While the Chinese are quite vocal about their claims on most of South China Sea, they don’t similarly tom-tom about their objectives in the Indian Ocean from rooftops. China’s operations in the Indian Ocean are clandestine.
India, on its part, has started a mission to strengthen its presence in the area. Garnering support from countries that have a stake in the South China Sea is part of India’s efforts to spread its influence in the region.
The interests of both nations are not exactly in congruence. Both parties view each other sceptically and each one tries to consolidate its gains and snatch a bit from the other’s kitty.
As part of its efforts to increase its influence in the region, China has been pursuing a policy of providing massive funding to developing economies and the move has been paying rich dividends. The problem starts when the countries receiving the funding are unable to pay back the loan and get caught in Chinese debt trap. It is under these circumstances that these countries feel bound to lease out land and other strategic facilities to China.
An example of such an exchange is the Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka. Unable to bear the burden of debt repayment, the facilities at the port have been leased out to China for 99 years. Generations of Sri Lankans will have to live with the reality of a Chinese writ on Hambantota. Recently, Hambantota airport was in news; this time with India taking over the loss making venture.
China Daily Mail on November 22, 2014, quoted Sri Lankan sources and reiterated an old report about the “Chinese plans to build 18 naval bases in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), in Pakistan and Myanmar, Walvis Bay (Namibia), in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Madagascar and other parts of Indian Ocean”.
An article in The Economist on October 11, 2017 stated that China has invested in ports in 34 countries, globally. They had plans of investment in 12 more countries, at that stage.
Indians suffered a setback in the IOR recently in Maldives. The problem actually started in 2012 when Maldives decided to oust an Indian company that was given the contract to construct an airport at Hulhule Island, close to Male. Even as relations between the countries continue to deteriorate, China has stepped in with millions of dollars in investments. The Chinese are reportedly in the process of constructing a naval base at Gaadhoo Island, over 260km from Male.
Indian efforts to establish itself in Assumption Island, Seychelles are also not proving to be a smooth sail. An agreement reached in 2015 was not accepted by the opposition in Seychelles National Assembly. It had to be modified in 2018 when Seychelles President Danny Faure visited India. There is hope of the new agreement being accepted by the Seychelles National Assembly now with the President having consulted the opposition in advance.
Post a cabinet meeting, the statement made on the scope of the agreement said, “To enhance military capabilities in control and maritime surveillance of our EEZ, protection of our EEZ and outer islands and in search and rescue in the region for the benefit of air and shipping traffic”. India also extended a $100 million credit line to augment Seychelles’ defence capabilities.
India has also been developing the Chabahar Port in Iran. Chabahar provides India access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics through Iran. In 2018, India secured naval facilities in Oman, proximate to the Straits of Hormuz, an extremely critical water channel for sea borne traffic. India has also signed a 20-year pact with Seychelles that includes building an airstrip and a jetty.