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."


JD said...

Has India ever thought of getting these Helicopter ships from Japan?

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan said...

No, not yet. India has not expressed any such interest in procuring these helicopter ships/carriers from Japan. there is lot of speculation given that India is planning to spend billions in military modernisation in the next few years.