India, China and Naval Cooperation

R. Bhanu Krishna Kiran
Independent Researcher, International Law and Strategic Affairs

India and China today confront multifaceted and tenuous security challenges linked to the maritime domain, including piracy, terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and arms smuggling. These issues are of concern to both the countries. Tackling these threats requires cooperation between Delhi and Beijing and also with other navies in the region. Not even the United States, can address these issues on their own for an array of political, financial and operational reasons. The Indian and Chinese navies can no longer act in isolation and will have to coordinate with each other and with navies of other countries effectively.

Naval cooperation between states could include ship visits, personal exchanges, naval talks, exercises, joint doctrine development, mine counter measures, peace keeping operations, sea lines of communication (SLOC) protection, and prior notification.  It is noticeable that although the military role is primarily the constabulary, diplomatic and benign roles of Indian and Chinese navies would become significant in the near future.  For instance, the Zheng He training ship, with more than 300 sailors and students from the Dalian Naval Academy on voyage around the world reached India’s Kochi Port on 9 May 2012 for a four-day goodwill visit.  On the other hand, the four Indian warships comprising missile destroyer Rana, stealth frigate Shivalik, missile corvette Karmuk and fleet tanker Shakti took part in joint naval exercises in Shanghai, which integrated formal navigation, search and rescue and landing and taking off of helicopters from each other’s decks. 

India and China recognize the significance of enforcement of good order at sea, to prevent piracy and terrorism. To combat these crimes at sea coordinated maritime strategies and multilateral naval participations are required.  Consequently, India and China have moved forward to institute regular meetings to enhance cooperation and coordination in their marine enforcement activities. Recently, they decided to undertake joint operations against piracy.  Both countries seek to involve their respective coast guard, navies and air force in action against pirates.

A bilateral joint group that will include the foreign ministries and the ministries of defence, shipping and oceanography will work out the details of this co-operation. China is  also closely cooperating with the Japanese and Indian navies in patrolling against piracy off Somalia, an indication of Chinese intention to work with India and other nations in safeguarding global trade.  India, China and Japan have recently agreed for better coordination amongst their naval ships deployed for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. As per the convoy coordination plan put into operation with effect from 1st January, 2012, one of the navies is nominated as a ‘Reference Navy’ for a period of three months, which puts forward its escort plan for that. The other navies then worked out a plan allowing ‘Reference Navy’ to have complete jurisdiction.  The Reference Navy is rotated every three months in alphabetical order.

It is imperative India and China to protect sea-borne trade, safeguard their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), protect living and non-living resources, and keep the SLOC open and safe for navigation. Naval cooperation between India and China contributes to achieving these objectives and also other littoral states to track their maritime interests and enlarge their marine resources in conformity with established principles of international law. The following international legal instruments provide the framework within which India and China can take their naval cooperation ahead. These include, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS), Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS), The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as amended in 1978 (MARPOL 73/78) and the Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979 (SAR), Convention for Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988 (SUA) and its Protocol covering offshore facilities, SUA 2005 Convention that brings together the 1988 Convention and its 2005 Protocols to create new measures related to maritime terrorism and shipment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000 etc. 

India and China should also open a new chapter by agreeing to cooperate on capacity building, including the promotion of training and educational programmes of naval personnel for safeguarding the law order at sea, the preservation and protection of the marine environment and the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution.  Such cooperation may oblige to incorporate the exchange of naval and law enforcement personnel and establishment of joint maritime centers at choke points in the Indian Ocean may convey India and China together to face any maritime threat. These can act as important confidence building measures between the two countries.

Despite issues like stapled visas to people from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, the political and economic relations between India and China are on the rise and that the borders were also peaceful.  The interaction between Indian and Chinese navies at sea will provide momentum to the fostering of friendly relations. In addition to anti-piracy, the naval cooperation should be extended to prevent terrorism, smuggling activities and for search and rescue operations.  Naval cooperation will build the confidence and common understanding and be instrumental in preventing future scuffles between the two competing naval powers in the Indian Ocean region.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of IIT Madras China Studies Centre)


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