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Manuscript deadline
27 August 2020

Cover image - Journal of the Indian Ocean Region

Journal of the Indian Ocean Region

Special Issue Editor(s)

Amit Ranjan, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore
[email protected]

Alan Bloomfield, School of Social Sciences, Curtin University
[email protected]

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Coping with Challenges: Small States and India-China Rivalry in the Northern Indian Ocean Region

Sino-Indian relations have long been ‘complicated’ by a series of bilateral disagreements. Rivalry and competition between these two powers is therefore becoming ever-more visible across the entire Indo-Pacific. Ever since Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon (2011) scholars have become increasingly interested in how this dynamic is playing out in the Indian Ocean. Notable contributions from just the past two years alone include Brewster’s India and China at Sea (2018), Linter’s The Costliest Pearl (2019) and Basrur, Mukherjee and Paul’s India-China Maritime Competition.

This Special Edition will not, however, focus on Sino-Indian rivalry directly. Instead, and in response to what we perceive as the general neglect of such matters in favour of analysing the activities of great powers (including the United States) in the Indian Ocean, the papers in this Special Edition will examine how small- and medium-sized states in the Northern Indian Ocean Region are responding to both the challenges and the opportunities the Sino-Indian rivalry potentially presents to them.

The Northern Indian Ocean Region is dominated in many ways by India, which accounts for roughly 75% of South Asia’s population, GDP and defence spending; India also sits astride some of the busiest trade routes in the world, not least because those routes carry goods, and especially energy resources, to China. But the Northern Indian Ocean Region also contains a number of small and middle powers which are increasingly economically and strategically important. Due to their geography, ties with India are intrinsically important to all of these countries; however, many also increasingly depend on China for investments and capital and, in Pakistan’s case especially, for strategic support too. All are signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding which informs China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China typically talks about the BRI only in economic and ‘connectivity’ terms, its rivals allege that the BRI has a strategic dimension too. India in particular has alleged China is improperly interfering in what New Delhi considers its ‘natural’ sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, and the Northern part thereof especially. 

Some scholars, critics – and states, including India – warn that the BRI represents a new form of imperialistic, ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy which will underpin a China-dominated New World Order. The case which is routinely raised as an example concerns Hambantota port; the allegation is that Sri Lanka was enticed to borrow too much from China and, when it was unable to repay the debt, Colombo was forced to lease the newly-built port (and airport, industrial zone, etc.) to a Chinese state-owned entity for the next 99 years on unfavourable terms.

India is responding to the perceived challenge of China’s BRI in various ways past choosing to not participate in it by, for example, promoting SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). This is primarily designed to connect Indian ports, but other regional states have also been invited to take part. India, Australia and the United States, have also expressed interest in Japan’s proposal for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific scheme, which promotes infrastructure development along more ‘sustainable’ and ‘transparent’ lines.

It is important to note, however, that Sino-Indian rivalry does not just pose challenges to the small/medium states in the Northern Indian Ocean Region. Opportunities potentially arise too, and the Bangladesh case probably illustrates these best: Dhaka has signed treaties with both powers granting them greater access to Chittagong and Mongla ports in exchange for infrastructure-assistance schemes.

Sino-Indian rivalry therefore provides both opportunities and challenges to the small- and medium-sized states in the Northern Indian Ocean Region. All – with the possible exception of Pakistan – would presumably prefer to maintain good relations with both India and China. But this may not be possible, and if Sino-Indian competition/rivalry continues to grow regional states may find themselves facing difficult choices.

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Submission Instructions

Contributions are welcome from scholars in the foreign affairs of the following countries: the Seychelles; Oman; Iran; Pakistan; the Maldives; Sri Lanka; Bangladesh; Myanmar; and Thailand. Such papers could possibly consider the following (non-exclusive) themes:

Evidence that small or medium sized states are either seizing opportunities by ‘playing off’ China and India against one another to secure more-favourable trade, investment and/or strategic concessions – and/or such states are ‘struggling to deal with’ the challenges posed by Sino-Indian rivalry – regarding the following matters:

  • Acquisition, construction, and upgrading (etc.) of ports and other related infrastructure projects in the Northern Indian Ocean Region;
  • The signing of preferential trade, immigration, tourism (etc.) arrangements;
  • Strategic co-operation matters, including (but not limited to) arms-sales, port-access agreements, logistical-supply arrangements (etc.);
  • Global and/or regional diplomatic/multilateral initiatives or organisations; and
  • Other related or relevant matters.

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