Former Indian Foreign Secretary Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra has said that New Delhi is watching with both concern and interest China's advances in the Indian Ocean region.
"The Chinese have an interest in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi is watching the developments. If the Chinese get militarily interested in dominating the Indian Ocean, then India is strong enough to resist that," Rasgotra told ANI TV in an interview.
Referring to Beijing's interest in Pakistan, he said: "China also has a strategic interest in Pakistan.They have laid long roads across Pakistan to the Persian Gulf. It could serve them for economic services. In a war scenario, that road can be used against India, and you have ways to deal with it and the rest of the world won't take it."
"India will always be number one in the Indian Ocean and China will be way behind," Rasgotra said.
As regards developments related to the first phase of the construction of the Hambatota Port in Sri Lanka, Shanthie Mariet D'Souza , a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in the National University of Singapore (NUS), told ANI: "China is said to be contributing to more than half of Sri Lanka's development loans."
She also said the Indian Ocean has emerged as a great game between India and China.
"That the Indian Ocean is a major arena for great power competition and increased maritime rivalry would be indicative of the importance of the ocean not only for maritime security, but also for control over major trading routes and spheres of influence," she said.
Other strategic experts said China being Sri Lanka's largest infrastructure lender has raised concerns about the strategic importance of the southern Hambantota port to China.
Although China and Sri Lanka claim that this is merely a commercial venture, experts believe its future utility as a strategic asset for China cannot be ruled out.
Dr. R. N. Das, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi said: "The project (Hambantota Port) which envisages building oil and gas terminals, berths and port facilities, like those at Gwadar in Pakistan, has the potential for dual use."
Analysts believe that China wants the right to use the port as part of its "String of Pearls" strategy to expand its influence and maintain energy security.
D'Souza said India has always maintained friendly ties with Sri Lanka, but with China making inroads, New Delhi is reviewing and reviving its strong traditional ties.
"The deep sea port of Hambantota, was first offered to Indians.
As the Indian response remained slow, China took up the project. Since then, there have been concerns of Chinese growing influence in India's traditional sphere of influence. As India feels encircled by China in the 'String of Pearls' strategy from Myanmar to Pakistan, India is looking at reviving its strong traditional ties with neighbourhood countries like Sri Lanka," she said.
"Though engagement with the Sri Lankan government could come at a cost of its significant Tamil population, denying the Chinese the strategic space is a larger geo-political imperative," she added.
India has signed a slew of wide ranging agreements on aid, loans, infrastructure development, and economic ties during Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's visit to India this year. India is also planning to reinforce consular operations and friendly ties and has agreed to open a consulate in Sinhalese-majority Hambantota.
This is in addition to the consulate general re-opened in Jaffna in May last year.
Das said: "These proposals clearly reflect India's eagerness to retrieve some of the ground lost to China."
D'Souza in conclusion said Sri Lanka has to maintain a delicate balance.
"As the 'aid competition' intensifies, Sri Lanka is said to benefit from such active competition, though it has to maintain a 'delicate balance'. Overt gestures towards China might cost Sri Lanka its friendship with New Delhi, which is a primary relationship for the island nation," she said. By Sandhya Sharma(ANI)