Thursday, October 29, 2009

China in Indian Ocean Region

Here's a link to an article by Peter Brown on what China is actually doing in terms of extending its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and how India and the US are likely to react, that has qouted me extensively. The story appeared in (October 22, 2009) the Asia Times Online.

India learned to live with Chinese merchant ships in the Indian Ocean region long ago, and even the Chinese vessel seized by pirates this week was bound for India from South Africa. And yet, India is taking stock of the presence of Chinese naval vessels in the Indian Ocean region. This development will constitute a major headache for India as it unfolds - something altogether new and unsettling.

Three Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels do not make a fleet, but they do make a statement. By sending them to patrol off the coast of Somalia as part of the multinational force, in effect, China simply is saying to India," We're back."

Just as it has done on India's northern border, where the number of reported border incursions doubled to almost 300 from 2007 to 2008, China has undertaken a series of actions in the Indian Ocean region which may not be as menacing or confrontational as what has been underway along India's northern border, but it suggests a shift in attitude in Beijing. In the process, these not-so-subtle naval moves by China are proving to be far more than mere distractions in New Delhi.

"For the first time ever in the western IOR [Indian Ocean region], India has set up a listening post in Madagascar - a high-tech monitoring station in northern Madagascar. This station is of great significance given its proximity to [the port of] Gwadar [in Pakistan] as well as the Chinese increasing [their] presence in the western IOR. Unlike in other countries of the region, China has not made much headway in Madagascar," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"The Chinese were quick to note how their lack of a maritime capacity to engage in disaster relief and rescue during the 2004 tsunami also redounded in the formation of an ad hoc maritime alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India to its detriment," said Sourabh Gupta, senior research associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc in Washington, DC.

"By appropriating capabilities in this disaster assistance and humanitarian relief area as well as participating in global stakeholder activities such as the Somalia anti-piracy mission, the PLAN seems to have cottoned on to a convenient vehicle for regional and 'out of area' naval activity - non-traditional security missions - without setting off alarm bells."

Beijing's resource-based diplomacy is emerging as a major challenge not only for the US - in the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere - but for other major players in Asia as well, including India.

"Energy security and hunger for other natural resources are the primary motivating factors besides gaining strategic foothold in the IOR. The region has about 40% of the world's oil and gas reserves and additionally the locus of several important sea lines of communication [SLOCs, or the primary maritime routes between ports]. Constraining India's growth aspirations and limiting its potential in the South Asian region continue to be underlying objectives in Chinese policies in several countries in the IOR such as Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan," said Rajagopalan.

Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Marao in the Maldives along with another seaport site - or two - in Myanmar now serve as the nucleus for China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy. Gwadar in particular offers China a base of naval operations close to major energy transportation routes from the Persian Gulf, according to Rajagopalan.

"While many of the Chinese moves [in the Indian Ocean region] may not be overtly confrontational, they do create potential for tension between India and China, Japan and China and so on. Beijing has consolidated its relations with almost all of the IOR countries in the last few years," said Rajagopalan. "For example, President Hu Jintao's recent visits to Mauritius and Seychelles were about establishing a firm strategic foothold in these IOR states. Mauritius is particularly important, given its proximity to Diego Garcia and the US military presence there."

Despite much talk of this "string of pearls" strategy in the Indian Ocean region, Gupta sees no compelling evidence of PLAN basing activities as yet beyond port development activities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

"Indeed, the recently retired top Indian foreign policy bureaucrat - Shiv Shankar Menon - pointed this fact out very recently. Of course, the apprehension persists that some of the maritime security dilemmas that prevail in East and Southeast Asia will gravitate to the IOR and compound tensions," said Gupta.

Chinese shipping companies have maintained port operations on the Panama Canal and even in Long Beach, California, for years, but while this trend is disconcerting, it does not translate into any immediate overt military presence or decisive strategic advantage. It does, however, enable China to conduct naval intelligence, economic espionage and other related covert activities more easily.

Gupta emphasizes that while China is raising the temperature in the Indian Ocean region a notch, observers should avoid distorting or exaggerating the scope of China's naval activities there.

