China's Biggest Fear: U.S.-Indian Encirclement

Chinese naval analysts worry about India's "Look East" strategy linking up with America's rebalance.

President Obama’s recent trip to India seems to have yielded some modest successes, including an agreement to break through obstacles that have arisen related to civil nuclear cooperation.

Fitting the general pattern of U.S. interactions in the Asia-Pacific region, this visit also took place against the backdrop of China’s rising profile on the world stage, and questions are emerging about the future direction of the highly sensitive triangular relationship between New Delhi, Washington and Beijing.

A good deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of China’s alleged “string of pearls strategy.” But this rather electrifying terminology, [珍珠连战略] actually does not have a Chinese origin. In fact, it was first introduced by a Booz Allen study, commissioned by the U.S. Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon under the direction of Andrew Marshall. Rather than speculate on the nature of Chinese motives with respect to the Indian Ocean, this edition of Dragon Eye will discuss two recent Chinese-language scholarly assessments in order to gain a deeper appreciation of China’s evolving approach to India and the vital India-U.S.-China triangle more generally.

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Maritime issues are not the only difficult issue in Sino-Indian relations, but they have come to form a core flash point in recent years – a development underlined recently by a pair of visits to Sri Lanka undertaken by PLA Navy submarines. Therefore, it seems quite appropriate to look closely at a study published by three researchers at the Beijing Naval Research Center [海军军事学术研究所] in a recent edition of the Mandarin-language academic Pacific Journal [太平洋学报]. The paper is entitled: “The Structure of Sea Powers in the Indian Ocean and the Expansion of Chinese Sea Power in the Indian Ocean.”

While generally cautious and measured in its tone, this analysis by Chinese Navy researchers does make note of a number of alarming trends with regard to Sino-Indian maritime relations. They assert that China began to take notice of Indian maritime strategy in earnest a decade ago when New Delhi moved to fortify the Andaman and Nicobar island groups near the Strait of Malacca, as well as announcing India’s intention to move forward with a sea-based nuclear deterrent and to pursue “军力投送” [military power projection]. These analysts highlight that India is planning to field three aircraft carrier groups and characterize Indian maritime strategy as an “明显扩展性的海权战略” [obviously expansionist maritime strategy]. This Indian strategy constitutes a potential threat to what the authors term in the article’s opening sentence as “中国的远洋生命线” [China’s far seas life line].

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In a sign of how this rivalry has escalated in recent years, the Chinese Navy authors assert that Indian officials and the Indian press have “expressed extremely obvious hostile intentions toward China.” They note that a military conflict between China and India is “不堪设想” [too ghastly to contemplate], but that Beijing must still be alert to this possibility. For China, these authors explain, “India’s ‘Look East’ strategy will have a huge impact on our country’s geopolitical security.” Taking this point a step further, the authors contend that the“Look East” strategy may “join the confluence” of Japan’s “南下战略” [Down South Strategy] and America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.” “[If these three strategies] were coordinated, in effect encircling China’s maritime geopolitical environment, this would constitute even greater harm to our country’s maritime security and its development of sea power.” These Chinese naval analysts fret that India and the U.S. have found a common language in discussing the “China threat theory” and their “相互配合” [mutual coordination] in places such as the South China Sea “directly threatens our country’s strategic interests, squeezing our country’s strategic space.”

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