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China And the Indian Ocean: Zone of Peace or Area of Future Conflicts?

Alfred Thayer Mahan , the U.S Naval strategist of the 19th Century , in his celebrated book “The influence of sea power upon history 1660-1783 “ held that the most powerful navy will control the globe and that command of the sea borne commerce was the key to winning wars . National greatness, according to him , was inextricably associated with the sea, with its commercial usage in peace time and its control in war. Today a large section of strategists in many countries including China and India are adherents to his view . The Mahanian View becomes extremely relevant in examining China’s view and future policies on Indian ocean.

The Chinese enunciation of the Mahanian view was contained in the Defence white paper issued in 2004 ,when it called for strengthening the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air . Further proof of this outlook among the Chinese navy came with the statement of Admiral Wu Shengli the commander of the PLAN, who proclaimed that China is an “oceanic” nation .Hu Jintao , the President added to this by emphasizing the need for a strong and modern navy for China.

Importance of Indian Ocean for China

With an area of nearly 75 million sq. kms., the Indian Ocean Region comprising 56 nations and stretching across 7 time zones ,1/3 of world’s population , touching 25 % of the land mass , its sea lanes carrying 70% of world’s oil and petroleum products , Indian ocean is one of the most important water ways of the world. Apart from its importance as carrier lane of the ship borne commerce, it is also an important source of mineral resources, (polymetallic sulfide deposits ) in its hydrothermal vents . These deposits contain strategic metals such as zinc, copper, cobalt , silver . The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) boasts of 40% of world’s gold, 90% of diamond , 60% of Uranium , apart from vast deposits of coal,( particularly Australia , India and South Africa ) copper and iron ore. The Manganese nodules form the basis of mineral resources in Central Indian Ocean basin and was first discovered by an Indian Survey Ship “ Gavashani” in 1980. Unfortunately the region also suffers from a high level of international and internal conflict and is a key venue for international piracy. It suffers from some 70% of the world’s natural disasters. The region is an important locus of international terrorism, given its high levels of poverty and access to drugs and small arms . Piracy as a serious threat can be gauged from the fact that with 239 cases in 2006 it went up to 406 in 2009.

Countries 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 sep30

India 4 7 10 10 4 Bangladesh 33 13 9 12 18 Srilanka — 4 1 — — Somalia 8 26 12 47 56 Gulf of Aden 9 10 51 100 56 Malacca St. 8 4 2 2 1 Arabian Sea 1 4 — 1 2 Indian Ocean 1

For China , Indian Ocean is a vital life line of its economy. China imports more than four fifths of its oil through Indian ocean and the narrow Malacca Strait. Apart from being a life line for its energy imports , ship-borne imports of iron ore, coal and bauxite and other raw ingredients for Chinese economic growth comes through Indian Ocean.

China’s Energy Supply Route

The Greatest maritime security fear for China is the choke point at the Malacca Strait which can hold up its energy supply from the middle east through Indian ocean. In Nov. 2003 President Hu Jintao termed this the “Malacca Dilemma . Out of the ninety five percent of the oil for China transported by sea, 80 percent is shipped through the Malacca strait. Shipping in the strait is extremely crowded, and infested with pirates and terrorists.

The Malacca Strait

Chinese fears are not completely unfounded. The U.S. Navy has for decades been helping to secure vital chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, often operating from a base on the British atoll of Diego Garcia,. And in October 2007, it implied that it was seeking a sustained forward presence in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific but no longer in the Atlantic — a momentous shift in overall U.S. maritime strategy. The document ‘Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025’ also concluded that the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theater of global conflict and competition this century.

In the calculation of China’s strategic defence planners , the USA will remain the primary threat followed by Taiwan , Japan and then India . China fears the domination of the US in the Pacific and latter’s ability to cut off supplies for China at Malacca Straits and India sitting astride the Indian Ocean and Japan as the US ally at the south china sea. Zhang Ming, a Chinese naval analyst, has warned that the 244 islands that form India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could be used like a “metal chain” to block the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca , According to Zhang . “India is perhaps China’s most realistic strategic adversary.”

