CHINESE QUEST FOR A NAVAL BASE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN – POSSIBLE OPTIONS FOR CHINA



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(This article which had originally been written for and appeared on this website in February 2010 is reproduced on account of its current relevance.)

“China is in need of a strong power to maintain the world peace. So it is necessary for us to build troop bases to face the challenge from other countries.”

The above extract from a recent article titled ‘Don’t shun the idea of setting up overseas military bases’ by Professor Shen Dingli virtually sums up the scope of the overarching ambitions that China harbours with regard to its global power projection thinking. China views this aspect as part of its natural progression towards becoming a superpower. The key words in the above quote which merit notice are “to maintain world peace”. It is not evident as to how has China received a mandate “to maintain world peace”, for facilitation of which it seeks to set up overseas military bases, and hopes that the international community will understand and not get overly concerned by such a move.

The above article makes a strong pitch for setting up Chinese military bases overseas, citing the need to “. . . enhance power for safeguarding own overseas interests and to exert pressure on the potential enemies’ interests. . . .” There is thus no denying the fact that a domestic debate in favour of China setting up overseas bases is gaining traction, as this is the second article appearing in the Chinese cyber media within the last month. A milder version propagating the same theme was articulated by a PLA Navy Admiral Yin Zhuo after the release of the Chinese Bulk carrier ‘De Xin Hai’ from Somali pirates in end December 2009. The Admiral proposed that China should set up a permanent base in the Indian Ocean to support the long term participation of Chinese naval ships in the anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast. It is argued that this would strengthen the PLA Navy’s logistic capacity, thus enabling fulfillment of its international commitments with greater efficiency. The common thread running through both the pieces was that ‘the other nations would understand China’s need for a establishing such overseas bases’.

Chinese Options in the Indian Ocean

One of the ‘Pearls’?

Though thePLA Navy Admiral did not suggest a location for such a base, he did believe that the base should be relatively stable, contain facilities for communications, repairs, replenishment of fuel, re-supply of rations and offer avenues for recreation. The most obvious choice for a Chinese base would of course, be from amongst one of the ‘pearls’ from its so called ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean. The Bangladeshi and Myanmarese ports in the Bay of Bengal may be too out of the way from the standard transit routes to the Arabian Sea and hence may not be suitable in the current Chinese scheme of things. This leaves China with an option of establishing a military base either in Sri Lanka (Galle/ Hambantotta) or Pakistan (Gwadar/Pasni).

While the Sri Lankan ports do lie astride the Arabian Sea transit route, they would still be well far away (about 2000 NM) from the current scene of action. Further, the moot question will be whether Sri Lanka would want to risk antagonizing a close and large neighbour like India, to which it is geo-politically and inseparably linked, by allowing China to set up a naval base on its territory.

The next best option for China would then be Pakistan, for evident reasons, i.e. close Sino-Pak economic and military association as against the uncertain India-Pak relations. Pakistan and China also share the land borders, through which such a base can be supported reasonably well. However, such a base would suffer from certain inherent disadvantages when seen from a maritime perspective. The base would be too close to India and would be well within the range of Indian naval surveillance and strike envelope. It could also be susceptible to blockade, as was witnessed off Karachi Port during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict. Further, the Chinese warships repeatedly transiting to and from ports in Pakistan would be prone to intrusive monitoring, signature profiling, tracking and trailing by the Indian Navy, due to the very nature of their passage constraints.

Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’?

There are however, other options for China, if one were to digress a little from the ‘String of Pearls’ construct. The various islands of Maldives and Seychelles present a range of opportunities for a country which seeks to maintain a holistic maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region, as it would offset all the abovementioned disadvantages associated with the Sri Lankan and Pakistani ports. China has been actively wooing both, Maldives and Seychelleswith offer of economic assistance, infrastructure development and liberal financial loans / grants. There have been unconfirmed reports of Maldives having leased ‘Marao atoll’ to China for constructing a naval base.

