Maritime Rivalry of the Two Rising Superpowers: India and China’s Quest to Dominate the Indian Ocean


The Sino-Indian rivalry includes an inexorably noticeable naval dimension amid the nations’ maritime developments and deployments in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The geographical positioning of China and India has made them fall under the rivalry even if they do not share a naval boundary. The Indian Ocean is the route to global trade and transportation. China’s growing naval capabilities which include submarines and access to ports encompassing the Indian Ocean are the prime concern of India. On the other hand, China is concerned about India reaching the Western Pacific which will obstruct China’s dominance in the region. Though it is assumed that war remains a remote prospect, this maritime rivalry between the two states has given birth to several other issues. We are going to learn why the Indian Ocean has remained a matter of protracted rivalry for China and India and why the states desperately want to dominate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).



It is hard to avoid a crash when two regional superpowers are entangled with the fate of geography! The Indian Ocean has remained a burning maritime issue for both India and China. The two states have time and again got into a competition to dominate the Indian Ocean for the strategic advantages it offers. The two rising superpowers have founded their ports in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean so that they can directly participate in strategic issues related to the Indian Ocean. It is stated by the experts that it is less likely for both India and China to start a war but the stability of the region might get stressed due to the rhetoric and formation of ports and military bases by the countries in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean.

Competition regarding resource and energy security, natural and financial issues exacerbated by environmental change; the association of external powers like China, and the development of regional powers like India underscore an increased requirement for attention towards this region. Global and regional commerce is highly interlinked with the Indian Ocean making the region one of the most important geostrategic areas.


Why is Indian Ocean Important?

Donald L. Berlin, Head of Security Studies, Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii stated-“The Indian Ocean Region had become the strategic heartland of the 21st century; dislodging Europe and North-East Asia which adorned this position in the 20th century. The developments in the Indian Ocean Region were contributing to the advent of a less Western-centric and a more multi-polar world” (Hufnagel, 2020). This statement proves the significance of the Indian Ocean and how it is identified as the heartland of the 21st century!

The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean which comprises at least one-fifth of the total ocean area of the world including the Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Flores Sea, Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Java Sea, Mozambique Channel, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Savu Sea, Strait of Malacca, Timor Sea, and other tributary water bodies. It is an extremely important strategic water body for India and China.

IOR is encompassed by Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, India’s coastal waters, and the Bay of Bengal. It is the provider of important sea trade routes connecting Europe to the West and the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with the Asian continent in the East. The Indian Ocean is a very rich region with huge energy reserves. It produces a huge amount of offshore petroleum which comprises almost 40% of the world’s offshore petroleum. Some of the world’s most significant key choke-points, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca through which 32.2 millions barrels of raw petroleum and oil are moved every day, and more than 50% of the world’s maritime oil trade are found in the Indian Ocean Region (CIA, 2018 online).


Why is the Indian Ocean an element of attraction?

China and India are largely dependent on the safe sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean to transport the energy resources through which their economies are fueled. With the help of these sea-lanes, they maintain global trade through water movement. Maritime trade is extremely significant and the Indian Ocean connects the two countries with other states. The Indian Ocean is a very important Geo-strategic region, heightened the dependence of India and China for their economic growth and political influence. The Indian Ocean is enriched with natural resources making it a region of protracted attraction (Albert, 2016).

The naval presence of China in the Indian Ocean for the past three decades have made India think about it. The expanded engagements of China in the region bothered India and they also took the initiative to balance out the situation. But, why is this region so important for these two states? Let’s get into the facts to understand this question.

Maritime Trade: The Indian Ocean has important sea trade routes connecting Europe to the West and the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with the Asian continent in the East. It is a medium of global trade and shares the privilege of connecting the international economy. this is especially significant in a period in which worldwide transportation has expanded. Today, almost 90,000 vessels on the planet’s commercial fleet transport 9.84 billion tons each year. This speaks to a very nearly four times increment in the volume of business continuing since 1970 (Pandya, Kobayashi & Burns, 2011). The energy moves through the Indian Ocean are of a specific outcome. Nearly 36 million barrels for every day—proportional to around 40% of the world’s oil supply and 64 percent of oil exchange—travel through the portals into and out of the Indian Ocean, which includes the Straits of Malacca, Straits of Hormuz, and the Bab-el-Mandeb (EIA, 2011)

