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China warships dock in Burma, rattling rival naval power India

China and India have overlapping ambitions in the Indian Ocean. So as China flexes its naval reach, India is left debating how to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

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Two Chinese warships docked at a Burmese port Sunday, highlighting China’s expanding naval presence near Asia’s other rising giant, India.

Chinese news agency Xinhua described the friendly port call as a first-ever in Burma – also known as Myanmar – by Chinese warships. It comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, including India's reported suspension of military exchanges with China.

Though the two Asian heavyweights share a disputed border in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean could become a more serious flashpoint for their overlapping ambitions. Beijing is developing ports around India to help secure Chinese maritime routes while India’s security establishment is debating how best to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

“With this particular port of call I don’t think there is anything that needs to be done. Just watch very closely,” says P.K. Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a retired Navy officer. But China, he says, is sending a signal. “The underlying message is a strategic message: ‘Look, we are in the area and we can operate in the region.’ ”

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