However, India and Maldives share very strong bilateral relations built on sizeable economic, security and social cooperation. India had provided security support in foiling a coup attempt against the Maldivian Government in 1988 in an operation named ‘Op Cactus’. More recently, India handed over a fast patrol craft to the Maldivian Coast Guard in 2006. The Indian Defence Minister, A K Antony visited Maldives in August 2009 and initiated a series of measures to enhance defence cooperation. India has promised to transfer two ‘Dhruv’ helicopters, 26 coastal radars and regular Dornier patrol sorties over the island nation as part of the security plan. India will also set up a 25 bed military hospital in Male and assist in setting up the Maldivian Air Force. Thus the geographical proximity of Maldives to India as also its close political ties, will pose the same dilemma to Maldives as applicable to Sri Lanka., if it were to consider the basing of Chinese ships on its territory. The Chinese leadership would surely take these factors into account, when they mull over the ‘military base’ issue.



Therefore, in the opinion of the analyst, a base in Seychelles, which is virtually in the centre of the West Indian Ocean and the focus of the current Chinese maritime activities, would be more appropriate for the Chinese Navy. The island nation is located close enough to its energy traffic transiting through the Red Sea, as also heading homewards from the West African coast around the Cape of Good Hope. It would enable the PLA Navy to monitor this vital energy route and provide security when needed. Seychelles is also not too distant from the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden, where the PLA Navy ships are currently deployed, and for whose logistics support, the Chinese Admiral recommended the setting up of a base in the Indian Ocean. The biggest maritime advantage for PLA Navy would be that the naval base as also the assets using it would be well away from the prying eyes and intrusive surveillance by the Indian Navy. The base would be also be close enough to the sea route of US naval assets transiting to Diego Garcia, enabling China to mount some kind of surveillance in future as and when their capabilities grow to an appropriately advanced level.

A comparative table shown below indicating distances in nautical miles



Chinese economic engagements with Seychelles have been growing in the recent past. China announced $ 4.5 million grant to Seychelles and also signed an agreement on technical and economic cooperation during the visit of the President of Seychelles, Mr. Alix Michel, to Beijing in November 2006. Chinese President, Hu Jintao thereafter visited Seychelles in February 2007 as part of his eight-nation African tour. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature also visited Seychelles in November 2008 during his five nation African tour. China contributed more than 90 percent of the funds for the new ‘National Assembly’ building and provided technical assistance in its construction. During its inauguration on December 04, 2009, the Chinese ambassador in Seychelles stated that the new National Assembly building was one of the highlights of the friendship between Seychelles and China.On November 25, 2009, China and Seychelles also signed an agreement for the equivalent of a US $ 6 million for financing the construction of a new Supreme Court building, which will be called the ‘Palais de Justice’.

India has also been maintaining cordial economic and defence relationship with Seychelles. The Indo-Seychelles Joint Commission was set up in October 1990 and meets biennially to discuss common trade, investment, and communications matters. The Indian naval ships have been regularly visiting Seychelles for the last two decades. In 2005, the Indian Navy handed over a fast attack craft to the Seychelles Coast Guard to help them secure their maritime interests. India also gifted naval workshop equipment to Seychelles in September 2008, during the visit of the Indian Navy ships. India has also provided military experts to upgrade and restructure the Seychelles Peoples Defense Force (SPDF). The extent of Indian engagements with Seychelles however, remains on a lesser scale as compared to that of China, as is evident from the above. Conclusion

China has deep anxieties about the geographical location of India that places it astride the Indian Ocean. It has therefore always kept its options open with regard to deploying its armed forces in the region.Thus the establishment of a Chinese naval base in the region, irrespective of its location, would have considerable security implications for India.The sustained presence of PLA Navy ships in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Arabian Sea, will result in limiting the availability of maritime space for the Indian Navy and curtail its area of influence. This will also boost the morale of India’s inimical neighbour, howsoever notionally. The Indian Navy will have to factor in the presence of Chinese naval ships in the Indian backyard while planning operations, missions and exercises.

While there is neither any indication at present to suggest that China will set up a base in Maldives or Seychelles, nor whether Maldives or Seychelles would willingly accede to any such Chinese request, an attempt has been made to identify the most suitable location for China from the maritime perspective. Given the Chinese propensity for springing surprises in international arena all invariably ending up in its favour, the Indian strategic and security establishment must take due cognizance of this probability turning into reality and prepare strategies to preserve the Indian national interest in the Indian Ocean and its littorals.

*Commander Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri is a Research Fellow with the China Cell of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or National Maritime Foundation. The Author can be reached at kkagnihotri@maritimeindia.org.
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