An Indian view of Sino-Indian maritime relations

Together, China and India can re-create a new regional and international maritime order that is inspired by the virtues of the old as well as embodies the promise of the new Asian Century.
by Sourabh Gupta

On 4 February 2016, China and India held the first round of their ‘Maritime Affairs Dialogue’ in New Delhi. As these great civilizational spaces, and modern-day nation states, open a new chapter in bilateral maritime relations, it is instructive to distil the lessons of the earlier age.

February 4, 2016: The First China-India Maritime Dialogue is held in New Delhi, India.

First, Asia was one, united by bonds of commerce, culture and civility;

Second, the spread of Buddhism from South Asia along the ‘belt’ and ‘road’ wove a common world of religious-cultural ambiance and sensibility that signified both integration and cosmopolitanism;

Third, China and India had once been the great originators of globalization. The political and economic architecture of such contact was never close-ended or exclusive but rather was open and inclusive;

Fourth, Asia’s seas were genuinely res communis (common heritage of mankind) that belonged to all and was denied to none; these waterways were not an arena of geopolitical contestation. Further, each sovereign entertained a vested interest in preserving the freedom of these waterways and which no sovereign sought to dominate.

The key features and wisdom of the old must inform the guiding principles that shape the modern characteristics of the new in Asia’s 21st century maritime order.

First, China and India must firmly tether their maritime interactions to the Panchseel/Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence – i.e., to the principle of sovereignty and mutual respect for core/primary interests; to the concept of peace and opposition to war, war-mongering, aggression and threat of use of force; to the promotion of cooperative and collaborative (win-win) patterns of cooperation that eschew adversarial zero-sum contestation and close-ended alliances; and to the concept of justice, including the fair application of international law and principles of democracy in bilateral and regional engagements. The aim of the Five Principles is to embed China-India interests and aspirations in the maritime sphere within a cooperative, comprehensive and sustainable architecture that realizes an Asian community of common destiny.

After 57 years of service life, INS Viraat (R-22), the oldest active aircraft carrier in the world, will decommission at the end of 2016.

Second, China and India must restore Asia’s seas to their former purpose as win-win economic passageways rather than arenas of zero-sum contestation. In February 2014, at the 17th round of Special Representative talks in New Delhi, China formally invited India to join its ambitious Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project. The Narendra Modi government should actively seek out synergies with its ‘Sagar Mala’ port development and transport infrastructure project and exert its influence to craft the contours of MSR’s South Asia blueprint to make it complementary to New Delhi’s own neighbourhood policy. Further, it must not pass up the opportunity to build matching cross-border connectivity links that bind India to its periphery and integrate the latter via the ‘belt’ and the ‘road’ to global networks. By recreating the famous land and sea routes along which commerce and cosmopolitanism once traversed, ‘One Belt, One Road’ will also re-awaken India in no small measure to its own golden age of cross-border contact.

The Maritime Silk Road is regarded as one of the world’s most ancient maritime trade routes. Courtesy of Maritime Experiential Museum in Singapore.

Third, China and India must continue to jointly nudge the thrust of oceanic law and global oceans governance towards sustainable economic, developmental and conservation-related ends - and to the relative disfavor of military and other non-peaceful uses of the sea. Both countries hold similar or identical views on foreign user state rights, particularly on military navigation and related activities, within their exclusive maritime zones – be it innocent passage rights through their territorial seas or active intelligence gathering as well as hydrographic surveys within their EEZ.

Indian scientific researchers measuring land along the coast.

China and India should initiate a dedicated bilateral dialogue on the development of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982) regime, with a view to harmonizing opinions to push the perimeter of such ‘threat-based’ activities further away from their coastlines. Taking the long perspective, the two countries along with their Asian partners should also develop soft law that catalogues permissible and non-permissible threat-based activities in a coastal state’s EEZs and thereafter seek to elevate that norm, by way of state practice over time, into the body of local customary law.

China and India should economically complement this UNCLOS policy dialogue with an agreement to share technological knowhow on seabed research and mining for polymetallic nodules. A join application to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to secure exclusive mining rights in both the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific could also be considered.

India’s deep-sea oil rig.

Fourth, China and India must seek out areas of strategic congruence in their Asia-Pacific-wide maritime engagements, while grappling with – and managing – their differences with frankness and sincerity. For the most part, both countries fundamentally share common interests in maritime Asia, yet would rather pursue these interests – and frame strategies – separately. Both China and India share an interest in keeping their overlapping sea lines of communication open to free navigation, yet both seek to exercise control – and leverage via the veiled threat of interdiction – over the chokepoints through which these sea lanes pass.

