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Dealing with China’s naval assertiveness

Updated: November 15, 2017 21:03 IST | G Parthasarathy

All disquiet: On the Indo-Pacific front

India is acting on Chinese efforts to mark territory in the Indian Ocean. It needs to do the same with respect to South China Sea

The spectacular rise of China over the past two decades has changed the geopolitical scene across India’s maritime frontiers. While China has a legitimate interest in ensuring the security of its frontiers, what has shaken the entire maritime neighbourhood has been Beijing’s readiness to deploy its navy coercively to enforce its expansionist claims across the South China Sea. These claims, spelt out in a unilaterally drawn “Nine Dotted Line”, have resulted in tensions with virtually all the neighbours, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Worse, China is even building air bases and artificially constructed islands across the South China Sea to enforce its untenable claims, whose very basis has been rejected by a UN tribunal in a judgment on a complaint filed by the Philippines. Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia alone have stood firm against Chinese expansionism. Indonesia could well take China to an international tribunal over Beijing’s claims to its Natuna Islands.

Assertive presence

This Chinese “assertiveness” on its maritime boundary claims across the South China Sea is accompanied by its growing naval presence, including nuclear submarines, across the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean, extending from the Straits of Aden, where China has established a naval base in Djibouti, across the Straits of Hormuz, to the Straits of Malacca. This entire Indian Ocean Region extending from Aden to Malacca accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s oil production and 57 per cent of the world’s oil trade. Seventy per cent of India’s oil supplies come across these sea-lanes and around 7 million Indians reside in the Arab Gulf countries, from where India receives over $40 billion annually, as remittances. Given the rivalries between Iran and its Arab neighbours across the Straits of Hormuz, the US has positioned its fifth Fleet in Bahrain and its Central Command military base in Qatar.

While India has historically looked on its maritime frontiers as extending across the Indian Ocean, from Aden to Malacca, the rise of Chinese power and territorial assertiveness are disturbing and need to be addressed strategically. Beijing now claims that its territorial frontiers with India extend across entire Arunachal Pradesh, with its borders lying just adjacent to the strategic Siliguri corridor in the east, while also claiming large tracts of Ladakh in the west. With Chinese power growing in the 1990s, a Chinese admiral loudly proclaimed, “The Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”. This was when concern was expressed by India over China using its clout with Myanmar to establish bases and monitoring facilities in the Cocos Islands near the Andaman Islands and possibly in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu.

While India has never claimed that the Indian Ocean is “India’s Ocean” China has claimed the bulk of the South China Sea is “China’s Sea” and even extended its claim to Indonesia’s shores. China now has a full-fledged military base in Djibouti, and full access to port facilities at Gwadar, in Baluchistan. It is set to significantly strengthen Pakistan’s navy, providing it 4 frigates and 8 submarines.

Poised position

India is admired globally for settling its maritime boundaries with all its neighbours including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Moreover, India has no maritime boundary tensions with Pakistan, though the maritime boundary can be demarcated only after the land boundary is agreed upon. It is for this reason that India’s maritime behaviour, unlike that of China, has won international praise. Moreover, apart from working cooperatively with littoral states in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) to agree on maritime norms and measures for disaster relief and economic cooperation, India is also partnering Japan for economic cooperation and connectivity across its shores to Africa. Even as China’s footprint across the Indian Ocean grows, India has responded quietly but surely, together with other regional and outside powers, for eliminating piracy.

During his visits to Seychelles and Mauritius in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a number of maritime agreements, including one to build infrastructure, and promote sea and air links with the Agalega Islands, in Mauritius. Mauritius has reportedly been offered a credit of $500 million for mutually agreed security projects, including the provision of a 1300-tonne coastal patrol vessel. Similar agreements were reached with Seychelles. India’s coastal lines of communication across the Indian Ocean are now being closely monitored and secured.

Moreover, at a recent naval conclave in Goa from October 31 to November 2, attended by senior naval officials of Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Maldives, India offered better exchange of information, including timely intelligence on maritime movements across the Indian Ocean. Similar steps need to be taken for cooperation with oil-producing/energy partners.

Further cooperation

While trilateral naval exercises with the US and Japan are now undertaken regularly and maritime cooperation with the US is set to continue, it remains to be seen how Australia can be integrated into this group. It is heartening that there have been recent maritime exercises with Russia at its Pacific port of Vladivostok. With around 40 per cent of our exports proceeding beyond Malacca through the Asia-Pacific Region, it is only appropriate that we have an appropriate architecture for security/military cooperation in place on the eastern shores of Asia, across what is now called the Indo-Pacific Region.

China’s much-touted belt and road initiative will enable Beijing to dominate the sea lanes of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans by extending credits which the recipients cannot repay. Just as Sri Lanka has found in Hambantota, other recipients of Chinese ‘aid’ will find themselves caught in a ‘debt trap’ wherein they are increasingly forced to compromise their sovereignty and hand over control of infrastructure and industries to the Chinese.

Respected Pakistani economists are now questioning the economic wisdom of receiving Chinese ‘assistance’ of over $60 billion, largely at near commercial terms. Similar concerns have been voiced in Myanmar. But, in Pakistan, major decisions on cooperation with China are taken by the army brass, who are not exactly knowledgeable on economic issues. Mercifully, Myanmar’s army has no such illusions about China’s intentions.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan


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