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China goes to Seychelles

Is Beijing merely following other global powers with military bases abroad?

Written by Harsh V. Pant |
December 16, 2011 1:36:01 am

Finally,it is out in the open. China will be setting up its first military base abroad in the Seychelles to “seek supplies and recuperate” facilities for its navy. The Seychelles has defended its decision by suggesting that it has invited China to set up a military base to tackle piracy off its coast,and Beijing has played it down by underlining that it is standard global practice for naval fleets to re-supply at the closest port of a nearby state during long-distance missions. But there should be no ambiguity: Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean has got bigger and will continue to get bigger in the coming years.

China’s foreign policy thinkers and political establishment have long been trying to convince the world that Beijing’s rise is meant to be a peaceful one,that China has no expansionist intentions,that it will be a different kind of great power. Of course,the very nature of power makes this largely a charade,but there is an entire industry in the West as well as in India that would have us believe China is actually a different kind of great power and that if the West could simply give China a stake in the established order,Beijing’s rise would not create any complications.

However,many in China have been advocating the creation of overseas bases for some time now. Shen Dingli,an influential professor at Fudan University in Shanghai,had asserted two years back that “it is wrong for us [China to believe that we have no right to set up bases abroad”. He argues it is not terrorism or piracy that’s the real threat to China. It is the ability of other states to block China’s trade routes. To prevent this,China,according to Dingli,needs not only a blue-water navy but also “overseas military bases to cut the supply costs”. Of course,Shen also wraps this up in the widely accepted world peace diplomacy,asserting that the establishment of such military bases overseas would promote regional and global stability. It is a familiar diplomatic wrapping that other superpowers should easily recognise.

As China emerges as a major global power,it will expand its military footprint across the globe,much like the US which has bases surrounding China. The rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities and broader military profile is a classic manifestation of its great-power status. China’s new naval strategy of “far sea defence” is aimed at giving Beijing the ability to project its power in key oceanic areas,including and most significantly the Indian Ocean.

China’s expansionist behaviour has long been evident. It has been acquiring naval facilities along the crucial choke-points in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence. China realises its maritime strength will give it the strategic leverage to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower. Beijing’s growing dependence on maritime space and resources is reflected in the Chinese aspiration to expand its influence and to ultimately dominate the strategic environment of the IOR. China’s growing reliance on bases across the IOR is a response to its perceived vulnerability,given the logistical constraints it faces due to the distance of the Indian Ocean waters from its own area of operation. Given that almost 80 per cent of China’s oil passes through the Strait of Malacca,it is reluctant to rely on US naval power for unhindered access to energy. So it has decided to build up its naval power at choke-points along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Yet,China is also consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India.

China’s growing naval presence in and around the IOR,beginning in areas such as China’s Hainan island in the South China Sea,should be troubling to India. Of particular note is what has been termed as China’s “string of pearls” strategy — some elements of which are no doubt hyped — that has significantly expanded its strategic depth in India’s backyard. It is possible to explain the construction of these ports and facilities by China on purely economic and commercial grounds; but regional and global powers like the US,Japan and India inevitably view the sum total of China’s diplomatic and military efforts in the Indian Ocean as projecting power vis-à-vis competing rivals. Moreover,most of Chinese naval facilities in the Indian Ocean are dual-use in nature and no serious strategy can discount their future military use.

China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers who have established military bases abroad to secure their interests. There is only one kind of great power,and one kind of great-power tradition. China is not going to be any different. The sooner India acknowledges this,the better it will be able to manage China’s rise and protect its own vital interests.

The writer teaches at King’s College,London
express@expressindia.com

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