Harsh V Pant
In early September, two Chinese naval ships docked in the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) in which China has invested $500 million, indicating the possibility of China using its commercial infrastructure assets in Sri Lanka for military purposes.
Despite India expressing its concerns to Sri Lanka, another Chinese submarine – this time a nuclear-propelled one – ‘Changzheng-2’ along with a PLA Navy (PLAN) escort warship ‘Chang Xing Dao’ docked in Colombo on November 6, 2014. The growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean is now unmistakable.
Pakistan has already openly invited China to construct a naval base at the strategically located port of Gwadar once again underlines widespread anxiety in India and beyond about Beijing’s Indian Ocean objectives. Gwadar is a predominantly Chinese-funded commercial port about 500 km from the Strait of Hormuz and is considered by many as the most significant of ‘pearl’ in Beijing’s ‘string’ of facilities around the Indian Ocean littoral. Though the Pakistani request has not been entertained by China, at least for now, Indian Ocean is fast emerging as the main front in the struggle between China and India.
The Indian Government has been explicitly acknowledging for the last few years what many have been warning for almost a decade now: China’s role in the Indian Ocean is growing at a rate that underlines much more than a normal expansion of capabilities. Former External Affairs Minister S. M Krishna informed the Indian Parliament in 2011 that “the Government of India has come to realise that China has been showing more than the normal interest in the Indian Ocean affairs.”
He went on assert that the government is “closely monitoring the Chinese intentions.” But monitoring intentions of a state is a fool’s errand. Intentions cannot be empirically verified and even if one could determine China’s intentions today, there is no way to know what they will be in the future. What India should instead focus on is China’s rapidly rising naval capabilities in and around the Indian Ocean. Though China may have rebuffed Pakistan’s overtures on Gwadar, Beijing’s growing influence in Pakistan doesn’t make it any less of a headache.
For some time now, Indian naval expansion has been undertaken with an eye on China, but despite some positive developments, India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made some significant advances in the waters surrounding India.
China’s growing naval capability was on full display as it paraded its nuclear-powered submarines for the first time as part of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy in 2009. Gone was the reticence of yore when China was not ready to even admit that it had such capabilities. Chinese commanders are now openly talking about the need for nuclear submarines to safeguard the nation’s interests, and the Chinese navy, once the weakest of the three services, is now the focus of attention of the military modernisation programme that is being pursued with utmost seriousness.
China’s navy is now considered the third largest in the world, behind only the US and Russia and superior to the Indian navy in both qualitative and quantitative terms. The PLA navy has traditionally been a coastal force, and China has had a continental outlook to security. But with a rise in its economic might since the 1980s, Chinese interests have expanded and acquired a maritime orientation with intent to project power into the Indian Ocean.
Senior Chinese officials have now openly acknowledged that China is ready to launch its first aircraft carrier with tests starting later this year, a capability that is viewed as being indispensable to protecting Chinese interests in oceans. China is acquiring naval bases along the crucial choke-points in the Indian Ocean, not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region.
Yet, China is consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India – something that comes out clearly in an oft-cited secret memorandum issued by the PLA General Logistic Department director: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians… We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account.”