The latest American assessment of Beijing’s military power underlines the growing reach of the PLA navy in the Indian Ocean and the prospect of China acquiring naval facilities in the littoral. That China is seeking a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean through a “string of pearls”, or a network of bases, has been debated for a while.
India, however, has been divided in its assessment. Some have dismissed the notion of Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean as fanciful. Others argue that China’s rising naval profile is a serious long-term threat to the littoral that India must start addressing now. Many were content to assume that Beijing would remain preoccupied in the Pacific Ocean for a long time and would not threaten Delhi in the Indian Ocean.
There is a widespread sense today that the world has underestimated the pace of China’s military modernisation, the intensity of its naval buildup and the consequences for the Indian Ocean. It is quite clear China has a two-ocean strategy. Although the immediate threats to China are in the Pacific, Beijing is keen to overcome its geographic limitations in the Indian Ocean. More broadly, China’s rising maritime profile in our maritime neighbourhood fits in with the historic ebb and flow of foreign naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Like many great powers in the past — Portugal, Netherlands, France, Great Britain and the US — China too will establish military bases in the Indian Ocean. The question is not “if” but “when”.
Since the dawn of the modern maritime age, bases have been essential to the projection of military power, control of critical choke points, and securing the sea lines of communication.
Amidst the rise of modern capitalism, emergence of global markets and advances in seafaring, all trading states recognised the importance of powerful navies in establishing access to far-flung resources, bringing them to production centres and shipping them out to globally dispersed consumers. In the colonial age, naval bases in the Indian Ocean were critical for the maintenance of European empires in the east. For postwar superpowers America and Russia, military presence in the Indian Ocean was part of their global contestation for primacy. The end of the Cold War has not necessarily obviated the need for bases in the Indian Ocean.
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The US has retained its bases in Diego Garcia, strengthened its central command focused on the Gulf and set up a new military command for Africa. France, which had a historic naval presence in the Indian Ocean, has recently acquired a military base inside the Gulf.
As a rising great power with significant and growing economic interests in the Indian Ocean, China has every incentive to establish a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean. Instead of debating China’s intentions, India must focus on how to cope with the inevitability of Chinese power projection into the Indian Ocean.
Since the deconstruction of empires and the flowering of nationalism, bases have been politically toxic in much of the developing world. Major powers have learnt that large permanent military bases generate uncontrollable political backlash in the host country. Instead of seeking big new foreign military bases, the US has learnt to rotate its forces through friendly host countries, pre-position military equipment and ensure the capacity to arrive in the theatre of conflict on short notice. The US and other powers recognise that managing base politics is easier in smaller states than in larger ones.
The major powers have also learnt to avoid the term “bases” and talk instead about “facilities” that are less controversial. That has made it easier for China to proclaim political opposition to all foreign military bases while seeking access to naval facilities far from its shores.
As it builds a blue water navy to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean, China needs friendly places around the littoral. India’s naval and intelligence establishments are acutely aware of China’s determined quest for naval facilities all across the Indian Ocean littoral. The UPA government, however, was unwilling or unable to respond to the implications of China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean. When he lands on the deck of India’s new aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya later this week, Modi should ask the naval leadership what Delhi’s options in coping with China’s maritime challenge in the Indian Ocean are.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’