While the international community was fixated on the developments in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific Region (APR), something else was quietly happening in the western-end of the Indian Ocean.
A high-powered 40-member delegation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arrived in the Seychelles on December 1, headed by Defence Minister and State Councillor Gen. Liang Guanglie. During this three-day visit, the Chinese delegation changed China’s military profile in the western Indian Ocean African tip. An agreement was signed for China to set up a naval base in the Seychelles for counter-piracy operations.
Earlier in the year China gifted two Y-12 surveillance aircraft to the Seychelles under an existing defence support agreement arrived at in 2004. In April two Chinese frigates visited the Seychelles, and its naval hospital ship Peace-Ark visited the small island nation in November 2010 when a total of 139 people were treated on board.
It is difficult to accept that China’s setting-up of a naval base is a one-off development to counter piracy, though anti-piracy operations in the region especially off the Somalian coast and the Gulf of Aden are important not only to secure China’s shipping but also for merchant vessels plying under other flags.
Counter-piracy naval operations and establishing naval bases are two different issues. In counter-piracy, cooperation with other navies is normal and, therefore, can get normal logistic support from friendly countries in the region of operation. Chinese naval ships have taken recourse to this since they deployed their ships off the Somali coast from the late 2008.
A naval base is a forward naval deployment and can include power projection. Similar efforts to enter into military collaboration and support have been made to the Maldives. And Mauritius is also a target.
China’s efforts to acquire prospective base facilities are well known. They have built the Gwadar deep sea port in Pakistan. Given the closeness of Sino-Pak relations, especially between their armed forces, China can avail of base facilities in Pakistan any time.
In the mid-1990s, a Chinese strategic policy document said that China should employ military diplomacy with the small countries of the Indian Ocean to penetrate them. It was reasoned that in small countries the militaries are potentially most powerful, and if they are won over with free and low price (friendship price), military equipment supported with some economic assistance, winning over the political dispensation will be easy.
Winning over Indian Ocean rim countries was a major strategy. It involved the Indian Ocean, the encirclement of India with an outer ring and China’s connectivity with the African countries and the gulf petroleum-producing countries. This Indian Ocean strategy linking China began to unfold around 2004 in military papers, envisaging a China dominated region from Gulf/Indian Ocean to Asia Pacific region. Over the last decade, this military policy has been unfolding, including claiming the South China Sea as indisputable Chinese territory to be acquired by military means.
China has put a strategic pause in its endeavour to establish naval/military bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The reason is that the developing political situation in South Asia and the larger Asian region up to APR is not conducive to pursuing such a strategy actively. But, this is a pause. Following the killing of Al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May this year and ensuing tensions between Pakistan and the US, Pakistani Defence Minister Mukhtar Abbas publicly invited China to set up a base in Pakistan. China declined. Beijing did not want to get into the spat between Islamabad and Washington. This did not fit into its larger strategic relations with the USA as well as it views on terrorism in the region. Beijing cannot encourage Pakistan’s strategy of using ultra Islamist terrorists as China itself has its concerns in this area. China’s Uighur Muslim separatists have enjoyed support and refuge in Pakistan.
Its strategic reach in Bangladesh remains static, is now in an uncomfortable position in Myanmar, and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa is yet to decide whether to go with China and risk relations with India. China has new issues with Nepal. Its anti-India strategy in Kathmandu has been overtaken by the Dalai Lama and Tibet issue. Beijing is on the back foot with the self-immolation of Tibetan Buddhist monks in China, demanding the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, and basic autonomy.
The Tibetan / Buddhism issue is an appendage of the larger Chinese strategic policies. But more critical developments linking the Chinese military base establishment cannot be ignored.
One is the decision to set up a fourth naval fleet in Hainan Island. The base will stand at the head of the South China Sea, the main maritime trade route in the Asia Pacific region, which connects to the Indian Ocean eventually. A blockade of the South China Sea over the contentious issue of sovereignty over the Spartly Islands can severely affect global trade. Apart from India and the South Asian countries a blockade of South China Sea can destabilise economies of maritime Asia up to South Korea and Japan. A brief look at China rapidly developing into a military power suggests that it is well on the way to acquire credible blockading and area denial power. This includes the growing Chinese navy and aircraft killer missiles like the DF-21D.
