In the wake of the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, the obligation to protect trading ventures and shipping routes throughout the Indo-Pacific region increasingly falls on the shoulders of other actors, such as China and India. While their relationship is often assumed to be competitive, the multifaceted nature of maritime challenges compels their enhanced cooperation to ensure maritime security. In the nineteenth session of the “China-South Asia Dialogues” seminar series, Vice Admiral Pradeep Kaushiva and Commodore Rajeev Sawhney, director and founder of India’s National Maritime Foundation, respectively, discussed the challenges faced by China and India in the Indo-Pacific and the potential for future multilateral security measures with a panel of Chinese experts. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Naval Strategy

Quoting India’s former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one Indian analyst stressed the centrality of the Indian Ocean not only for India’s sea-borne trade, but also for its independence of action.

  • Maritime Deterrence: Quoting Admiral Sureesh Mehta, an Indian expert asserted that the Indian Navy must be structured to comprehensively subdue a range of potential adversaries in a conflict. He asserted that this stance posits that India’s maritime military strategy is predicated on preparing for a possible conflict, while maintaining a posture of strategic deterrence to ensure peace. He advocated that the Indian Navy project power, catalyze partnerships, and build trust and interoperability.
  • Sea Control: Describing India’s naval force levels, one Indian analyst emphasized that they remain guided by sea control, with aircraft carriers playing a significant role. In addition, he described the role of submarines not just in littoral operations, but also in sea-based deterrence and fleet support. This suggests the need for a submarine force structure that consists of both conventional and nuclear submarines, one Indian expert stressed.

Naval Aims

India’s navy prioritizes enhanced maritime domain awareness, which it achieves with sensors and platforms ranging from satellites to a mix of reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, argued one Indian analyst. He noted the need for enhanced reach and sustainability. To this end, long-range air defense, anti-missile defense, and long-range anti-surface warfare capability using precision-guided weapons are key. One Indian expert cited the need for anti-submarine warfare capabilities for deep waters and challenging littorals. Another expert added that an amphibious capability supported by network-centric warfare via a dedicated geo-stationary naval satellite is an important means to protect territories. 

  • Challenges: Despite a lengthy list of aims for India’s navy, one Indian expert conceded that this branch of the armed forces continues to occupy the smallest portion of India’s military budget. This fact, combined with shipbuilding capacity constraints, project execution delays, technology gaps, inefficiencies in indigenous industry capacities, and manpower limitations, have left India’s navy behind. Nonetheless, an Indian expert cited the promise of imports and growing cooperation with the regional navies of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and extra-regional navies of South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and France, as a means of closing gaps faced by New Delhi.
  • South China Sea: A Chinese expert inquired as to India’s stance toward the tensions in the South China Sea. One of the Indian analysts said that resolution is up to bilateral parties, while another advocated a multilateral solution. Both stressed that India seeks to remain outside such disputes; however, it does retain interests tied to safe maritime passage under international law.
  • Mutual Interests: One Indian expert explained that while New Delhi remains interested in the Indian Ocean, a significant portion of trade continues to flow through the South China Sea. As a result, India is naturally interested in the South China Sea, just as China has its own concerns in the Indian Ocean. Another Indian analyst noted that as the United States continues its withdrawal from Afghanistan and rebalancing in the region, other countries will be compelled to take its place to provide regional security. One Chinese analyst questioned whether or not the “free ride” on security provided in the past by the United States would give way to something new. An Indian expert responded that rather than leaving the responsibility to simply one power, China, India, and the United States should cooperate to maintain regional maritime security.


One Indian participant suggested that India has begun to look to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ model. Among its initiatives, India has promoted a multilateral initiative called Milan that targets disaster relief, as well as search and rescue exercises. Similarly, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium serves as a gathering of naval chiefs of Indian Ocean countries to discuss matters of regional concern and interest. When asked how to square Indian claims of multilateral outreach with its past statements and potential efforts to control other maritime pathways, an Indian expert responded that rather than seeking external controls, India is attempting to protect its interests from infringement by both state and non-state actors. 

  • Marching Eastward: One of the Chinese analysts cited media reports in India that Beijing seeks to “march westward” and noted that some in China believe India wishes to “march eastward.” He asked about the chance of confrontation or rivalry. An Indian expert responded that the ocean is a global common, but regardless the “flag follows the trade” and military capabilities serve to shore up economic interests. To this end, he asserted that for India it remains essential to ensure non-interference in movement in accordance with international law. One of the Chinese analysts inquired as to whether or not Japan-India ties would serve to fill any gaps left by the United States. An Indian expert stressed New Delhi’s nonaligned stance and emphasized that naval cooperation remains a standard activity.
  • Building Trust: One of the Indian experts suggested that even more than rhetoric, actions and transparency are the key linchpins to building mutual trust. As such, joint measures to combat piracy, drug running, human trafficking, and environmental protection could be achievable stepping stones for advancing Sino-Indian cooperation. While lauding Indian efforts to boost joint efforts, one of the Chinese participants questioned whether U.S. rebalancing would cause India to assume a greater role in the Indian Ocean by building up its military capabilities. In response, an Indian expert suggested that U.S. physical presence in the region has less of an impact than its investments in maintaining regional security. He suggested that U.S. economic rebalancing would ultimately play a greater role than its military rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific region.

Discussants: Zhu Feng, Su Hao, Song Haixiao, Qiu Zhenwei, Zhou Zhiwei, Xie Chao, Hu Ruoyu, Ren Yuanzhe, Ren Jingjing, Zhu Fagen, Shen Fang, Pu Zhuangyi, Lin Yongfeng