"Their naval forces are heading 'out of area' for the first time in many centuries and, paired with the poor communications skills of the Chinese military, there are concerns within the region. But when compared to the PLA Navy's [PLAN's] situation and activities in East and Southeast Asia - active maritime territorial disputes; snooping in territorial waters; tangling with US vessels in exclusive economic zones [EEZs] - the PLAN's current IOR activities are relatively benign," said Gupta.

Chinese naval strategists subscribe to the view that naval power is truly a representation of a country's comprehensive power. China cannot attain greatness without being a full-fledged seafaring power, and yet, "The Chinese do swimmingly free-riding on the back of US underwriting of the global commons," said Gupta.

Meanwhile, any reading of the tea leaves on the Southeast Asian side of the Indian Ocean region is difficult indeed.

"Some of the Southeast countries which are littoral states in the Indian Ocean region also have been watchful of the increasing competition in the region. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are becoming more aware of the consequences of a potential major power conflict in the region and are becoming parties to various regional and sub-regional groupings to mitigate the regional tensions," said Rajagopalan.

Singapore and Thailand, for instance, are already squaring off over the long-discussed Kra Canal, which would provide a direct link between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean - bypassing the Straits of Malacca through which an estimated 80% of China's oil now flows.

"China is a new enthusiastic partner [and a big potential investor in this instance]. However, Singapore and the US remain opposed to the idea, for different reasons. The US opposition has to do with the fact that it will enable China to develop a much stronger influence in the region. This is a concern shared by countries like India and Japan as well," said Rajagopalan.

If angered, certain of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN's) 10 countries could have an immediate adverse impact on China's naval operations, quickly sealing off the Indian Ocean region.

"ASEAN, because of its proximity as well as its South China Sea disputes with the PRC [People's Republic of China], has an especially lucid window to Chinese naval practices. It has the inclination and the will to invite US forces to bottle-up the Chinese navy in its own backyard if it was deemed to be acting mischievously," said Gupta.

As for the role of former US bases in ASEAN nations, especially Subic Bay in the the Philippines - once the site of a large US Navy base along with a US Air Force base until the end of the Cold War - in support of Indian Ocean region military operations, any return to Subic Bay by US military forces in large numbers now seems farfetched.

"Already, given the perennial controversy that surrounds the Okinawa bases, a return of US personnel in large numbers to any Southeast Asian base - short of outright Chinese regional aggression or provocation - is likely be seen as an unwelcome throwback to the past," said Gupta. "Given the recently agreed-upon realignment of forces in Japan and additional forward positioning there of some command functions as well as the availability of Guam, I think a Subic Bay redeployment in this day and age of beyond-the-horizon capabilities is superfluous."

Gupta recommends that if there are US needs beyond Japan and Guam, they are probably best attained through joint pre-positioning sites, similar to what exists in Singapore, "with additional contingency access to host-nation facilities, but with only a skeletal American permanent presence on site".

In addition to engaging in an extensive schedule of joint exercises and training, Singapore's level of cooperation with the US serves as a model here. It offers the US vital logistical infrastructure, including aircraft carrier dry-dock facilities, and pre-positioning of US equipment, among other things.

For years to come, the US will remain the dominant player in the Indian Ocean region, while "India is likely to pick up some of the slack in the future and be a reliable defender of regional maritime responsibilities. In its own theater, Australia already is projected to commit greater naval assets, too," said Gupta.

On the other hand, greater Asian economic interests might prove to be a powerful and quite unexpected catalyst for change in the Indian Ocean region.

"After all, in a significant way, the Chinese economic interest in the security and stewardship of SLOCs is synonymous with India's as well as its ASEAN and East Asian partners. Hence, cooperative great power initiatives including China to safeguard the maritime commons and limit their mutual competitive tendencies within a broader framework of cooperation is not beyond the realm of possibility," said Gupta.

Losing the Indian Ocean region as a sphere of influence is not an option for India under any circumstance. Sharing it is another matter entirely and India would have to be far more trusting of China than it is now for such a scheme to float.

Regardless, India cannot afford to become so narrowly focused on China's blue-water aspirations because India has urgent coastal protection concerns as well. The terror attack on the city of Mumbai last November demonstrated that India's coastline is quite unprotected - the militants arrived by sea.

