India’s Biggest Problem Is Not Dokhlam, But China’s Silk Road

The Indian Navy needs a strategy of distant power projection. By employing a plan for sustained presence in the Western Pacific, New Delhi can show its resolve to Beijing.

At the Line of Actual Control is not the only thing India needs to worry about. According to recent media reports, China is growing its military presence in the Indian Ocean too. Satellite pictures in May this year suggest China’s military base at Djibouti is being modernised. The facility, set up in 2017 as a logistics support unit, is being upgraded into a full-fledged naval base with a 1,120-feet pier that can berth Chinese warships, including the Liaoning aircraft carrier. This follows China’s expansion of an artificial island in the Maldives, a development with seeming strategic overtones, leading some to claim that China is encroaching on India’s sphere of influence.

China has helped finance at least 35 ports around the world in the past decade, according to a Times analysis of construction projects.

Meanwhile, the rumour mills are abuzz that China is on a drive to militarise Gwadar port in Pakistan. Recent satellite pictures show anti-vehicle berms, security fences, sentry posts and elevated guard towers inside the port, fuelling speculation of the construction of a military facility. There are also reports that China is helping Bangladesh build a naval base at Cox Bazaar, including wharfs, barracks, ammunition depots, and a naval ship repair yard.

It is the People’s Liberation Army’s Djibouti base that most vividly demonstrates China’s Indian Ocean ambitions. With an estimated area of nearly 250,000 square feet, China’s Djibouti compound is no ordinary military base. Replete with outer perimeter walls, watchtowers and underground quarters capable of hosting an estimated 10,000 troops, the facility is a veritable military garrison. China insists the project is a “support facility” meant mainly for anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa, but analysts claim the base is capable of supporting other key missions such as intelligence collection, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operations support and counter-terrorism.

Rising threat to India

When China first began deploying warships off the coast of Somalia for anti-piracy patrols a decade ago, Indian analysts believed China’s maritime security interests were primarily commercial, and that the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN’s forays were driven mainly by the need to protect Beijing’s trade and energy interests. That view is fast changing. Many now see China’s rapid regional expansion as part of a broader effort to embed Beijing into the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.

China’s growing maritime deployments – including submarines and intelligence ships – demonstrate Beijing’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals. Many say the presence of a Chinese research vessel in India’s exclusive economic zone in September last year foreshadows greater Chinese projection of power into the Indian Ocean, feeding fears of a strategic encirclement.

Ruefully, despite recognising the pressing challenge China poses, India hasn’t been able to respond forcefully. Even as it has sought to expand regional presence through mission-based naval patrols, the Indian Navy hasn’t quite matched the PLAN’s operational tempo in the Indian Ocean. Critical gaps in combat capability — in particular, conventional submarines, anti-submarine helicopters, and minesweepers — and constantly shrinking budgets have constrained the Navy’s ability to push back the Chinese.

Sea-denial won’t work

One way to deter China, some suggest, is through a sea-denial complex in the Andaman Islands. The Indian Navy has been developing the Andaman and Nicobar as a strategic outpost to monitor rival naval activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean, and also invested in the development of an integrated surveillance network. Strengthening anti-access capabilities in the Andamans, analysts say, could help protect India’s tactical leverage in the regional seas.

Yet, sea-denial assets in India’s strategic eastern islands would be of little value when most Chinese naval deployments are in areas outside Indian territorial waters. Modern-day trading nations regard the oceans as a shared global common, with equal opportunity rights for all user states. Consequently, unless a sea-space is a site of overlapping claims or a contested enclave in a geopolitically troubled spot, no coastal state ever actively denies another the use of the high seas.

The second reason a sea-denial strategy is unlikely to work is that India’s most pressing maritime challenge — the Pakistan-China nexus – doesn’t yet involve a physical threat to Indian assets. The Chinese navy has cleverly avoided any entanglement with Indian warships in the regional seas, while expanding its engagement with the Pakistan navy, participating in a number of bilateral and multilateral exercises off the Makran coast. Defensive measures in the Eastern Indian Ocean would not thwart Chinese plans for deployment at Karachi or Gwadar, or impede China-aided modernisation of the navies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand.

Pressure in the Pacific

What the Indian Navy instead needs is a strategy of distant power projection. By employing a plan for sustained presence in the Western Pacific — a space Beijing dominates and is highly sensitive about – the Navy could materially influence the maritime balance in Asia, forcing Beijing to scale down its military presence in the Indian Ocean.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 106485586-1586764665140scs_claimants.png
Source CNBC

To be sure, a counter-pressure strategy in the Pacific will be hard to implement. For one thing, India’s official maritime strategy deems Southeast Asia a secondary theater of interest.

Naval Bases In the Name of Seaports

Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes.

Yes, though feasibility studies said the port wouldn’t work. Yes, though other frequent lenders like India had refused. Yes, though Sri Lanka’s debt was ballooning rapidly under Mr. Rajapaksa.

Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Photographer: Atul Loke/Bloomberg

Over years of construction and renegotiation with China Harbor Engineering Company, one of Beijing’s largest state-owned enterprises, the Hambantota Port Development Project distinguished itself mostly by failing, as predicted. With tens of thousands of ships passing by along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the port drew only 34 ships in 2012.

And then the port became China’s.

Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December.

The transfer gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.

Dumb Act – India Supplies Submarine to Myanmar

India recently supplied a refurbished Russian kilo-class submarine to Myanmar, Indian policy makers were under the impression that supplying submarine was an act to counter Bangladesh, –since Bangladesh bought two Ming-class submarines from China.

Chinese military has access to all military equipment operated by Myanmar. It’s inevitable that Chinese military experts will investigate Indian components in Indian supplied Kilo-class submarines of Myanmar.

The kilo-class submarine of Myanmar serves no purpose to India when Myanmar handed over Rakhine state to China,– China is building offshore containers terminal and seaport near India. Ultimately, all seaports will act as a strategic assets for China if there is a major conflict over South China Sea.

Deep Seaport in Rakhine State of Myanmar

China is establishing sea ports in Myanmar deporting almost one million Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh and orchestrated mass ethnic cleansing by Burmese military. China was the sole supplier of military equipment to Burma.

Local residents' houses in front of buildings of a Chinese oil pipeline project (pink roof) on Madae island, Kyaukpyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar. The wider project, part of China's One Belt, One Road initiative, envisions twin oil and gas pipelines, a deep sea port and special economic zone. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Local residents’ houses in front of buildings of a Chinese oil pipeline project on Myanmar’s Made island in Kyaukphyu. Myanmar’s US$1.3 billion Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project, a China-backed scheme under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is one small step closer to realization.

China has signed a framework agreement with Myanmar to develop a new deep-sea port in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu town, which is situated along the Bay of Bengal. The deal follows years of negotiations associated with funding and other issues.

Along the Bay of Bengal on the west tip of Myanmar, the town of Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State sits tranquilly on a 25-meter deep harbor.

This deep-sea port, surrounded by superb natural conditions, could be developed into another demonstration project under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), mutually benefiting both Myanmar and China.

Maldives Slipped Through The Fingers of India

Despite having only 290 square kilometers of actual land, Maldives’ Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) covers about 900,000 square kilometers, making the small island nation a hotbed of intrigue and regional power games.

Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal is now in China’s grip.

Strategically situated astride vital shipping lanes between Asia, Africa and Europe, Maldives is a main target for Beijing’s economic and strategic expansion in the Indian Ocean region.

In September 2014, Xi visited Maldives and secured a deal for a Chinese company to upgrade the international airport on Hulhule, a separate island near the capital of Male. China also undertook to build a 1.4-kilometer bridge linking Hulhue with Male, which was completed and inaugurated in August 2018.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 7, 2017 Maldives' President Abdulla Yameen (L) and China's President Xi Jinping listen to their national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.Back when he was a mild-mannered civil servant, few in the Maldives predicted Abdulla Yameen would one day run the country, let alone with an iron grip, locking up judges, his rivals and even his 80-year-old half-brother. / AFP PHOTO / Fred DUFOUR
Then Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

During a visit to Japan in December 2018, Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer revealed to many observers’ surprise that Maldives’ debts to China amounted to US$1.4 billion, representing 38% of the country’s national debt of $3.7 billion and 78% of its external debt of $1.8 billion.

Gwadar port in Pakistan

Gwadar Port is situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea in the city of Gwadar, located in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The port is located 533 km from Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, and is approximately 120 km from the Iranian border.

A Pakistani soldier patrols at Gwadar port, 700km west of Karachi. Photo: AP
A Pakistani soldier patrols at Gwadar port, 700km west of Karachi.

Recent developments concerning Pakistani involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) highlight the growing unease many Pakistanis have with the project’s potential effects on their economy. The newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan, has raised concern over Pakistan’s over-reliance on foreign debt, and now his government seems to be thinking more carefully about CPEC projects than the previous administration. Yet, a crucial part of CPEC is still being overlooked by the Pakistani government but warrants attention – namely, the Port-Park-City model that China is pursuing in Gwadar, which could have undesirable consequences for the country.

Need Strategic Partnership with USA, Japan and Australia

For another, New Delhi’s neutral status vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes and continuing deference for China’s regional sensitivities encourages the Navy to limit its ‘security provider’ activism to the Indian Ocean. Yet, as Beijing applies greater pressure on the LAC in the north, India might have little option but to respond in a space China considers a maritime backyard.

In attempting to shape security dynamics in the Pacific, the Indian Navy must then meaningfully leverage logistics support agreements (one was signed with Australia last week) and capitalize on close naval ties with the United States, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

In the long run, sustained naval presence in China’s sphere of maritime influence may be the only effective means of conveying Indian resolve to Beijing.

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