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Posted at: Nov 16, 2017, 12:39 AM; last updated: Nov 16, 2017, 12:39 AM (IST)

Getting around Beijing’s ways

India must strengthen maritime pacts with other players
Getting around Beijing’s ways
High seas: China wants to browbeat all to stake claim to more and more sea.

G Parthasarathy

THE spectacular rise of China over the past two decades has changed the entire geopolitical scene across India’s maritime frontiers. While China has a legitimate interest in ensuring the security of its maritime frontiers, what has shaken its entire maritime neighbourhood, has been Beijing’s readiness to use military power by deploying its navy coercively to enforce its expansionist claims across the South China Sea. These Chinese claims, spelt out in a unilaterally drawn “Nine Dotted Line”, have resulted in tensions with virtually all China’s maritime neighbours, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Worse still, China is building air bases and artificially constructed islands across the South China Sea to enforce its untenable claims, whose very basis has been rejected by a UN tribunal, in a judgment, on a complaint filed by the Philippines. Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia alone have stood firm against Chinese expansionism. Indonesia could well take China to an international tribunal over Beijing’s claims to its Natuna Islands.

This Chinese “assertiveness” on its maritime boundary claims across the South China Sea is accompanied by its growing naval presence, including nuclear submarines, across the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, extending from the Straits of Aden, where China has established a naval base in Djibouti, across the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca. This entire Indian Ocean Region, extending from Aden to Malacca, accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s oil production and 57 per cent of the world’s oil trade. As much as 70 per cent of India’s oil supplies come across these sea lanes and around 7 million Indians reside in the Arab Gulf countries, from where India receives over $40 billion annually as remittances. Given the rivalries between Iran and its Arab neighbours across the Straits of Hormuz, the US has positioned its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and its Central Command military base in Qatar. 

While India has historically looked on its maritime frontiers as extending across the Indian Ocean, from Aden to Malacca, the rise of Chinese power and China’s territorial assertiveness, both on land and sea, are disturbing and need to be addressed strategically. Beijing now claims that its territorial frontiers with India extend across the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, with its borders lying just adjacent to the strategic Siliguri corridor in the east, while also claiming large tracts of Ladakh in the west. With Chinese power growing in the 1990s, a Chinese Admiral proclaimed: “The Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”, when concern was expressed by India over China using its clout with Myanmar to establish bases and monitoring facilities in the Cocos Islands near the Andaman Islands and possibly in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu. While India has never claimed that the Indian Ocean is “India’s Ocean”, China has claimed the bulk of the South China Sea is “China’s Sea” and even extended its claim to Indonesia’s shores. China now has a full-fledged military base in Djibouti and full access to port facilities at Gwadar in Balochistan. It is set to significantly strengthen Pakistan’s navy, providing it four frigates and eight submarines. 

India has not looked on idly at China’s moves in the Indian Ocean. India is, in fact, admired globally for settling its maritime boundary issues with all its neighbours, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Moreover, India has no maritime boundary tensions with Pakistan, though the maritime boundary can be demarcated only after the land boundary is agreed upon. It is for this reason that India’s maritime behaviour, unlike that of China, has won international praise and is cited as an example about how a large power should behave. Moreover, apart from working cooperatively with littoral states in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) to agree on maritime norms and measures for disaster relief and economic cooperation, India is also partnering Japan for economic cooperation and connectivity across its shores to Africa. Even as China’s footprint across the Indian Ocean grows with its access to port facilities, India has responded quietly, but surely, together with other regional and outside powers for eliminating piracy. 

During his visits to Seychelles and Mauritius in 2015, PM Modi signed a number of maritime agreements, including one to build maritime infrastructure, and promote sea and air links with the Agalega Islands in Mauritius. Mauritius has reportedly been offered a credit of $500 million for mutually agreed maritime security projects, including the provision for a 1,300-tonne coastal patrol vessel. Similar agreements were reached with Seychelles. India’s coastal lines of communications across the Indian Ocean are now being closely monitored and secured. Moreover, in a recent naval conclave in Goa (October 31-November 2), attended by senior naval officials of Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles and the Maldives, India offered better exchanges of information, including timely intelligence on maritime movements across the Indian Ocean. Similar steps need to be taken by us for cooperation with our oil producing/energy partners.

While trilateral naval exercises with the US and Japan, named Malabar, are now undertaken regularly and maritime cooperation with the US is set to continue, it remains to be seen how Australia can be integrated into this group, given its hesitant and inconsistent approach to such cooperation in the past. It is heartening that there have been recent maritime exercises with Russia in its Pacific Port of Vladivostok, making our maritime cooperation more inclusive. With around 40 per cent of our exports proceeding beyond Malacca through the Asia-Pacific Region, it is only appropriate that we have an appropriate architecture for security/military cooperation in place on the eastern shores of Asia, across what is now called the Indo-Pacific Region.

China’s much-touted OBOR initiative will enable Beijing to dominate the sea lanes of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans by extending credits which the recipients cannot repay. Just as Sri Lanka has found in Hambantota, other recipients of such Chinese “aid” will find themselves caught in a “debt trap”, wherein they are increasingly forced to compromise their sovereignty and hand over control of infrastructure and industries to the Chinese. Respected Pakistani economists are now questioning the economic wisdom of receiving Chinese “assistance” of over $60 billion, largely at near-commercial terms. Similar concerns have been voiced in Myanmar. But, in Pakistan, major decisions on cooperation with China are taken by the army brass, which is not exactly knowledgeable on economic issues. Mercifully, Myanmar’s army has no such illusions about China’s intentions!

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