The battle for influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), between India and China is heating up, with the Chinese losing the latest round to India, a fact most have failed to notice.
When a pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu won the Maldivian presidential elections last October, it was widely portrayed as a loss for New Delhi — suggesting that the Narendra Modi government had failed to uphold India's interests in the neighbourhood and was losing to China.
However, this time India scored a major victory, one that went almost unnoticed.
Sri Lanka just last week communicated to Indian diplomats that it was putting in place a one-year moratorium on the docking of Chinese spy ships at various ports in the country. Over the last few years, the island nation had allowed many such vessels to dock at its ports despite India's concerns.
The ban on the docking of these vessels is a major victory for India, since Indian government circles view these research missions as nothing more than attempts to gather intelligence on major Indian missile launches and conduct hydrographic surveys to identify underwater routes for Chinese submarines to use in sneaking up on India in the event of a war.
This announcement by Sri Lanka came after a series of flip-flops.
Last year, before the arrival of one such Chinese vessel in Sri Lanka, the country's government assured India it would not permit docking, only to reverse its stance and allow the vessel to dock in October 2023.
The Indian government has repeatedly requested the Sri Lankan government to deny access to Chinese research ships in Sri Lanka, especially after they allowed Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota port in August 2022.
The Sri Lankan government assured India of keeping India's sensitivities in mind, but then reversed its decision and allowed another spy ship — Hai Yang 24 Hao — to dock at Colombo in August 2023.
This was followed by the docking of Shi Yan 6 in October 2023.
However, Sri Lanka's latest decision to ban Chinese research vessels signals a shift and marks a strategic victory for India in the ongoing tussle for influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
Last year, Chinese efforts to increase its influence and presence in the Indian Ocean received a fillip with Maldives' pro-China leader Mohamed Muizzu's victory in the presidential elections and his decision to ask for the removal of Indian military personnel maintaining equipment gifted to the country, viz, Dhruv helicopter and a Dornier Do-228 aircraft.
However, what has gone unnoticed is that the situation in the region has been getting increasingly difficult for the Chinese.
Last year, India finished most of the construction at its upcoming military base in Agalega Island of Mauritius, with the completion of a 10,000-foot runway and a jetty to support Indian Navy's presence in the western Indian Ocean.
Hangars for P-8I Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft are also under construction, enhancing India's capability to monitor Chinese submarine activity and maritime traffic from the Mozambique Channel to the Arabian Sea.
Furthermore, India's collaboration with Australia in the ASW domain is making life tougher for Chinese submarines in the region. The groundbreaking visit of several aircraft from India's navy and air force to Australia's Cocos (Keeling) Islands last year was a clear giveaway of this intention.
Notably, analysts have long advocated for Indian access to the Cocos Islands airfield, which is being strengthened to accommodate P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.
Australia's Cocos Islands and India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands are strategically located near maritime chokepoints in the region, such as the Lombok and Sunda Straits, which the People's Liberation Army Navy uses to send its surface and sub-surface vessels to the IOR.
China has been sending its ocean survey vessels to this region over the last few years. These missions collect crucial data on water temperature, depth, and salinity, which play a significant role in submarine deployment and operations.
India and Australia have joined forces to collaboratively map the sea floor of the Indian Ocean. This initiative is crucial not only for enhancing their respective submarine operations but also for detecting potential activities by Chinese submarines in the region.
Looking ahead, this decade might be pivotal in reversing China's gains in the IOR. As India's economy expands, its capacity to extend aid and investments in the region will increase, thereby enhancing its influence and presence in the IOR.
Editorial Associate at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.
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