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Why Even in a Crisis India May Not Block Maritime Trade With China

A point is sometimes raised that in case of some sort of conflict between India and China, New Delhi’s forces could block, or even attack, the shipping lanes leading through the Indian Ocean to China. Indeed, a significant part of Chinese trade passes through the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean, with some of the transported goods being of strategic importance.

Theoretically, this does offer New Delhi a maritime card to play against Beijing. “In 2016, almost 80 percent of China’s oil imports passed through the South China Sea via the Strait of Malacca,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower program wrote. Most of that trade would arguably be crude originating from the Middle East, brought in tankers crossing the Indian Ocean.

New Delhi is potentially in a good position to hamper such lanes. The Indian subcontinent juts out into the ocean like a pier; its territory thus offers various vantage points from which rival ships could be targeted. Moreover, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the Indian Navy and Air Force have a sizable presence, are closer to Indonesia and Malaysia. These pieces of Indian territory are scattered just north of the waters taken by most container ships on their way eastbound toward the Malacca Strait.

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As stated by Zorawar Daulet Singh, an expert with the Centre for Policy Research, in his excellent book, “Powershift: India–China Relations in a Multipolar World”:

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Indian strategists know that China is aware of the fact that the Indian navy eyes Chinese SLOCs [sea lines of communication] through the Malacca Strait as its ‘Achilles heel’ and that a detour through the Sunda or Lombok Straits will not ensure complete security for China’s strategic commodity trade because, ultimately, Chinese SLOCs traverse near the Indian peninsula.

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And yet New Delhi likely would not block, or attack, such shipping routes (attacking a rival’s navy is naturally possible, however).

To be sure, my point is not that India is such a benign power on the global stage that New Delhi would shy away from untoward pressure tactics. Far from it – in its own neighborhood, India has been seen acting tough for the sake of its national interests. New Delhi has, for instance, used blockades of transit against Nepal when pressuring Kathmandu over certain issues (these blockades were an unwise approach and served to push Nepal closer to China, but this does not change the fact that New Delhi tried the tactic). Rather, India would not block or attack civilian shipping lanes precisely because of New Delhi’s national interests, instead of any democratic sentiment or sense of international goodwill.

First of all, the same lanes serve India’s friends and partners, both from the West and the East, such as Japan. A wholesale blockade of shipments from the Indian side of the strait would create as many challenges for such countries as it would for China (not to speak of diplomatic and legal nightmares New Delhi would cause for itself). Tokyo, for instance, is just as reliant on oil traveling through the Strait of Malacca as China is. For Saudi Arabia, a country with which India also enjoys good relations, shipments of oil to China, Japan, and South Korea through the same lanes constitute a large part of total crude exports (with India being an important client as well).

“Blockades, even during war, are difficult to enforce these days without affecting other non-combatant countries, so that is unlikely to be an approach India takes,” wrote Jabin T. Jacob, a professor at Shiv Nadar University, in correspondence with me. “India is a responsible maritime power and unless [it] had specific intelligence about Chinese ships and contraband or unless they were military vessels, [India] would not attack them in the case of a conflict with China.”

Second, one could argue that since a blockade could caused more harm for New Delhi in relations with partners and friends than it would bring benefits in rivalry with China, India could opt to target only shipments to China. This tactic presumably would be tough to execute as well – obviously, not every cargo ship on its way to, or from, China, is a ship owned by a Chinese companies. These also include, for instance, ships run by the international Danish shipping giant, Maersk. I am not even elaborating here on the fact that in case it comes to such blows, China could temporarily block at least parts of its exports to India (on which New Delhi relies much more than Beijing relies on imports from India), by simple administrative decisions, without resorting to blocking cargo ships on waters with a navy.

Third, Beijing would not be powerless to act against India in a similar way. New Delhi would hold an advantage as long as it does not make the mistake of dispatching its navy east of the Strait of Malacca (where China would emerge victorious from a one-on-one confrontation). For the country’s air force and navy, keeping to the Indian Ocean would mean having Indian islands and enormous land with a long coast to fall back upon. However, China does have a presence in these waters, albeit a much smaller one than India – the Djibouti base. Thus, in case one argues that New Delhi could indeed put a China-bound cargo ship in danger, it may be pointed out that the Chinese navy may build the capacity to do the same thing, even if to a lesser degree, to a India-bound ship in waters closer to Djibouti. The same may one day be true for the Chinese presence in Pakistan.

In the above-mentioned book, Daulet Singh terms the assumptions that India could block maritime routes a “Mahanian delusion” (a reference to the geopolitical thinker, A.T. Mahan). “The typical Mahanian solution to the China challenge is that India … [can pose a] nuisance to China’s sea lines of communication.” Some argue that since India is weaker on land – in case of a military confrontation over the contested Himalayan frontier – New Delhi should use its comparative advantages at sea, the author writes.

However, Daulet Singh notes, “50 percent of India’s trade now goes through the Malacca and Singapore Straits” and complete control over wider waters is usually not a dominion of one power. India and China, “in their respective regions … cannot unilaterally acquire the sea control necessary to secure blue water [sea lines of communication].” From this perspective, India turns out to not have such a crucial edge over China when it comes to maritime trade.

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