"One must reflect on the fact that India's lone aircraft carrier provided no defense against the Mumbai attackers who after all infiltrated by sea from [the Pakistani port city of] Karachi. Big ticket items and strategic deterrence and power projection notwithstanding, it is coastal defenses and the unsexy business of strengthening coast guard capabilities that is the crying need of the hour," said Gupta.

Among other things, India still has considerable time to further develop and deploy land-based naval aviation assets in a multi-layered defensive posture using a forward-thinking approach. While borrowing certain elements from the system that was deployed by the Russians to counter US carrier groups in the western Pacific might make sense, the door is also open to a greater role for unmanned aerial vehicles both for maintaining maritime domain awareness and engaging in force projection.

India has room for "helicopter carriers" - both for defensive purposes and rapid response to disasters throughout the Indian Ocean region - such as those that Japan has been building lately and India has new space assets including a new ocean surveillance satellite at its disposal.

India has much to sort out. Its reluctance to join the anti-piracy mission off Somalia, and its attachment to big carriers with all their inherent littoral vulnerabilities, might be easily explained, but agility and quick maneuvers count as well when the chips are down. China may go on winning points and gaining some ground in the Indian Ocean region, but India sits right in the middle of it, and that geopolitical reality will not turn with the tide.

"The US is likely to play a greater role in the region, given the developments of the past few years. Its military presence in Diego Garcia is likely to be augmented in the coming years for several reasons, including the China factor," said Rajagopalan. "Additionally, it might be important for countries like India and the US, as key players in the IOR, to strengthen their maritime cooperation. Such cooperation could also involve other states such as Japan, Australia and Singapore."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

INDIA/CHINA: Hopes for Early Border Settlement Recede

Here's a story by Ranjit Devraj on the recent India-China border controversies that has quoted me and it has appeared today on the Inter Press Service (Rome, Italy) website.

Hopes for Early Border Settlement Recede

Analysis by Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI, Oct 16 (IPS) - Hopes for an early settlement of the ‘world’s oldest standing border dispute’ receded last week after Asian neighbours China and India engaged in a tit-for-tat spat that ran counter to the spirit of a formal dialogue they are engaged in.
On Wednesday India's external affairs ministry called on Beijing to cease work on development projects, including highways and hydro-electric dams, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

That request was made apparently in retaliation for China’s objections to an electioneering visit made by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing considers to be disputed territory and part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

A day earlier, a Chinese spokesman had sent shockwaves through the Indian establishment by saying at a press briefing in Beijing: ‘’China expresses its strong dissatisfaction on the visit by the Indian leader to the disputed area in disregard of China’s grave concerns.’’

"By trying to tell the Indian prime minister where he can go within his own country, all limits of diplomacy have been crossed," said Sujit Dutta, one of India’s foremost China experts. "In fact, this is the worst of a series of provocations emanating over the last six months from Beijing, to which the Indian government responded in a muted fashion."

Dutta, who is currently a professor at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the Jamia Milia Islamia University, listed among those provocations the issuance of ‘stapled visas’ to Indian students from Indian Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh "as if to question their citizenship status".

China became a party to the territorial dispute over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir state by occupying the Aksai Chin area following the 1962 Sino-Indian border war and was ceded the Trans-Karakorum tract (or Shaksam valley) by Pakistan in the following year. Currently, India administers 43 percent of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan controls 37 percent and China holds 20 percent.

During the 1962 war China invaded and briefly occupied large parts of Arunachal Pradesh, which it officially refers to as ‘southern Tibet’, but withdrew its troops across the mountains for logistical reasons.

Currently, the effective border between China and India is the Line-of-Actual Control, which extends over 4,057 kilometres, with Kashmir on the west end and Arunachal Pradesh on the east. In between fall the Indian states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, the republic of Nepal, Sikkim state and the kingdom of Bhutan.