China has also been following alternative energy projects in Central Asia, such as an agreement to develop oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and agreements to construct pipelines in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, among others, but the projects have proven expensive, logistically difficult, and complicated by inadequate infrastructure in western China. Central Asia also is plagued by regional instability which adds to the uncertainty of future development and long-term reliability

Some global developments in the last decades of the twentieth century has helped China in its quest for increasing its strategic power in the south .The collapse of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of Soviet forces from Mongolia relieved China’s pressure on China’s northern and western borders. Additionally in the south ,Vietnam was deprived of support from its Soviet benefactor which also relieved pressure on China. China also sought to relieve pressure from India by providing Pakistan with missile and nuclear weapons technologies.

These strategic advantages coupled with a galloping economy has led to a more aggressive foreign and strategic policy on the part of China . Unlike Deng who advised “tao guang yanghui”, (lie low, bide your time’) ,Hu Jintao seems to have decided to follow a more aggressive policy with the new found confidence of an economically galloping China. A more assertive policy is evident in the stand offs against the US and also with India with its claims on Arunachal Pradesh and denial of visas for people from that area, denial of visas to Army officers who served in Kashmir and stapled visas for people from Kashmir.

China started addressing the security issues quite early . Even in the 1980s Deng Xiaoping took steps to modernize the fledgling PLA Navy. He envisaged that the PLA Navy would have to play an important role in future in safeguarding sea-lanes vital to China’s commerce and recovering ‘lost territories’. As far back as 1982, he appointed , with the rank of Admiral , Liu Huaqing, then the only senior PLA officer with sea experience, to modernize the PLA Navy and equip it with a doctrine .

Sensing the vital role submarines play in Naval warfare , China is producing and acquiring them at a rapid rate. In addition to submarines, the Chinese are focusing on buying naval mines, ballistic missiles that can hit moving targets at sea, and technology that blocks signals from GPS satellites, on which the U.S. Navy depends. They also have plans to acquire at least one aircraft carrier . The goal of the Chinese is “sea denial,” or dissuading U.S. carrier strike groups from closing in on the Asian mainland wherever and whenever they wanted.

China is also following the US coined policy of “the string of pearls” under which it has been constructing new ports, airports, logistical facilities, and improvement of those that might already exist including supplies and refuelling and electronic listening stations to serve dual trade and military interests , in Indian Ocean littoral states.- particularly those surrounding India . The sea lanes of the ‘string of pearls’ run through the strategic choke points , strait of Mandab, Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, and strait of Lambok as well as other strategic naval interests such as Pakistan (Gwadar Port), Srilanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong) . Myanmar (Kyakpyu port off the Arakan coast in Myanmar ).

China has been developing close strategic and economic relations with the Govts. of these states , particularly those surrounding India , following a value neutral policy .Human right violations of these Govts. are brushed aside as “internal affairs “. Supporting the military Junta in Myanmar and helping Srilanka with arms to crush the LTTE are classic examples. This hands off policy also suits these states who respond heavily to the Chinese overtures , as they see China as a strategic counter weight against imagined strategic threats from India.

Among all states China’s relations with Pakistan, Myanmar and Srilanka merit some greater mention and are discussed below :

China has always supported Pakistan as a hedge against India. It has offered help in arms and military aircraft industries, nuclear and missile capabilities. The most concrete nature of the Sino-Pakistani relations can be further seen in the opening in 1982 of the Karakoram Highway that connects Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region with Islamabad which the then Dy. Prime Minister Li Xiannian described as a high way for supplying Pakistan with arms . The latest example is the continuing assistance in building two more nuclear power stations in Chasma brushing aside the opposition of other members of the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) which opposes it on the ground of Pakistan not having signed up for comprehensive safe guards with the IAEA and Pakistan’s track record as a proliferator . China counters it by pointing out the special treatment for India under the Indo- US nuclear accord. It says that this has disturbed the nuclear equilibrium in South Asia and in any case this is done under bilateral agreements signed before China joined the NSG.

Similarly it has developed a very close economic , intelligence and military relationship with Myanmar which it sees as a strategic asset. Apart from Oil and natural gas , Myanmar has important strategic materials like Zinc, Copper, Uranium, timber, and hydropower . China assisted Myanmar in establishing naval bases on Hianggyi Island in the Irrawaddy river Delta and in the Great Coco Island in the Indian Ocean, approximately 30 nautical miles from India’s Andaman Islands. PLA Navy could reach the Indian Ocean via Myanmar-controlled islands which are near the Indian-controlled islands . PLAN would be able to shorten the distance by 3000 km to reach to the Bay of Bengal, without passing through the Malacca Strait.

