India Sees China at Sea: On Sarangi’s ‘Maritime Corridors in the Indo-Pacific’

This text may be, in a way, considered a continuation of my earlier commentary for The Diplomat where I reviewed recent Indian books on current Sino-Indian relations (which I followed up with another text for the Magazine in July 2022). The next item to be put on the anvil is Subhasish Sarangi’s “Maritime Corridors in the Indo-Pacific: Geopolitical Implications for India.” My objective in creating such a list remains the same – to search for good sources on one of the most critical global dynamics of the 21st century: New Delhi’s relations with Beijing. This commentary is broken down into three main segments: (1) what I liked about the book and my main takeaways from it; (2) what are, in my view, some of its shortcomings and (3) how can we take such analyses further forward by researching less-explored issues.

India’s Careful Moves Against China’s Inflated Aspirations

Some of the book’s main conclusions are as follows: While it is inevitable that China will attempt to deepen its influence in the Indian Ocean, history shows that no one region ever dominated the flow of goods on that ocean. Moreover, China is unable to find a way around the challenge of depending on sea routes in the Indian Ocean – routes it does not, and will not, fully control – by building alternative supply chains on land. “Pipelines cannot match transport by sea in either volume or cost,” Sarangi reminds us, “[h]ence, the pipelines set through Myanmar and those planned through Pakistan (if they ever come up) can never cater for China’s requirement beyond a marginal level.” This is a quote I need to underline, as many seem to believe otherwise.

The author is equally skeptical (or, should I say, realistic?) about the whole talk of the Belt and Road Initiative and the notorious concept of String of Pearls, a belief that Beijing is encircling India with a chain of navy ports. “[T]h PLA navy is far from being a potent force in the Indian Ocean. That is still decades away,” Sarangi concludes. “However, Chinese influence in India’s neighborhood due to its economic and political heft is already apparent, and has to be contended with.”

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Simultaneously, many countries of the region have decided to enhance their connectivity, including on the level of sea trade. Thus, for India, one of the most effective ways of countering Chinese influence in the neighborhood is to assist other nations with their infrastructure projects, to tie up their interests with India’s. However, when working on connectivity projects abroad, New Delhi faces “two major issues – limited capacity and slow speed of execution.” India thus cannot drag itself into a funding contest with China, which New Delhi is likely to lose: “The dual challenge is of providing financial alternatives to the smaller nations even while avoiding an upward spiraling contest to match resources with China.”

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Here is one of the author’s more interesting conclusions arising from this conundrum: While supporting connectivity initiatives in various countries, New Delhi “seeks to realize them through existing regional and multilateral organisations, rather than seeking to create new structures” and attempts to “emphasize commonality with existing initiatives of such organisations.” When reading this it occurred to me that China made a diplomatic mistake by weaving the pattern of its narrative in an exactly opposite way – by declaring its own grand project (Belt and Road Initiative) and then including projects of many countries in the BRI. India, in turn, should avoid Beijing’s arrogance by declaring that its projects are only in tune with respective national connectivity visions. That way, New Delhi can both appear as a benign power as well as avoid miscalculating the use of its limited resources,

Do Not Sail Into Unknown Seas

Sarangi’s book is meant for a general audience – it is more of an introduction to the subject, a primer – and that is a purpose it fulfills well. However, what I considered risky was the author’s attempt to cover so much ground (in this case, so much water). The wider we reach out in our texts, the more we risk making mistakes, sailing out to the unknown seas, and usually reaching the shallow waters of general conclusions.

It seemed rather overambitious to try to present even a brief history of the Indian Ocean, summarize the major connectivity projects currently undertaken in the region, and mention every major security challenge of the same region – all in one book. While the historical part was handled rather well, as far as I can tell, summarizing infrastructure projects just by listing them makes less sense to me. Summarizing only what a project intends to do is less informative for the reader if such a summary does not at least briefly present the feasibility of such undertakings.

In the past few years, we have been inundated with whole lists of China-funded infrastructure projects to be undertaken in various countries, and we have heard of astronomic amounts to be spent on them – in time, a considerable part of this narrative turned out to be either exaggerated or straightforward speculations (Gwadar, I am looking at you – besides, remember when media were full of reports that China will invest $400 billion in Iran?). Sarangi shows he is well aware of all of this. However, he does not always consider the challenges faced by the projects and initiatives he is listing. The author does so, for instance, for India’s involvement in the Iranian port of Chabahar, certain Chinese projects in Pakistan, or the concept of the China-Nepal railway. Thus, I would prefer a shorter list of projects, but accompanied by at least modest attempts to present their feasibility studies, especially that the author, being an Indian officer, has a huge knowledge of naval affairs (which was why I found the last two chapters that touch upon this aspect more informative).

Please Feed the Foxes

I am orthodox in believing that in research, narrower is always better (count me among the foxes, not the hedgehogs). As analysts and academics will be diving deeper into the sea of Sino-Indian relations in the coming years, I would prefer to see more focused work – more on feasibility, less on declarations; analytical work on concrete projects rather than on grand strategies; research on a particular aspect of relations, rather than their whole spectrum; the perspective of smaller South Asian states involved in Sino-Indian rivalry, rather than just following the gaze of the U.S. and China (and India). Avinash Paliwal’s work on Indo-Afghan relations has, for instance, shown how a researcher can dive deep into India’s policy toward another, weaker South Asian country, easily combining this with the China factor. Experts like Samuel Bashfield have shown that we can dig into India’s engagement with small island states (in this case Mauritius) to show New Delhi may be indeed in the process of building a chain of naval deterrence points in the Indian Ocean against China.

As for concrete, fascinating themes addressed by Sarangi I would be glad to read more about what direction New Delhi should further expand its naval capacities to counter China and how India is trying to adapt (or how New Delhi can adapt) to infrastructure projects of smaller South Asian countries to counter Chinese inroads without losing the money-for-influence game.