Opposing China's influence
A new front has opened up in Indian Ocean geopolitics: New Delhi is taking a strong stand against expanding Chinese influence, writes Angus Grigg.
When a Chinese diesel-powered submarine docked at the Sri Lankan port of Colombo last September it was seen as a triumph of Beijing's newly acquired naval power. The vessel, known as Great Wall 329, moved from its base near Hainan Island, headed south and made its way though the Straits of Malacca.
In doing so it became only the second Chinese submarine to enter the Indian Ocean - the first was a nuclear vessel a year earlier - providing a direct challenge to American naval dominance in the region and unsettling India.
But far from being a triumph for Beijing, the docking of its Song class submarine in Colombo - an event that received little attention in Australia - has emerged as the catalyst for a re-alignment of the region's strategic balance.
The events that followed are now being described as Beijing's biggest strategic setback in decades.
This was on display in New Delhi during the week when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave US President Barack Obama the friendliest of bear hugs.
"He is tough and he's got style," Obama said of the Indian leader who returned the compliment by noting the visit had taken "relations to a new level".
Such is their apparent bromance that the Indian press have even dubbed them"Mobama".
These rapidly warming relations between Washington and Delhi are all about a bulwark against China. For Canberra the emergence of a more assertive India means the injection of additional strategic rivalry in an already crowded region. That leaves Australia, once again, caught in the middle - a position requiring the most delicate of diplomatic balancing acts.
The issue, as always, for Australia is how to manage its competing economic interests, which are reliant on China, and its security relationships with the US, Japan and now potentially India.
Diplomacy is a rarefied and often abstract world. But as 2014 drew to a close and Modi put his more muscular foreign policy into action theoretical discussions of shifting allegiances took shape. This is now the big strategic game being played in the region.
Known in New Delhi as "Act East" the doctrine is about being a more active player in the region, while developing better relations with countries in north and south-east Asia.
The more active part of the doctrine envisages standing up to China - a battle that would be played out in neighbouring Sri Lanka, as a rapidly emerging client state of Beijing. This would involve submarines, spies and even interfering in another country's election.
According to reports out of the Indian capital this week, it was the appearance of the Chinese sub in Sri Lanka in September that prompted Modi to buttress against Beijing.
"Every indication suggests it was a wake-up call for India's policy leadership," says Professor Rory Medcalf, the new head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
"I think the Indian security community saw it as unacceptable that China would not only have a regular submarine presence off its southern flank, but would do this without prior consultation or warning to India."
Indian diplomats, providing briefings before Obama's visit, have said Modi was furious with Colombo at not being told about the sub visit and extracted a pledge from the Sri Lankans that it would not happen again.
Just two months later the same vessel made a return visit without India's knowledge. "That was the last straw," a senior Indian diplomat told Reuters.
The Chinese naval presence in the Sri Lankan capital also served as a warning to others in the region, as two accompanying ships had docked at the Colombo International Container Terminal. As the name suggests this is a civilian port, but is actually part-owned by a Chinese State Owned Enterprise.
The worry was the China was using its commercial infrastructure assets for military purposes.
After putting all this together Modi looks to have given a green light to the first strategic gamble of his prime ministership, just five months after taking office.
This opportunity was re-enforced itself when Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, called an early election in October seeking a third term in office.
Despite concerns about corruption, nepotism and China's growing influence, Rajapaksa, who had brutally put an end to the country's 26-year civil war, was expected to coast back into office. That was until the Indians got involved.
Diplomats and operatives from New Delhi's foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW),are said to have been involved in engineering Rajapaksa's demise.
This appears to have been done by helping stitch together a disparate opposition and convincing, Maithripala Sirisena, to resign as Education Minister and contest the poll. On January 9, he became the country's 7th president - completing the transition from political outsider to president in just two months.
India's apparent involvement in his elevation was flagged by Sri Lanka's Sunday Times newspaper on December 28, when it reported that the RAW'S station chief in Colombo had been expelled for "links with the common opposition".
Whatever Delhi's involvement, the new Sri Lankan president has quickly re-focused his foreign service toward Delhi and promised to review all Chinese contracts entered into by the former government The most significant of these is Colombo's $US1.5 billion ($1.3 billion) Port City project, to be built on reclaimed land adjacent to the historic Galle Face Green. . The project is part of Beijing's so called Maritime Silk Road, and its construction was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit in September. The entire project is now in doubt as the review begins.
The new government is concerned about a Chinese state-owned enterprise being given 108 hectares of land in a "high security zone" adjoining the port.
The land was to be granted in return for constructing the precinct, which involves reclaiming 233 hectares.
Delhi has long been opposed to the project claiming a large number of cargos bound for India pass through the port. "China is certainly viewed in New Delhi with considerable mistrust" Medcalf says.
This mistrust has been around since the Sino-Indian war of 1962, but was rekindled during Xi's visit to Delhi in September.
While promising economic goodies, including $US20 billion to upgrade the country's ageing infrastructure, Beijing's actions indicated other ideas. It staged provocative military exercise in the disputed Himalayan border region during Xi's visit and positioned its shiny new submarine in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
"I think Modi would have felt rather betrayed and embarrassed by those actions," Medcalf says.
"China is now going to have to accept India as a major variable in the Indo-Pacific strategic game."
That game was being played in Delhi on Monday, as Obama became the first US President to be "chief guest" during India's Republic Day celebrations.
Aside from the pomp and symbolism, the two countries broke a deadlock on civilian nuclear co-operation but more importantly agreed to closer defence ties.
This could see the US sell India drones and advanced maritime surveillance aircraft allowing among other things better tracking of Chinese submarines.
Medcalf says this would be "game changing" technology for India.
"It would allow India to monitor its maritime approaches and move troops quickly to disputed mountain regions on the border with China," he says.
Beijing was predictably not happy and made its feelings well known via Xinhua, the state news agency.
It noted that Modi was banned from travelling to the US just a year ago and labelled the pair's friendship a "superficial rapprochement".
"Three days are surely not enough for Obama and Modi to become true friends, given their hard differences on issues like climate change, agricultural disputes and nuclear energy co-operation," Xinhua says.
China made no comment on Modi's most contentious utterance during Obama's visit - a plan to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, Japan, the US and Australia.
This grouping of regional democracies was enacted in the last days of the Howard Government, but was quickly scrapped when Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007.
When it was convened India was seen as the least enthusiastic of the participants. Now it is proposing the grouping be reformed.
It puts Australian in a difficult position. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was fiercely opposed by China, which viewed it was an effort in containment Those in Canberra who favoured greater engagement with China argued it was not in Australia's interests to divide the region on ideological lines - democracy being the divide - in a throwback to the days of the Cold War.
"We lost the argument then," says one person involved at the time of the Howard government's decision to sign up.
Faced with the same decision again, the outcome may well be different Australia has softened its language and approach to China in recent months, as trade rather than security issues have dominated the relationship. And it's not clear if even the US, which is enjoying warmer relationship with Beijing, supports the idea. Politely declining India's invitation might be a setback for India and Modi. But after China over-reached in south Asia, his Act East doctrine has already begun to take shape.
Such is their apparent bromance that the Indian press have even dubbed them 'Mobama'.
This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 31 January 2015 and is re-published here with permission.