More ominous is the recent (December 6 ) declaration of China’s President Hu Jintao, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that exhorted “extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security”. On the face of it, it is a defensive statement. But a closer look exposes much more.
Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, Deputy Secretary of the Chinese Society of Military Sciences explained Hu Jintao’s directive more clearly (China Daily, Dec. 09). According to Maj. Gen. Luo, “China does not want to go to war” was half the position. The other half was “China does not lack the will to fight for its Fundamental Interests (Core Interests)”. He elaborated that while most of China’s neighbours were capable of forcing China to enter a war, they may incite conflicts and get the United States involved. Only by being prepared for a medium sized war, a small war can be stopped, and only by being prepared for a big war, a medium-sized war can be stopped, Luo added. Basically, China was preparing to fight a war to protect its perceived ‘core interests’.
Officially, China’s sustainable development is its core interest. Rightly so. But, in turn, sustainable development is connected with energy and raw material imports by an umbilical cord. Latest Chinese official statistics say that from next year 60 per cent of China’s energy requirements will have to be imported. Of this at least 70 per cent comes through the Indian Ocean and from countries in Africa, the Gulf and Iran. Therefore, the entire chain falls within China’s “core” interest, which calls for military option at some point of time, not necessarily as the last resort. This obviously includes securing the sources of China’s imports in foreign countries.
In this connection, it is imperative to look at another recent military development in China creation of the “Strategic Planning Department” (SPD) under the General Staff Department of the PLA in November. Briefly, the SPD will link the PLA military planning to the country’s economic, political, trade, energy, security and diplomatic challenges among others. This brings the PLA right in front to intervene abroad. The first tentative steps to this effect was revealed by China forcing Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to accept the location of China’s paramilitary personnel, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to secure Chinese shipping in the Mekong river which starts from Tibet and flows through all these countries. Joint patrolling of the Mekong has commenced, raising questions of sovereignty among the South East Asian countries.
All the preceding boils down to the following. China is beginning to discard its position that it will have no military bases abroad. It is quietly rejecting its pledge that not a single Chinese soldier has set foot in foreign soil except under UN peace keeping duties. And China’s topmost leader calls to prepare for war.
China has gone through phases of propaganda that the third world war was imminent, that chances of a world war were receding, to the possibility and preparations for ‘local wars’ and hotspots. Each propaganda was meant to strengthen China militarily, economically and politically. Simultaneously, to bring itself up to the top global table, it started with the three worlds (USA, Soviet Union, China) theory, multipolar world theory, and also flirted with the two-world (USA, China) theory.
US President Barack Obama raised China’s status to the two-world table, and clearly gave China the charge of South Asia. The Chinese, however, are extremely cautious and did not swallow the US bait. But they were certainly encouraged. The western debate on China’s military is very narrowly focused. The American experts generally compare China’s capability to that of the USA, forgetting there is a huge world in between. One interpretation is that the countries that feel threatened by China should come under the US umbrella become US allies. This does not work for countries like India. The recent voices emanating from Australia for an Australia-US-India alliance was rightly rejected by India. New Delhi, which has a 4000-km unsettled border with China, and has other mutual interests with Beijing, cannot get into classical alliance games. On the other hand, India has mutual interests with other countries, especially in South East Asia (Look-East Policy) which cannot be blocked by China.
Unfortunately, China is still on the road to hegemony and domination. Hu Jintao’s war preparation cry does not encourage confidence in China. In the evolving Chinese policy in the Indian Ocean and its littorals, India is central. Beijing must take note of that, as should the other stake holders who desire a peaceful and stable Indian Ocean. Militarising the Indian Ocean and setting up military bases in the region is no answer to China’s energy and raw material security.
By Bhaskar Roy