Coming out of the shadow of the ‘Panchsheel’ principles, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been ticking all the right boxes, especially when it comes to countering India’s most compelling competitor, China. As both cooperation and deterrence are integral parts of any foreign policy, what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has achieved in the last four years to secure India’s interests, as far as China is concerned, is worth taking note. The Prime Minister appears to be not only engaging with China but also parallelly replying to one of its unofficial strategy of ‘String of Pearls’, through creation of an unofficial deterrence. We have made an attempt to decode this.
First of all, What is China’s String of Pearls?
According to experts, it is an attempt by China to encircle India through maintaining and developing its strategic bases in countries around India, such as Pakistan, Maldives, Myanmar among others which will help in confining India to its own land and limiting its influence on the neighbouring countries. This also provides China with an easy access and control over the vast Indian ocean. Interestingly, even when China continued to pursue this strategy, however unofficially, previous government of India had no reply to it.
This string of pearls phenomena in the background of recent Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy has got a further boost as China is now not only focussing on countries around India but going further to Central Asia and Africa.
So, what is India’s answer to this unofficial strategy now?
India’s Necklace of Diamonds
Some strategic experts have always talked about a potential necklace of diamonds (strategic bases) that India can use to garland China or deploy the very Chinese strategy of encirclement. They have even hailed it as India’s answer to China’s string of pearls. However, this looked like a distant reality a few years ago, but with the changing geo-strategic realities and a ‘power’ push from the top leadership of India in recent times, there is now a significant progress towards this seemingly distant goal.
Let us analyse the emerging pattern from India’s recent foreign policy pushes, especially in the background of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits.
- Changi Naval Base, Singapore – Prime Minister Narendra Modi paved the way for signing of a significant agreement between India and Singapore which provided Indian Navy ‘direct’ access to this naval base. This is crucial as Indian navy ships can now not only refuel but even rearm while sailing through the South China Sea.
- Sabang Port, Indonesia – India got the military access to a strategic port like Sabang in 2018, located right at the entrance of one of world’s most famous choke point, Malacca Strait. This is one of the most significant agreements, as India now holds the strategic position in the Indian ocean through which large chunk of trade and crude oil passes on to China. Indian Naval ship INS Sumitra had visited Sabang Port recently.
- Duqm Port, Oman – India leveraging its rising status in the Indian Ocean gained strategic military access to this port in 2018, located on the south-eastern seaboard of Oman which protects Indian interests in the western theatre of the Indian Ocean, especially for facilitating India’s crude imports from the Persian Gulf. Moreover, it is now an Indian facility located right between the two important Chinese pearls (bases) Djibouti in Africa and Gwadar in Pakistan.
- Assumption Island, Seychelles – Overcoming the initial resistance, India is now developing this naval base in Seychelles, first agreed in 2015. Both the countries have continued to work on the project which gives the military access to India. This particularly signifies India’s increasing strategic presence not only in Indian ocean but also in the African continent where China is desperately trying to penetrate through the maritime silk route.
- Chabahar Port, Iran – Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the contract for development of this port in 2016. This port provides India access to Afghanistan and a precious trade route to Central Asia. In fact, India is reportedly about to begin operations at the Iranian port soon. This will give an unprecedented boost to India’s plan to increase its co-operation and contacts with Asian and Central Asian countries.
India, Asia and Central Asia
Ashgabat Agreement & INSTC –
- India joined this multi-modal transport agreement in 2018, to access Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, which are western neighbours of China.
- In recent times, India has been seen increasing its engagements with various countries in Central Asia. This is essentially reflected in the remarkable increase of India’s trade with Central Asia from approximately $ 750 Mn in 2012-13 (here) to almost $ 1.5 Bn in 2017-18 (here). This is a growth of 100 per cent in the last 4-5 years.
- In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to have visited all five Central Asian countries in one go, since their formation.
- Ashgabat agreement has provided India land connectivity to Central Asia if seen in conjunction with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) in which India has hugely invested. This gives a clear view of the picture that India is not only escalating fast towards establishing connectivity to Russia but is also expanding its routes to all Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.
