With the recent challenging of the notion of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) being India’s “strategic backyard”, China is gradually upping the ante in the maritime realm around India — a traditional strategic nerve centre for New Delhi. Beijing is sending a tacit signal, wherein it “recognises India’s special role in stabilising the strategic Indian Ocean Region, but the perception that it is India’s ‘backyard’ may result in clashes…”
The caution thrown in by China needs to be read in conjunction with the cumulative maritime activity of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and its mounting forays into the Indian Ocean — the third largest water body in the world. The expanding strategic naval footprint in the Indian Ocean by means of acquiring more maritime bases and berthing facilities is a core pillar of China’s ports Policy. The PLAN’s presence and deployment in the IOR have been on the rise since 2014, when a Song-class conventional submarine docked in the Colombo harbour along with a Ming-class diesel-electric nuclear submarine. Striking, was the fact, that the submarine docked at Colombo’s South Container Terminal that is built, run, and controlled by China Merchants Holdings — thereby raising queries as to why did it not choose to dock at the Sri Lanka port Authority in Colombo, which is mandated to accommodate foreign military vessels? The emphasis to dock at a minuscule “Chinese facility” well within a Sri Lankan administered harbour, merits careful analysis.
Given its strategic placement, Sri Lanka is fast becoming the pivot of rising Chinese naval presence in the IOR, in that, China also has a substantial controlling stake in the Hambantota port, with Colombo agreeing to grant Chinese state-owned companies operating rights to as many as four berths in exchange for an easing of loan conditions. Besides, there are unconfirmed reports of construction of a Chinese-run aircraft maintenance facility near Hambantota in order to service PLAAF assets based in Sri Lanka. In neighbouring Pakistan, the docking of a Chinese submarine in Karachi, following the handing over of the port’s operational control to China Overseas port Holdings is another step towards consolidating Chinese permanent naval presence in South Asia.
These developments, significantly, are in sync with China’s much pronounced Maritime Silk Route strategy — a prominent feature of the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). The maritime route is a proposed sea network of ports, coastal infrastructure projects beginning in Quanzhou in the Fujian province and culminating in the northern Mediterranean Sea. By virtue of this fresh strategy, Beijing seeks to gain greater access to the strategic pathways of the Indian Ocean, alleviated access to the Gulf oil — which consequently shall reduce its dependence on the passage through the Straits of Malacca — a key potential vulnerability for China in the event of a future conflict.
China recognises fully well that in order to boost its naval power projection capability, it will have to gain greater access to ports and berthing facilities. This is being increasingly reflected with China’s covert strategy of granting huge loans to smaller coastal island nations that are in dire need for developmental funds to improve infrastructure. The pattern that China is following, almost unvaryingly for handing out these loans, is that there are “no conditions and/or transparency measures” while issuing the loan. As soon as the island nation in question reaches the stage where it is unable to repay the loan on time, China thereafter “offers” to “waive off/relax” loan conditions in exchange for a “few berths” for that particular naval facility. The Maldivian project is a case in point, in which China is developing the iHavan Integrated Development Project in the northernmost main sea line of communication joining Southeast Asia and China to West Asia and Europe. The iHavan project is riding on huge concessional loans/aid financing from China and it is being forecast that Maldives shall almost certainly default on payments, thereby allowing China to seize a few berthing facilities there.
This pattern could well be adopted in the future with many other countries, especially since official Chinese publications including Xinhua have advocated and “advised” the PLA Navy to build as many as 18 overseas naval military bases in the greater Indian Ocean area, possibly including: Chongjin port (North Korea), Moresby port (Papua New Guinea), Sihanoukville port (Cambodia), Koh Lanta port (Thailand), Sittwe port (Myanmar), Dhaka port (Bangladesh), Gwadar port (Pakistan), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Seychelles, Djibouti port (Djibouti), Lagos port (Nigeria), Mombasa port (Kenya), Dar-es-Salaam port (Tanzania), Luanda port (Angola) and the Walvis Bay port (Namibia).
The long shadow of China’s ports policy in the Indian Ocean being currently driven and characterised by both, state- and private-sponsored “infrastructure investment”, foretells strategic ramifications militarily as these facilities shall end up becoming communication and surveillance facilities, in addition to being repair and replenishment centres for the Chinese Navy — underscoring the intransigent course of Beijing’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.