the PLA’s naval base in Djibouti and holds particular significance amid rumours that China may construct another such base in the Pakistani port town of Jiwani, bordering the Gulf of Oman.[13] An increasingly assertive domestic military policy seems to reinforce this theory, as suggested by the increased construction of bases in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie between Indonesia and the Indian Ocean.[14] The islands, which lie between the Straits of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean, have also seen large-scale amphibious war games attended by India’s Defence Minister herself.[15] Such symbolism is aimed at sending a political warning to China. Establishing a naval presence in key strategic nodes of Southeast Asia and the Greater Indian Ocean region enables India to keep a check on Chinese military and economic expansion. Additionally, India has in recent months indicated greater interest in the QUAD alliance- a proposed naval alliance between India, the USA, Japan and Australia to patrol the South China Sea and effectively curb Chinese influence.[16]

 

Apart from coordinated military operations or the construction of military installations across the Asia-Pacific, India aims to secure its economic interests and its authority over regional connectivity projects through ‘missile politics’. In November 2019, Singapore signed an agreement with India which would allow it to use the integrated test range in the Indian state of Orissa for missile testing.[17] Thailand has also indicated its interest in acquiring Indian BrahMos missiles- which once again highlights the relationship between military cooperation and regional connectivity.[18] Thailand lies at the heart of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway. And with the Thai government becoming closer to China at a time when domestic opposition to Chinese infrastructure projects is growing,[19] it is but natural that India would choose to seize the opportunity to deny China any more influence in Southeast Asia.

 

The Chinese response has come in equal measure, thus heightening tensions and risk levels faced by companies and economies across the region. China has stepped up its intelligence operations across Southeast Asia with a deliberate focus on combatting India’s regional connectivity projects, which stand to compete with the Belt and Road Initiative. China has historically supported the United Wa State Army in western Myanmar.[20] This insurgent group is based in the Shan state, bordering Laos and Thailand, and can possibly be used by China to disrupt traffic along the Trilateral Highway and discourage investment by increasing the risk faced by companies partaking in the project. The possibility of this has grown amidst rumours that Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have expressed interest in joining the Trilateral Highway project.[21] It has also been reported that Chinese intelligence are paying approximately $6000 each to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to go back to Myanmar- a clear attempt to further the conflict in the Rakhine state and hamper India’s infrastructure projects there by once again raising risk levels for both the Indian government and private contractors.[22] According to reports by police forces in India’s Northeastern state of Assam, China has also been sheltering Paresh Baruah, the leader of ULFA in the town of Ruili, bordering Myanmar.[23] Furthermore, the Chinese navy has been attempting to evolve into a ‘blue-water navy’ in recent years,[24] which would give them unprecedented influence across the Pacific and Greater Indian Ocean. It would allow them to surround Indian military installations and port facilities across the region- such as the naval base in the Seychelles[25] and the port facilities at Chabahar port in Iran- situated less than a 100 km away from the Chinese port in Gwadar, Pakistan.[26]

 

While India’s actions in Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean are still small compared to China’s, they have the potential to alter superpower relations in the region dramatically. A military confrontation between India and China is definitely unlikely, as was proven during the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam in June 2017. The fact that China lacks military experience (having last fought a war in 1978) adds to this line of argumentation. However, competition for supremacy in Asia will continue to characterise ties between the two countries over the next decade. It is perhaps only inevitable that two opposing Asian civilisations with large, rapidly growing economies should vie for dominance in this unstable modern age.

Image source

https://www.sarkaritel.com/india-confirms-incident-on-china-border/

Citations

[1] Northeast India gateway to Southeast Asia under Act East Policy: PM Modi in Bangkok, Economic Times, 3rd November 2019

[2] India attaches importance to Myanmar’s cooperation against insurgent groups: PM Modi to Suu Kyi, Economic Times, 4th November 2019

[3] From ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’- India shifts focus, DW, 19th December 2014

[4] Lt Gen Prakash Katoch. “Operation Sunrise”. Indian Defence Review, 20th March 2019 (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/operation-sunrise/)- Accessed- 23rd November 2019

[5] Mizoram-Myanmar Kaladan Road Project, Maritime Gateway (http://www.maritimegateway.com/mizoram-myanmar-kaladan-road-project/)- Accessed- 23rd November 2019

[6] Myanmar: Country Profile, The Observatory of Economic Complexity (https://oec.world/en/profile/country/mmr/) – Accessed- 23rd November 2019

[7] Sun, Yun. “Slower, smaller, cheaper: the reality of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor”. Frontier Myanmar, 26th September 2019 (https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/slower-smaller-cheaper-the-reality-of-the-china-myanmar-economic-corridor) Accessed- 27th November 2019

[8] Myanmar cuts cost of China-funded port project by 80%, Nikkei Asian Review, 28th September 2018

[9] India and Myanmar forces coordinate to destroy NE insurgent camps across border, The Indian Express, 16th June 2019

[10] Navy gets access to Singapore’s Changi naval base, The Economic Times, 12th July 2018

[11] India Makes Move at Indonesia’s Strategic Sabang Port, The Diplomat, 17th July 2018

[12] India gets access to strategic Oman port Duqm for military use, Chabahar-Gwadar in sight, The Indian Express, 13th February 2018

[13] A New China Military Base in Pakistan?, The Diplomat, 9th February 2018

[14] India navy to open third base in strategic islands to counter China, Reuters, 23rd January 2019

[15] SpokespersonNavy, Twitter Post, 14th January 2019, 5:26 AM (https://twitter.com/indiannavy/status/1084803856494723073?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fm.economictimes.com%2Fnews%2Fdefence%2Fsitharaman-at-amphibious-military-drill-by-armed-forces-in-andaman-and-nicobar%2Farticleshow%2F67536615.cms) – Accessed: 23rd November 2019

[16] ‘Quad’ cooperation in the South China Sea?, The Japan Times, 14th December 2017

[17] India will allow Singapore to use Integrated Test Range at Chandipur, The Times of India, 20th November 2019

[18] Thailand in talks with India to buy BrahMos cruise missiles, The Hindu, 31st July 2019

[19] Aung San Suu Kyi’s dam dilemma with China, BBC, 27th July 2019 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-48857781) – Accessed- 24th November 2019

[20] Lt Gen Prakash Katoch. “Operation Sunrise”. Indian Defence Review, 20th March 2019 (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/operation-sunrise/)- Accessed- 24th November 2019

[21] India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project to be extended to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam, Weekly Eleven, 5th November 2019

[22] Lt Gen Prakash Katoch. “Operation Sunrise”. Indian Defence Review, 20th March 2019 (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/operation-sunrise/)- Accessed- 24th November 2019

[23] Rabi Banerjee. “ULFA trying to internationalise northeast conflicts”. The Week, 24th November 2018 (https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2018/11/22/all-disquiet-on-the-eastern-front.html) – Accessed- 24th November 2019

[24] Oliver B Steward. “The rise of China’s ‘blue water’ navy: Will the Pacific turn Red?”. UK Defence Journal, 5th September 2017 (https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/rise-chinas-blue-water-navy-will-pacific-turn-red/)

[25] India, Seychelles agree to work on Assumption Island naval base project, The Hindustan Times, 25th June 2018

[26] Akram, Jawad. “War of Ports- Gwadar Vs Chabahar”. Samaa TV, 8th February 2018. (https://www.samaa.tv/opinion/2018/02/war-ports-gwadar-vs-chabahar/) Accessed- 25th November 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s