The number of pins on the map denoting Chinese built or controlled ports worries former Indian naval officer Abhijit Singh.
- Indian figures fear Chinese ports may be used for naval deployments
- Some see China’s influence growing amid uncertainty over US presence
- India rejected Australia’s request to observe naval exercises
“The Chinese have invested in some long term infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, in Pakistan, there’s their presence in Bangladesh, as well as in Myanmar,” said Mr Singh, now a maritime analyst with the Observer Research Foundation think tank.
“That means that India is in some ways going to be surrounded by Chinese infrastructure projects.
“The fear is that these Chinese ports could then later be used for maritime and naval deployments.”
Figures within India’s Government also acknowledge that concern.
Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale heads the Department of Foreign Affairs for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“I think there is a kind of overwhelming presence that’s happening in several parts of India’s neighbourhood,” he told the ABC.
Dr Chauthaiwale is an influential figure in shaping the Hindu Nationalist Government’s global outreach, and forthright on India’s position on the South China sea.
“As far as the South China Sea is concerned, India’s policy is clear that we are for the freedom of movement and that policy is in alignment with several other countries including Japan, Vietnam etc,” he said.
But asked about his Government’s feelings on China’s forays closer to India’s shores, he said simply: “I don’t want to comment on it.”
It is a clear indication of how sensitive the matter is for New Delhi.
Mr Singh said India’s defence analysts see the naval facilities China is building on the disputed South China Sea islands as a threat in their ocean.
“It would become easier for China to start projecting power into the Indian Ocean region,” he said.
“Already we are seeing that the Chinese submarine deployments in the region have grown substantially.”
China pounces on age of American uncertainty
The concerns come amid continuing speculation over how globally engaged the United States will remain under President Donald Trump.
Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings think tank in New Delhi said Beijing was benefiting from that uncertainty.
“China’s rise as an international power has accelerated under these circumstances,” he said.
“Not because in material terms Chinese power has rapidly increased in the last few months but basically because of a withdrawal in some ways, or that uncertainty about US power projection in the region.”
Last Friday at the Shangri-La defence dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis sought to allay fears that America was vacating its global leadership role.
“We cannot and will not accept unilateral changes to the status quo,” Mr Mattis said.
“We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve and operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond.”
Mr Singh said while India planned on expanding its naval capacity, his country saw America’s role as leading a regional balancing act.
“It is being seen by New Delhi as imperative that it expands its own operational presence in the region, and to do that it would need the assistance of its close partners and friends, the US, Japan and Australia,” he said.
Worried about provoking Beijing, Australia left out of regional exercises
But India isn’t moving too quickly, apparently fearful of a Beijing backlash.
Australia confirmed last week that India had rejected its request to observe naval exercises between America, India and Japan.
Mr Singh said New Delhi’s reluctance to acquiesce to Australian involvement was pragmatic.
“Because the message might be seen as a bit too provocative by China,” he said.
Brookings India’s Dhruva Jaishankar said that was because — like Australia — India is increasingly economically dependent on its regional rival.
“There is a need at the same time not just to take an adversarial position, and strictly balance in the traditional sense, but also to develop, particularly economically, a much more cooperative relationship with China,” he said.
Also in Singapore last Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull implored China to respect the sovereignty of its neighbours and ‘rules-based order’ which he said had underpinned Asia’s growth.
Mr Turnbull said 21st century China would gain from respecting its neighbours’ sovereignty.
What is clear is that Australia is certainly not alone in feeling torn between economic and security goals.
By James Bennett