Dutta also counted among the provocations the objections raised by China at the Asian Development Bank to a loan being provided for a hydro-electric project in Arunachal Pradesh, which caused the bank’s operations in the territory to cease. "Such actions are not conducive to an easy settlement of the border issue," he said.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the independent Organiser Research Foundation (ORF), told IPS that she believed China’s provocations were primarily calculated to put pressure on India to "soften its positions at the negotiating table" for a series of border talks that have been conducted between the two countries over three decades.

At the 13th round of talks, which took place Aug. 7-8 in Beijing it was decided to set up a ‘hotline’ between Beijing and New Delhi as part of confidence-building measures. "But there has been little real progress at these talks," observed Rajagopalan, who is currently working on a project to study the military strategies of the major Asian powers.

Ahead of the talks, on Aug. 4, the ‘People's Daily’ carried an interview with Zhang Yan, China’s ambassador in New Delhi, in which he said: "China and India should settle the existing border disputes properly, calling into play the greatest possible political wisdom.

It added: "Despite the twists and turns in China-India ties and border disputes, the two countries share the same historical responsibilities of developing economies, improving people's lives and safeguarding world peace and development, which requires them to properly handle existing problems with the utmost political wisdom."

Zhang observed that "China is now India's top trading partner, while India has become China's largest overseas project contracting market and an important investment destination. Bilateral trade volume between the two hit 51.7 billion U.S. dollars in 2008, up 35 percent over the same period a year ago. The two countries have also set a target of bilateral trade volume of 60 billion dollars by 2010."

But as the talks began, the Daily carried an article by Chinese military expert, Long Tao, who warned that though the two countries wished to develop bilateral ties, "China won't sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for friendship. Therefore, India should not have any illusions with regard to this issue."

"This blow hot, blow cold approach is typical of Chinese diplomacy," said Rajagopalan. "But there could be real issues worrying Beijing, starting with vastly improved relations between India and the United States that led to the signing of a civilian nuclear pact between the two countries last year."

An editorial in ‘People’s Daily Online’ on Thursday accused India of attempts at "hegemony" and of following a policy of "befriend the far and attack the near".

The Daily issued the following admonishment: "India, which vows to be superpower, needs to have its eyes on relations with neighbours and abandon the recklessness and arrogance as the world is undergoing earthshaking changes."

According to the state-controlled paper, "the pursuit of being a superpower is justifiable, the dream of being a superpower held by Indians appears impetuous". It goes on to say: "For India, the ease of tension with China and Pakistan is the only way to become a superpower. At present, China is proactively engaging in negotiations with India for the early settlement of border dispute and India should give positive response."

But, said Rajagopalan, relations between the two countries were complex and there were many factors that needed to be addressed before anything like a permanent settlement of the border could be effected. ‘’One factor is the Dalai Lama who fled to India 1959 to set up a ‘government -in-exile’ in Himachal Pradesh.’’

The Dalai Lama plans to visit Arunachal Pradesh in November and this has not gone down well with Beijing, which regards the Tibetan leader as a ‘splitist’ and accuses him of being behind the protests that erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and elsewhere in March 2008.

Dutta commented that instead of accusing India of attempted hegemony, Beijing should look at its own record in Tibet, which, he said, is autonomous only in name. "The simple fact is that Tibetan refugees have continued to stream across the border into India after 1959 and they are now at least 250,000 of them resident in India. China has done nothing to encourage them to go back home."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Book on Chinese Military Strategy


My book, The Dragon's Fire: Chinese Military Strategy and Implications for Asia, is going to be out on October 20.

This book has essentially looked into the military strategy of China and how it implicates on India and Asia. Rise of China has been a subject of interest and concern not only in India and Asia but globally. The growth of China as a major military and economic power along with its global aspirations for a superpower status remains a serious concern to India, as well as the United States, Russia, and Japan. For example, will China be more willing to resort to force to settle the various territorial disputes with its neighbours? Will it become more aggressive in other bilateral issues? While it may be important to analyse the military and other capabilities that China has acquired, it is more pertinent to look at the military strategy through which it will employ these capabilities. While China has continued to argue that its rise is peaceful and that its military modernization is only geared towards defensive purposes, it is the perception that matters. Perception of a potential China threat has had several spin-off effects, in the form of alliances and/or force posturing by regional and global powers.

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