India-China Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific Region: The 'Samudra Manthan'

The phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been drawing significant attention, due to number of reasons. In addition to being a geographical construct, the Indo-Pacific can also be seen as a changing network of Nations for strategic and security issues and concerns.

The word Samudra Manthan, taken from the Indian Mythology means “churning of the Ocean”, aptly depicts the present situation in the Indo-Pacific region, where like the mythological epic the kings and demons fought to receive the amrita (precious things from the sea), similarly, today there is a constant competition and rivalry going on between the Nations in the Indo-Pacific region. The present situation also depicts that ‘the churning of the Ocean’ is inevitable as the maritime interests of both India and China converges in the large expanse of the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans i.e. the Indo-Pacific Region.

The discourse is such that, the strategic interplays between the maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific will determine the future course of security in the region. It is expected that India’s and United States interests in the Indo-Pacific region will match with each other. However, the present relationships between China-United States of America and India-China will determine the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Nowadays, the majority of trade transactions are being implemented through the sea, making the present and future maritime threats severe in the Indo-Pacific region and making it more evident. India has also till date not agreed to join China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, arguing it as a strategy by China to move ahead with the expansionist and self-motivated approach. Till date the 1962 war between India and China was restricted to the land frontiers only,however, its overarching impact in the minds of India’s defense sectors continues to be a defining issue in formulating the bi-lateral relationships. Both India and China, continues to debate over the land boundary issues and above that the growing dependency on seaborne trade at a staggering approximately 90 per cent for both emerging powers has brought the oceans to the forefront of the bilateral relationships.

It is expected that by 2020, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is going to be the second largest Navy in the world, as it is undertaking massive changes and development activities. By 2022, the Indian Navy (IN) is also expected to have 160-ship navy, pulling it to the league of ‘Big Five’. The impetus that both the Nations are giving to their naval sector is evident from these developments. Even their growing forays into each other’s traditional maritime spheres of influence indicate their desire to become ‘blue-water’ navies, serving their national maritime interests beyond their immediate frontiers. The policy makers believe that due to lack of trust there is a possibility of heightening tension between the two Nations on the maritime borders. There is a clash of interests which looks inevitable between the two Nations. India considers China’s ‘string of pearls’ as a strategy and looks into that with suspicion and considers the development of the ports by China in its immediate neighbourhood as a sensitive issue. China has also been considering the Indian Naval presence in the South China Sea, an area that it terms as its ‘core interest’ in a suspicious manner. Thus it is evident that Indo-Pacific region is gaining traction now and what roles are envisaged for India and China in it is worth following in the coming time.

1 Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D. in International Relations, her research specialization includes geo-strategic, geo-politics and foreign policy issues and concerns. Her area of research focuses on India and China.