India, East Asia and South East Asia
- Mongolia is a country which is sandwiched between two giant neighbours, Russia and China. It has been actively looking to widen its relations with other countries, also known as its “Third Neighbour Foreign Policy”.
- Notably, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to develop India’s relationship with Mongolia. Factually, PM Narendra Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to have ever visited Mongolia, which is situated right in the backyard of China. This was particularly a strategic move to hint China that if it dares to come and play in and around India, we will no longer tolerate such overtures and can respond back methodically.
- The Prime Minister announced a credit line of $ 1 Bn to Mongolia. Mongolia has already started the construction of its first ever oil refinery using India’s credit line which will end its dependency on fuel from neighbouring countries like China and Russia.
- A recent visit by External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj to Mongolia in April 2018, which was also by an Indian EAM after the gap of around 42 years. Further, an important point which advertently gave this crucial relationship a boost was that India and Mongolia decided to establish an air-corridor which will end Mongolia’s dependency, a landlocked country, on China which keeps threatening it by land blockages. This gave a bargaining chip to Mongolia which it can easily leverage against China.
So, due to all these mindful efforts, a symbiotic relationship has been established between India and Mongolia. Both the countries have come closer than ever before and Mongolia is emerging as a diamond in India’s necklace.
- Japan is the Chinese neighbour on its north-eastern frontier. It has always felt threatened by the rise of China. By and large, the complementarities between Japan and China don’t exist.
- In fact, Japan has been aligned to USA’s camp since the days of cold war. India is its recent emerging special strategic partner to counter China’s influence.
- As soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Japan in 2014, Japan and India elevated their relationship and arrived at a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”.
- Not only this, India and Japan signed the long-pending civil nuclear agreement in 2016. This has been a major achievement of the Modi Government, as India is the only country outside of the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that has been signed by Japan for civil nuclear cooperation.
- Further, India and Japan are working together on a game-changing Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) which is being seen as a counter to China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR) initiative. China is so rattled by this plan that one of its leading news agencies found it a ‘division plan’.
This clearly shows that China is actually upset by this India and Japan’s joint strategic move on the ever-evolving ‘grand chessboard’ of Asia and Africa. Undoubtedly, Japan is the natural diamond of India’s necklace.
- Strengthening its deterrence against China, Vietnam, the south-east neighbour of China has been increasingly bestowing its full cooperation with This recently saw a greater boost when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country in 2016, after a gap of almost 15 years.
- This is also reflected in “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” between India and Vietnam.
- Further, India upped the ante by holding a joint naval exercise in 2018 with Vietnam in Vietnamese waters, the region is in proximity to the South China Sea. Chinese media reported it as a futile attempt to flex muscle.
- After much hesitation under the previous regime, Brahmos missiles deal with Vietnam is now in the advanced stage.
- India has also expedited the process of supplying high-speed patrol boats for Vietnamese coast guards.
- India’s satellite monitoring station in Vietnam, which is going to be activated soon, suggests that India is now ready to play a more constructive role in the South China Sea than ever before.
So, in recent times, Vietnam has emerged as yet another important diamond in India’s necklace, which will particularly be helpful to maintain a balance of power in the South East Asia region.
After looking at all the facts, it can be said that India in recent times has worked incessantly towards asserting itself to achieve a better strategic cooperation with other countries. India’s recent policy shift from Non-Alignment to Multi-Alignment also reflects in the above discussion. India is not only developing the existing strategic bases (diamonds in its necklace) but also building newer bases, as well.
Further, India is fast developing routes to reach Central Asian countries. All the countries discussed above have shown great interests in connecting and working together with India. Some of them are cooperating with India to increase their trade relations, while others to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in specific regions.
Resultantly, an explicit pattern has emerged from India’s recent foreign policy pushes that India has befriended with almost all the countries in China’s periphery, and in the way, this is giving India the strategic access. This pattern can be seen in the necklace of diamonds that garlands China.