The fishermen of Poovar Island, southern India, cast their nets at dawn and gather the catch around 7am every day.

Both China and India retain an interest in securing sea-borne access to ensure the economic viability of their landlocked, underdeveloped regions (Yunnan; Northeast India), yet both would prefer to design connectivity initiatives that run at odds with their counterpart’s. Since 2014, both China’s and India’s navies have begun to bump-up more frequently in the proximity of each other’s naval bastions (in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Eastern Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal), yet neither has initiated a conversation on reassuring its counterpart of its intentions.  


An Indian fisherman.

As a first step, both China and India must commit to respecting each other’s ‘core’ or ‘primary’ interests in their respective backyards. To the extent that either country possesses a vital interest – be it navigational, oil and gas, or access - in the other’s ‘core’ or primary’ geographical area of interest, the former should seek to transparently communicate its purposes and intentions.

Conversely, both countries must respect each other’s maritime engagements with third parties in Asia’s seas – so long as these engagements do not impinge on the other’s ‘core’ or ‘primary’ interests. To the extent that both countries seek to sanitize and secure their respective naval bastions (to ensure the future integrity of their second-strike deterrence capability), both countries bear an obligation to defer to their counterpart and keep their surface fleets at some distance from these locations.

And to the extent that both countries seek to exercise control – and leverage - over the chokepoints through which the critical sea lanes of Asia pass, both countries would rather be better-off exploring a broader bargain that resists the temptation to challenge each other’s growing power, influence and authority east and west, respectively, of the island of Sumatra.

Parenthetically, it bears noting that no sustained and economically significant campaign to interdict the maritime trade of a major power has been mounted since the 18th century – except in the case of a general war. A veiled threat of choke-point interdiction, then, that is only as good as its non-activation makes for good theater but reflects poor policy.

Finally, China and India must functionally elevate their operational interactions across the length and breadth of Asia’s seas. Much like the Wako pirate raids along the eastern seaboard had invited the Yongle Emperor’s initial turn to the sea, so also the Convoy Coordination Working Group featuring China and India among others, as part of the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, has served as a useful initial basis for bridge-building and cooperation.

 May 17, 2014: Chinese navy arrived onin Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, on a short visit.

Both countries must utilize this precedent to deepen navy-to-navy engagement across a range of non-traditional security missions, including notably but not limited to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) activities. Ideally, such China-India HA/DR cooperation should hew to the spirit of openness and be situated, in deference to ASEAN centrality, within the emerging practice of Asian security multilateralism.

The joint Hand-in-Hand 2015 counter-terrorism drill between India and China commenced at Kunming, Yunnan Province on October 14, 2015.

Over time, China and India should also aspire to operationally devise a multilateral, cooperative sea-lane security regime for Asia. Both countries should pick-up the exploratory ideational threads of recent years in this regard and formulate a framework for a joint or cooperative sea-lane command which, again, should be housed within the emerging practice of Asian security multilateralism. The positive-sum gains from such collaborative, operational action would be a tangible expression of the willingness of Asia’s major and rising powers to share the burdens and benefits of global and regional stakeholder-ship, while restoring Asia’s seas at the same time to the res communis that it had once been which belonged to all and was denied to none. Cooperative sea-lane security will also draw the curtains down for good on that remnant of the Vasco da Gama interlude in Asia’s seas, which had deliberately introduced state-controlled (threat of) violence along strategic passageways to secure politico-economic ends.

During the Hand-in-Hand 2015 counter-terrorism drill, Chinese officers interpret action tips for the Indian soldiers.

China and India stand on the cusp of a new and promising chapter in bilateral relations. The many lessons learnt during the course of interactions to stabilize their disputed land boundary offer useful pointers as they chart out a rules-of-the-road framework to guide their interactions at sea. Both countries must resolve to address each other’s legitimate interests with a sense of sincerity. Both countries should prioritize peace and tranquility during the course of maritime interactions that impinge on each other’s ‘core’ or ‘primary’ interests. As a measure of mutual trust is devolved, both countries should enumerate – and capture by way of a framework agreement – a lucid set of principles-based parameters of bilateral naval cooperation that obey the injunctions of the Five Principles, is consistent with the open, inclusive, and transparent security architecture of Asia, and fortifies the on-going developmental orientation of global sea law.

Four Indian Navy ships arrived in Shanghai, China, and on a five-day visit in June, 2012.

To keep Asia’s seas open to free passage and closed to major power contestation must ultimately form, both, the founding and the final basis for China-India cooperation at sea. Together, China and India can re-create a new regional and international maritime order that is inspired by the virtues of the old as well as embodies the promise of the new Asian Century.


The author is Senior Fellow at Institute for China-America Studies