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China constructing a military facility in UAE points to Beijing’s use of economic, infrastructure projects for strategic ends

India must use the leverage and resources it has in its immediate neighbourhood as well as work with other concerned powers — such as members of the Quad — to ensure a rules-based order in the IOR and beyond.

By: Editorial |
Updated: November 23, 2021 9:22:15 am
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the US government held urgent meetings with the authorities in the UAE after satellite images revealed the surreptitious construction of a military structure.

The revelation that China was constructing a secret military facility at the Port of Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates confirms both Beijing’s growing strategic ambition and the stealth and subterfuge with which it is expanding its military footprint beyond its borders. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the US government held urgent meetings with the authorities in the UAE after satellite images revealed the surreptitious construction of a military structure earlier this year. The UAE subsequently halted the project and claimed that it did not know about China’s military infrastructure development. This supposed ignorance will provide little comfort to New Delhi and others with a stake in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

For much of the 20th century, Beijing eschewed foreign military bases in the name of national sentiment and sovereignty. However, in recent years, as China has become more assertive under Xi Jinping, it has used all the tools at its disposal to gain a foothold in strategically significant areas. In 2017, the PLA began operating its first overseas military base in Djibouti. In other locations, it seems to be employing the so-called “dual use” strategy: From Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan, to Hambantota in Sri Lanka and through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has established a presence at key points in the IOR through the promise of economic and infrastructure partnerships. As in the UAE, these locations could be used — covertly, or overtly and gradually — for military purposes. While the ongoing protests in Pakistan around Gwadar, and objections in other countries earlier, indicate that Beijing may face some political hurdles, its economic might and ability to co-opt political elites may help it surmount the challenges in host countries.

The Khalifa port incident makes it clear that even India’s closest friends have to do business with China, and that Beijing will leverage its economic might for strategic advantage. That Chinese infrastructure projects in the region are now suspect is only a further cause for worry. The US seems to have taken cognisance of Chinese expansionism and Washington’s scrutiny will perhaps keep its friends and allies — like the UAE and Pakistan — on their toes vis-a-vis China. New Delhi cannot compete on an equal footing with Beijing when it comes to economic resources. It must, therefore, use the leverage and resources it has in its immediate neighbourhood as well as work with other concerned powers — such as members of the Quad — to ensure a rules-based order in the IOR and beyond.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2021 under the title ‘The secret spread’.

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