The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most significant oil chokepoint since its stream of around 17 million barrels for every day in 2015, representing 30% of all seaborne-traded unrefined petroleum and different fluids. The volume that went through this crucial chokepoint expanded toward 18.5 million billion dollars in 2016 (EIA, 2017). The Strait of Malacca is the essential chokepoint in Asia, with an expected 16.0 million b/d stream in 2016, and 14.5 million billion dollars in 2011. Crude oil makes up somewhere in the range of 85% and 90% of oil streams every year, and petroleum-based goods represent the remainder. Bab-el-Mandeb is the strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean through which approximately 4.8 million billion dollars of crude oil and petroleum products have flowed in 2016 and passed to the USA, Europe, and Asia. (EIA, 2017).

Rich Resource Base: The Indian Ocean is a very rich region. 16.8% of the world’s total oil reserves are held by the Indian Ocean. It also holds 27.9% of the proven natural gas resource of the world. It comprised 35.5% of the world’s iron production and 17.8% of global gold production in the year 2017. Living resources is one of the greatest assets of the Indian Ocean. As indicated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), catches from Indian Ocean marine fisheries have taken off from under 900,000 tons in 1950 to 11.3 million tons in 2010, about 14.6 percent of the world catch. Aquaculture – cultivating fish, shellfish, and catching other oceanic creatures – has extended similarly quickly, growing twelve times around the world since 1980. In 2010, six Indian Ocean countries – India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Egypt, and Myanmar – considered as a part of the best ten producers around the world, providing over 11.3 million tons of fish between them, as much as all the area’s captured fisheries together ( FAO,2010). 28% of the world’s fish capture was from the Indian Ocean in 2016 and since the 1950s this region has been one of the most important regions for capturing fish. Exporting these fishes has accelerated the economy of India in 2017.


Read More: Potential Role of China in South Asia as a Country Leading the BRI


The string of Pearl VS Necklace of Diamonds:

China and India have strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region and they have taken initiatives which are known as “String of Pearls” and the “Necklace of Diamonds” to overrule the dominance of their rival state.

The String of Pearls is a geopolitical strategic theory established by China to gain facilities from the Indian Ocean Region. The pearl here refers to each port on the Indian Ocean coastline. These metaphoric pearls act as the economic center and military surveillance for China. China established naval bases in Kyaukpyu, Sittwe, Coco, Hianggyi, Mergui, and Zadetkyi Kyunport in Myanmar, Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambanthota port in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Djibouti, and Somalia to create influence in the IOR.

Necklace of Diamonds is the strategy taken by India to counter the String of Pearl strategy of China. India’s strategic bases include Changi Naval Base in Singapore, Sabang Port in Indonesia, Duqm Port in Oman, Assumption Island in Seychelles, and Chabahar Port in Iran.


Brief History: Foreign Military Bases

Even though India and China have formed multiple foreign military bases, it was not the same from the beginning. The anti-colonial and anti-imperial framework of China and India’s foreign policies were highly inclined to remove western military bases from Asia and the Indian Ocean. But, soon this changed as they viewed the necessity of foreign military bases through the lens of security and not through the ideological significance.

China already had a clash with the fellow communist nation Soviet Union during the 1960s and the 1970s and so they had leaned towards the USA for forming a friendly relation as well as for creating a regional balance. With this, China also deliberately stopped its campaign against the military bases of the USA in Asia. On the other hand, India soon after realizing the alliance between the USA and China, builds a friendly relationship with the Soviet Union to balance out this alliance.

It is evident that though India and China did not appreciate the American military bases and strictly tried to instill it in their foreign policies, soon they changed their views to deter the growing alliance of their rivals.

Present Condition:

China is attempting to grow not only in the Indian border as well as is trying to take control over its maritime interests. China, under the ‘String of Pearls,” has set up army installations i.e military bases at Chittagong in Bangladesh, Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka,  Maldives, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. This has become a significant danger for India’s geostrategic potential benefit. Furthermore, with a maritime base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, China is good to go to enclose India from the Indian Ocean Region. India is a very efficient naval force is likewise driving some counter initiatives like the ‘Necklace of Diamonds’ and has been developing its engagements in Djibouti. Let us further discuss the initiatives taken by India and China:

The string of Pearls: China strategically built its naval bases around India which works both as their economic and political bases. China has also been often related to the “debt trap policy” for investing in these ports. The ports that enclose India are briefly discussed below:


  1. Pakistan: China made a maritime base in Gwadar, Pakistan, as the part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) venture, Gwadar. This port will assist China with handling India from the west side during any war-like circumstance.
  2. Bangladesh: China has a presence in the Chittagong port of Bangladesh which allows China to enter the heart of the Bay of Bengal. China has invested a lot in Bangladesh and Bangladesh is important for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project too.
  3. Myanmar: China has a presence in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port. The port arranged in the Bay of Bengal has given China admittance to having commercial Maritime facilities which can be utilized as a military facility at the hour of conflict. China has invested hugely and 2400 km gas pipeline associating Kyaukyu and Kunming is an example of it.
  4. Sri Lanka: Chinese presence in the Hambantota port of Sri Lanka is a heavily discussed topic. China has given $360 million to establish the port of Hambantota that incorporates building a harbor, load terminals, and a refueling depot. Other than Chinese financing of commercial port development, it is assumed that Hambantota will one day fill in as a base for Chinese warships.
  5. Maldives: As indicated by the most recent satellite pictures, the Chinese leased Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu Island has gone through a gigantic facelift. The island, rented until 2066 by China from the Maldivian government for $4 million, has seen a sensational increment in size from 38,000 sq. meters to 100,000 sq meters and is going through fast development also (EurAsian Times Desk, 2020).


Necklace of Diamonds:

The Necklace of Diamonds is the answer to the String of Pearls.

  1. Singapore: The Changi naval base has given access to the Indian Navy to use in terms of necessity. In 2018, Prime Minister Modi consented to an arrangement with Singapore. The understanding has given direct entrance to this base to the Indian Navy. While cruising through the South China Sea, the Indian Navy will be able to refuel and rearm its ships through this base.
  2. Oman: The Duqm port in Oman which is situated in the South-eastern seaboard of Oman, is a port which helps India with their crude oil imports from the Persian Gulf. Most importantly, this port is located between the Djibouti base and Gwadar base of Pakistan which are two pearls of the String of Pearls.
  3. Indonesia: The Sabang port of Indonesia is another naval access that India attained in 2018. This is an important point because through this maritime trade and crude oil passes to China.
  4. Seychelles: China has been working to increase its presence in Africa and so India needs to balance out the situation. In this regard, in 2018 India and the Assumption Islands of Seychelles has decided to form an Indian naval base.
  5. Iran: The Chabahar port of Iran is important because it provides India accessibility to Afghanistan and a significant maritime trade route to Central Asia. Prime Minister Modi has signed an agreement in the year 2016 regarding the formation of a port in Chabahar, Iran.

Other than forming naval bases, India is also maintaining good relations with Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and all 5 countries of Central Asia.



The Indian Ocean region is important because of its rich resources and extremely significant naval routes. India and China are the two regional superpowers of Asia at present and both the states are working to gain superiority over the other. When one is creating a strategy of String of Pearls, the other built the strategy of Necklace of Diamonds. The debt trap policy, CPEC, OBOR initiative, and maritime diplomacy of China has kept India under constant tension. The expanding presence of India and China has created a continuous state of instability in the region. This shows that both China and India are entangled in this vigorous game of proving their dominance over the IOR.


Mubassira Tabassum Hossain
Bangladesh University of Professionals.



Central Intelligence Agency. (2018). World Factbook 2018, Central Intelligence Agency: Langley (USA). [online] Available at:[Accessed 22 June 2018].


  1. Hufnagel, Levente. 2020. Changing Ecosystem And Their Services. 1st ed. London: IntechOpen.
  2. Pandya, Amit.Junko, Kobayashi, and Rupert, Herbert-Burns. 2011. Maritime Commerce And Security: The Indian Ocean. Washington, DC: Stimson Center.
  3. Fao.Org.
  4. Dabas, Manindar. 2017. “Here Is All You Should Know About ‘String Of Pearls’, China’s Policy To Encircle India”. Indiatimes.
  5. Albert, Eleanor. 2016. “Competition In The Indian Ocean”. Council On Foreign Relations.
  6. Desk, Eurasian. 2020. “Chinese Military Base In The Indian Ocean Near the Maldives To Complete ‘String Of Pearls’ Around India?”. Eurasian Times: Latest Asian, Middle-East, Eurasian, Indian News.


Energy Information Administration, U.S. 2017. “International – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)”. Eia.Gov.

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