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The string of pearls

India must move fast to counteract Chinese naval plans

Written by Ravi V. Sharada Prasad |
April 27, 2009 12:48:22 am

India’s decision to turn down China’s request to be inducted into the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium is a good move. The Chinese government had wanted to exert pressure on Chief of Naval Staff,Admiral Sureesh Mehta,in Qingdao for the 60th anniversary of the Chinese navy.

For the last few years,China’s navy has aggressively expanded into the Indian Ocean,and has sought to establish a “string of pearls” of naval bases in order to encircle India from the south-east to the south-west. Generations of Indian naval officers have been brought up on the maxim of the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan,who had forecast as far back as 1890 that “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia… In the 21st century,the destiny of the world would be decided on its waters.” As described in its October 2000 White Paper on Defence,China’s goal is to achieve overwhelming military and economic dominance over Asia.

Thus Admirals Shi Yunsheng and Liu Huaqing planned a blue-water presence in the Indian Ocean,including the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea,concomitant with a strategic encirclement of India through cooperation with Pakistan,Bangladesh,and Myanmar. Admiral Zhao Nanqi asserted,“We do not accept the Indian Ocean as India’s ocean.”

India’s geography gives it a naval advantage; over 70 per cent of the world’s shipping,especially oil,passes through the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the Arabian Sea and East Asia; these lines have many vulnerable choke-points,such as the straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mendeb,as well as the straits of Malacca,Sunda,Lombok and Makassar. Eighty five per cent of China’s oil imports and 55 per cent of its total trade pass through choke points within India’s sphere of influence. Over 45 per cent of the Pacific Rim’s trade passes through the Malacca Straits,whose only two approaches are through the Ten Degree Channel,which lies between India’s Andaman Islands and Great Nicobar Islands or the Six Degree Channel just south of Indira Point.

China’s “pearls” include a container shipping facility in Chittagong; a deep-water port in Sittwe,Myanmar; a container shipping port at Hambantota,in Sri Lanka; a deep-sea naval base in Gwadar,Pakistan; as well as naval bases like Ormara in Pakistan’s western Makran coast. They already have an extensive signals intelligence facility,along with an airstrip,on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island,just a few miles from the Andamans. This facility will enable China to pose significant electronic intelligence and signal intelligence threats to India’s missile launches from Balasore and Chandipur-on-Sea,and to rocket and satellite launches from Sriharikota; monitoring the recently established tri-services command in the Andamans will also be possible.

China is also associated with Myanmar naval bases at Munaung,Hainggyi,Katan Island,and Zadaikyi Island. It is building radar,refit,and refuel facilities at Khaukphyu,Mergui,and Zadetkyi Kyun,as well as road and waterway links from its southern Yunan province to Myanmar’s Yangon port — which will provide it direct access to the Bay of Bengal,obviating the need to cross the Malacca straits.

In the south western Indian Ocean,China is aggressively seeking to reduce Indian influence on Mauritius and the Maldives. With Seychelles and Madagascar,these control all the SLOCs of the western Indian Ocean. In February 2009,Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Mauritius,and doled out 270 million dollars to modernise its airport,and 750 million dollars for a Special Economic Zone which would create 35,000 jobs. This amounts to over 2000 dollars for each Mauritian.

India should act fast to take advantage of the Chinese navy’s present weaknesses. The principal obstacle to China’s ambitions is its lack of an aircraft carrier. It has announced plans to build six,but those won’t be deployed for the next 10-15 years. Meanwhile India should accelerate the building of its indigenous aircraft carrier at Kochi and its indigenous nuclear submarines at Vishakhapatnam. China will also encounter other problems as it overstretches itself to extend into the Indian Ocean,which India should plan to exploit. “We will have problems in helicopter maintenance,logistic supplies,and telecommunications on the open sea,” acknowledged Professor Zhang Shiping of China’s Academy of Military Sciences.

India should act quickly to dominate the Indian Ocean from the Cape of Good Hope in the south-west to Darwin and Perth in the south-east. As long ago as 1948,then Chief of the Naval Staff,Vice-admiral Sir Edward Parry,had sought to grow the Indian navy into one of the world’s leading navies,capable of operating even beyond the Indian Ocean. Parry told the British admiralty that he did not intend his navy to play second fiddle to even the British or American navies in the Indian Ocean. It is time the Indian government made his hopes a reality.

The writer heads a Delhi-based infotech firm

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