Quietly and efficiently, China is expanding and augmenting its presence in the strategically located Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In a deft move that could be a cause of concern for New Delhi, China recently revealed that the island nation of Seychelles has invited its navy to set up an overseas base with the facilities meant for “seeking supplies or recuperating at appropriate harbours in Seychelles”.
The decision to set up China’s first naval base in Seychelles was taken during the December 2011 goodwill visit to Victoria (the Seychelles capital) by China’s defence Minister Gen Lian Guanglie. “We have invited the Chinese government to set up a military presence in Mahe to fight the pirate attacks that Seychelles face on a regular basis. For the time being it is studying this possibility because she has economic interests in the region and Beijing is also involved in the fight against piracy,” said Jean Paul Adam, Foreign Minister of Seychelles. Seychelles maintains a strong military relationship with China. Under a defence cooperation treaty signed between the two countries in 2004, China has not only given two light aircraft to the defence forces of Seychelles but also has trained 50 Seychelles soldiers.
Strategic experts hold the view that in the context of China’s plan to operationalise its first aircraft carrier which is now said to be under the final leg of sea trials, the Seychelles base would assume an added significance. As it is, China has already forged strong trade and maritime links with a number of countries in the region. The Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has drawn heavily from Chinese expertise in the area of harbour engineering. Similarly, China will be building a deep sea port in Sonadia near Chittagong in Bangladesh. And of course, China has a long standing presence in Myanmar where it has helped set up rail and road transport networks, oil and gas pipelines as well as ports and naval facilities.
The Chinese plan is to have at least three aircraft carriers before the end of this decade. Aircraft carriers are critical to the Chinese Navy’s plan to challenge US supremacy across the global oceanic waters. Incidentally, the Seychelles also hosts a US drone base.
But Beijing has strongly denied the suggestion that its plan for a base in Seychelles has military implications. Beijing has downplayed the importance of this base saying, “it is international practice for naval fleets to resupply at the closest port of a nearby state during long distance missions.” A report appearing in the state-owned China Daily says, “Chinese navy is considering taking on supplies in the Seychelles while conducting escort missions to tackle piracy. Military experts stressed that the move did not equate to establishing a military base”.
On the other hand, Li Qinggong, Deputy Secretary of China Council of National Security Policy Studies made a point that any arrangements over the use of facilities will be mutually beneficial with jobs provided for people in Seychelles and the navy better able to protect China’s growing overseas interest.
The official view in New Delhi is that the Chinese base in Seychelles cannot be projected as a threat to Indian security. “The world has mutual concerns about piracy going on in the region. They are also trying to play a major role in that. I think they are augmenting their anti piracy efforts. I do not see anything wrong in this,” stated India’s Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju.
Yet, there is no denying the fact that Seychelles which occupies a strategic position between Asia and Africa in the IOR has its own importance for the Indian strategic scheme of things. Seychelles has a large Indian population. The Indian Navy has actively been guarding the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) of this island nation since 2009 following a request from the Seychelles government. Warships and maritime aircraft of the Indian Navy stationed in this island country have also been spearheading anti-piracy operations in the IOR.
On another front, as part of its long term vision of dominating the IOR, the Chinese Navy has also unveiled plan to launch anti-piracy operations in association with Thailand and Myanmar. Clearly and apparently, this well thought out move could cause unease in several countries including Vietnam, Japan and Philippines which have disputes with China. Asian strategic analysts consider the Chinese moves in the IOR as significant steps towards strengthening its policy of encirclement under its “string of pearls” strategy.
Meanwhile, the argument that India should join hands with Vietnam to counter the growing Chinese muscle flexing in the commercially and strategically important IOR, is gathering momentum. Vietnam happens to be the only military power in the South China Sea region which has the robustness to withstand Chinese “blackmailing and bullying”. The Vietnamese Army has behind it a long and exciting history of having faced the might of American forces. Rightly and appropriately, New Delhi has held its ground, against Chinese objections on the question of Indian prospecting for oil in Vietnamese waters. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh (ONGCV) is actively assisting Vietnam in exploring energy resources in the South China Sea falling under Vietnamese control. Against this backdrop, there is a growing clamour to accede to the Vietnamese request for Indian assistance in the area of maritime defence.
One more reason for New Delhi to get worried over the fast expanding Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean is the recent permission granted to China by the UN-backed International Sea Bed Authority to explore poly-metallic sulphide ore deposits in the depths of the IOR for a period of fifteen years. This commercially significant contract gives China exclusive rights to explore a 10,000 sq km of the oceanic expanse in the south-west Indian Ocean close to Africa. And China’s expansionist ambitions in the IOR seems to be unstoppable.
Radhakrishna Rao is a freelancer specializing in defence and aerospace issues
Views expressed are personal