China tightening its grip on Indian Ocean

G Parthasarathy | Updated on February 11, 2020

It’s enhancing its fleet strength and has stepped up joint naval exercises. India has rightly decided to activate ‘Quad’

India remained focussed during the past year on tensions arising from the Pulwama massacre and the retaliatory Balakot Air Strike by Indian Air Force. China has, meanwhile, moved ahead to strengthen its maritime ties with countries across the Indian Ocean. Beijing has augmented its naval strength, with expansion of its submarine fleet and aircraft carriers. Its aim is clearly to strengthen its overall presence in the Indian Ocean.

It is enhancing the capacity of its Djibouti Naval base, on the shores of East Africa, to dock an aircraft carrier there, after launching its second aircraft carrier on December 17. China is set to acquire another five or six aircraft carriers, each capable of carrying up to 36 fighter aircraft. It is also fast augmenting its submarine fleet. These acquisitions will give China the capacity to intervene militarily across the Indian Ocean, in the coming years.

China also displayed its military power in the western Indian Ocean, holding joint naval exercises with its partners last year. China, Russia and Iran held an unprecedented four-day joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. This followed a meeting between the Presidents of the three countries, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani in Beijing, on June 14, 2019.

The joint naval exercises commenced in the Iranian Port of Chahbahar, which is being expanded by India, for access to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Given the recent American sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration on Iran, India, which was once one of the largest importers of Iranian oil, has been forced to end oil imports from Iran. Russia has, however, continued its economic ties with Iran, while China is carefully continuing its economic cooperation with Iran, including limited oil imports.

China-Pakistan joint exercise

Pakistan and China had a major joint exercise, which commenced in the new year, with the exercise titled as ‘Sea Gardens 2020’. China claimed that the exercise was meant to consolidate their “all weather strategic partnership”. The exercise included frigates, destroyers, fast attack crafts, along with what were titled as “air and sub-surface assets.”

Marines and special forces from both countries also participated. Earlier, last year, China announced that it was building four of its “most advanced naval ships” for its “all weather ally,” Pakistan. China also announced that the ships were being equipped with weapons systems for anti-ship, anti-submarine and air-defence equipment to “maintain peace, stability and the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region”. The world is being told that China would ensure that its “all-weather friend” Pakistan would be used by it, to counter India’s naval power in the Indian Ocean.

While India’s west coast faces direct threats from a Pakistan-China Maritime Alliance, the problems posed by China would be easier to deal with diplomatically, by recognising that China itself has serious maritime disputes, all across its eastern shores. These disputes are with countries ranging from Japan and South Korea in the North, to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, across its southern shores.

Beijing has blatantly flouted the verdict of an international tribunal, which rejected its claims, on its maritime boundaries with the Philippines. It maintains a continuing military presence in violation of international law, in what is internationally recognised as the Philippines’ territory. There have also been continuing tensions between China and Vietnam over their maritime boundaries. China appears prepared to use force in the event of Vietnamese actions, which challenge what Beijing unilaterally considers, as being part of its territorial waters.

Confrontation with Indonesia

China also sparked a major confrontation recently with Indonesia, by providing military escorts to its fishing vessels, in areas it claims, close to Indonesia’s Natuna Island. After protesting formally to China, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo dispatched warships to the Natuna Island, with F-16 fighters providing cover. He, thereafter, visited the Island, personally.

While both Indonesia and China will try to prevent the face-off turning into a confrontation, their differences on their maritime borders will remain a source of tensions. Chinese vessels have reportedly pulled back from Indonesia’s maritime boundaries, after the assertive moves by President Jokowi. There is, however, nothing to indicate that China will not pursue its maritime boundary claims on Indonesia. India is quietly expanding maritime cooperation with Indonesia.

President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was primarily to finalise agreements on a large number of economic projects, some of which could eventually lead Myanmar, into a Chinese debt trap. This, in turn, could secure China access to and control of a port in the Bay of Bengal, as it has done, in the case of the Hambantota Port, in Sri Lanka. Faced with western economic sanctions and an international rap on the knuckles, because of the Rohingya issue, Myanmar had little choice but to accept Chinese proposals for construction of the Kyaukphyu Port, located in the Bay of Bengal.

The Myanmar government has been attempting to reduce the size and costs of large Chinese projects, which could well end up as white elephants. The most important of these projects, involves Chinese investments of $7.3 billion for construction of the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukphyu and $2.7 billion, for an industrial park near the port. There were also discussions on agreements envisaging Chinese investments in building a transport corridor, linking China’s landlocked Yunnan Province, to the Kyaukphyu Port. China is evidently planning to use its economic leverage with Myanmar, to secure military access to the port of Kyaukphyu.

Quad exercise

New Delhi, meanwhile, appears to have decided to activate the “Quad”, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, for enhancing the security of the Indo-Pacific region, with moves to balance the power a growingly assertive China, across the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean. China is obviously concerned that active diplomacy by the “Quad”, together with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, could counter its moves to seek control of the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.

A substantial portion of the world’s seaborne movement of oil and gas, traverses through these sea lanes. The move to activate the “Quad” marks a significant milestone in India’s foreign policy. We have realised that China is determined to squeeze us regionally on Jammu and Kashmir, using its “all-weather friend”, Pakistan. Balancing growing Chinese power becomes a crucial need. Activating the “Quad” and making common cause with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, appear to be the first steps in this direction.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on February 10, 2020

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