The Chinese are constructing (or upgrading) commercial and naval bases and building roads, waterways, and pipelines in order to link the Bay of Bengal to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan .Chinese oil corporations have invested in Myanmar’s oil and gas fields since 2004 and Petro China have built a gas pipeline from the A-1 block in the Shwe field off the coast of Rahine State to Yunnan Province. In early 2009, China began the construction of oil and gas pipelines from the Kyaukpyu port on the Bay of Bengal in proximity to the Yunnan Province – a US $2.5 billion project that was signed in November 2008. Moreover, Strategic analysts argue that Kyaukphyu port was also a part of the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy in geopolitics, involving the extension of its influence in both the Pacific and Indian oceans, while reducing China’s dependence on the Straits of Malacca. It is obvious that Kyaukphyu gas pipeline would provide an alternative route for China to get access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar and is of strategic importance for Chinese interests in the 21st century .

The Indian Coast Guards captured , in 1994, three Chinese trawlers in Indian waters. These vessels, which were flying Myanmerese flags, were reportedly equipped with sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment, capable of eavesdropping on official Indian communications. This incident has been cited as further evidence of the strategic links between China and Myanmar , and of China’s aggressive designs in the Indian Ocean region.

With Srilanka , China has provided military and political support during former’s long counterinsurgency operations , including significant supplies of fighter aircraft, naval combatants, and a variety of other military equipment . True to its value neutral attitude , there were no criticism from China of the way in which Sri Lanka dealt with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). Of course, this is in sharp contrast to attitudes of Western NGOs and governments, which expressed concern that the Srilankan counterinsurgency methods were excessively brutal. For example, the United States suspended aid to Colombo in 2007 on human rights grounds. China’s arms sales have been the decisive factor in ending the military stalemate , which was publicly acknowledged by a Srilankan diplomat Godage who wrote in an article in “The Island “ that they were able to end the LTTE insurrection because China threw its weight behind them and sent them the required arms.

Another significant development is the construction of a large container port at Hambantota, with some $300 million in funding from China’s Export-Import Bank..The first phase of the latter project has since been completed and inaugurated by President of Srilanka . Hambantota is about 6 NM from main shipping lanes and is a convenient mid-way point on the sea-routes between China, and the Middle East and Africa. Oil-bunkering/storage facilities, when completed in Hambantota, would be a great asset for China , especially when China manages to get its navy to use the port .

Recently, Sri Lanka allocated an exploration block in the Mannar Basin to China for petroleum exploration. This allocation brings China close to India’s southern tip, thus raising strategic concerns for India. The Indian oil companies in this region , would now face competition from Chinese oil companies

China is also developing closer relations with Maldives . It is apparently planning to develop a submarine base at Marao, one of the largest islands in Maldives to counter the Indian Navy’s southern command. This would give a great boost to China in its quest for security in the Indian Ocean , particularly against the US advantage with Diego Garcia and will help China in restricting the growth of the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean.

China has been concentrating on some littoral countries like Mauritius and Seychelles. Mauritius, with an area of 2,040 sq. .km and a population of 1.3 million is located strategically in the Indian Ocean’s southwest quadrant. Today, Mauritius is a part of China’s geo-strategic thrust into the Indian Ocean. Since 1972 when China established diplomatic relations, Mauritius was the first African country to open a Chinese cultural centre, and exchanges in culture and education have gained some momentum . China plans to set up the Shanxi Tianli Enterprises business park for Chinese firms at around $730 million, making it the largest foreign direct investment in the country. The project will augur expansion of Chinese operations in the region using Mauritius as a gateway. Exports worth an estimated $200 million per year, almost 10 per cent of Mauritius’ total exports last year would be created. In February 2009, President Hu Jintao visited Mauritius . China agreed to lend $260 million to expand Mauritius’s only international airport; as well as an interest-free loan of 40 million yuan ($5.9 million) and a 30 million yuan grant .

China has been carefully crafting its future military strategies in this regard . In the Western Pacific Ocean; It has changed its stance from competing with the US in terms of maritime power to acknowledging latter’s dominance in the region thus showing a cooperative stance. But it follows a firm policy on sovereignty issues in maritime issues and to maintain its control on the first island chain including the Senkaku and the Spratlys. It believes that deterrence would serve as a better strategy in the South China Sea and for protecting other maritime concerns instead of offensive posturing

China has expanded its comprehensive influence on the Southeast Asian region by way of providing to the countries of Indochina loans for national development, military ordnance, technology transfers and joint/combined military exercises. It has also provided support to states facing political problems in the international community.

China has been shoring up its defence prowess to meet any contingency in the region of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean . It has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world concentrating on improving the accuracy, penetration and survivability of its nuclear missiles and focusing on medium-range missile development including ballistic and cruise missiles. It has focused on submarine capabilities instead of surface ships

China is busy giving teeth to its navy. It is working on a DF-21 (CSS5) Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), missile that has a range in excess of 1,500 km, is armed with a maneuverable warhead . When integrated with appropriate command and control systems, it is intended to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean – a weapon that promises to China’s strategic disadvantage vis-à-vis the US; it can decapitate American warships in the region. The PLA is busy improving the maneuverability capability of this missile with location , identification and targetting with OTH radars and other technologies . This according to Chinese thinking will pose a threat to American Aircraft carriers which is the main stay of American dominance of the Asia Pacific Region and would thus serve to deter the U.S. from closing in on China .

China is consciously investing in developing supersonic anti-ship missiles that would skim just meters above the water, A long-range cruise missile costs half a million US dollars, while a typical US aircraft carrier costs over one billion dollars. In other words, one American aircraft carrier can buy ten thousand long-range cruise missiles. One or two such missiles can disable or sink an aircraft carrier. China can use its missile power to enforce a no-go zone in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea which it has begun to view as its exclusive offshore preserve.

On 27 August 2010, the Chinese authorities announced that a domestic submersible called Jiaolong had reached a depth of 3,759 meters. The Chinese submersible is 8.2 meters long, weighs nearly 22 tons, can carry a crew of three (one driver and two researchers) and is designed to reach a depth of 7,000 meters. Jiaolong is considered to be the world’s only deep-sea vessel that can theoretically reach that depth. Jiaolong in Chinese folklore is a mythical shape-shifting water dragon. This would give the Chinese access to 99.8 per cent of the world’s ocean floor and the capability of harnessing the mineral wealth, especially oil. It would also give them the capability of viewing and examining submarine cables that carry other nations communications and objects China has also been working for years on Under water unmanned vehicles (UUV ) for almost three decades.

A steadfast approach for design and construction of UUVs is meant for military purposes.

This would include following strategic and tactical purposes.

1. Intelligence gathering 2. Mine laying and clearance 3. Laying and monitoring of sensor chains in areas of interest, with UUVs themselves used as sensor chains 4. Disruption and monitoring of communications carried by submarine cables 5. Striking at strategic and tactical targets by remote launched weapons or expendable UUVs 6. Communication link especially in mid-ocean areas not under human surveillance 7. Monitoring of shipping especially at choke points

To conclude , It is obvious that Indian Ocean is a vital water way for China in view of the energy supply from the mid east. It will continue to take all measures to protect security of its vital supplies. Hence it will proceed along the road of the “ String of Pearls “. It definitely views India’s dominance of the Indian ocean with hostility and will therefore try and whittle latter’s influence in the Indian Ocean Littorals. How far its measures would eventually lead to military dominance of the Indian ocean at the expense of India is anybody’s guess. India is far from having a deterrence capability against China in this regard. India has no capability of enforcing its views in the border disputes with China. But sitting astride the Indian ocean it can certainly take steps to put in place deterrence capabilities against China in the Indian ocean . It is time India thinks along this line before the string of pearls start choking India

(The writer, Mr S.Gopal, is currently occupying the Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee Chair, in the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. The article is based on a paper presented by him at a seminar on “Rise of China – Implications for China’s neighbours”, organised jointly by the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Center for Asia Studies and Indian Centre for South Asian Studies, at Chennai on 17 December 2010. The paper is to be included in the edited volume of proceedings of the seminar , to be brought out soon. Email of Mr S.Gopal:muthason@gmail.com)

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