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Island Hop Scotch In The Indian Ocean Region – Analysis

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By Sarabjeet Singh Parmar

China’s entry into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by engaging Myanmar and Sri Lanka in the East and South has now extended to the West and Southwest where it is engaging Maldives and Seychelles. The engagement, presently, is based mainly on infrastructure development and improvement of diplomatic ties thereby availing of the facilities available for extending what could be called its “Look West Policy”. The establishment of military bases is far fetched and in today’s scenario extra-regional presence and economic strangleholds do not seem realistic. The pressures that a nation would have to face after inviting a foreign military presence would be tremendous. The establishment of Chinese military bases would imply a form of alliance that most nations, especially small island nations whose economies exist due to western and regional influences, would like to avoid. The establishment of a Chinese military base in Myanmar was a remote possibility which is now considered not possible post the recent engagement by the US. However, the implications of Chinese engagements in the IOR are tremendous and require to be viewed through multiple prisms ranging from the strategic to economic to military balancing. This commentary focuses on the strategic and maritime balancing aspects.

In Myanmar the Chinese have assisted in upgrading the radar facilities on the Cocos Islands1 as well as the development of Kyaukpyu deep water port as part of an economic and technological zone2 and oil pipelines from there to China. The Cocos Islands lie North of the northern tip of the Andaman Island chain. The radar facility would definitely accord the Chinese surveillance inputs in monitoring activities around the northern Andaman Islands. The port of Kyaukpyu in the Northeast of the Bay of Bengal would give the Chinese greater leverage in the Bay of Bengal especially the waters surrounding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In addition it would place the Chinese in a position to influence events in the Malacca Straits, which is one of the major choke points of the IOR and a major anxiety with respect to protection of China’s maritime trade, especially oil.

Indian Ocean
Indian Ocean

The port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, under development with Chinese assistance, would be a major facility for refuelling and resupply for Chinese vessels since it falls half way along the SLOCs en route from the Malacca Straits to the choke points in Northwest IOR, namely the Gulf of Aden, Bab-el-Mandeb, the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz. Hambantota would also grant the Chinese the ability to turn south and enter the Indian Ocean.

The planned opening up of the Chinese embassy in Maldives along with other plans of infrastructure development including the possibility of a submarine base3 could permit in future an increase in China’s presence in the Arabian Sea and its ability to monitor its trade transiting via the SLOCs from Sri Lanka to the choke points in the Northwest IOR mentioned above.

Although China’s engagement with Seychelles is reportedly based on acquiring facilities for Chinese ships engaged in anti-piracy operations, there are a few other imperatives as well. In June 2011 China gifted two Y12 aircraft to Seychelles; out of which one would be used for anti-piracy and EEZ patrols and the other for inter-island connectivity.4 Seychelles is situated North of the Southwest Indian Ocean Ridge where China has been allotted an area of 10,000 square kilometres for prospecting and exploring polymetallic sulphides under a 15 year contract signed with the International Seabed Authority.5 The usage of facilities at Seychelles for refuelling and resupply would ensure more effective exploitation and protection of Chinese assets and interests in the allotted seabed area.

China is looking at investing one billion USD on a special enterprise zone in Mauritius. The figure appears too large for investment in a country that has no natural resources, a small labour force and an insignificant domestic market.6 Therefore, the only plausible rationale is that Mauritius provides a strategic advantage with respect to its geographical position in the IOR and proximity to the Southwest Indian Ocean Ridge.

Even though China has stated that “its activities in the region were restricted to seeking supplies or recuperating at appropriate harbours in the Seychelles or other countries as needed during escort missions,”7 these moves have strategic implications. These activities place China in a strategic position in the IOR with the capability of firstly increasing its footprint in the maritime domain and secondly bringing about a reorientation in the existing maritime military balance by enhancing its capability of power projection in the region.

Although China’s actions are in keeping within the ambit of international law and relations, a fact acknowledged by the Indian Defence Minster, India should look at a policy that would ensure that its relations and investments with the island nations in terms of goodwill and trust earned, defence diplomacy and economics are not reduced by the Chinese in this game of Hop Scotch.

1. See Poon Kim Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimensions”, Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies, 2002, Vol. 1, p. 40. Available at http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/acd/cg/ir/college/bulletin/e-vol1/1-3shee.pdf. Accessed on 14 December 2011.
2. See http://www.ramree.com/videos/ and http://www.ramree.com/kyaukpyu/. Accessed on 14 December 2011.
3. “China’s Stepped up moves in Maldives worry India,” The Times of India, New Delhi, 10 October 2011.
4. “China gives Seychelles two planes worth $11m,” The Nation, Seychelles, 17 June 2011. Available at http://www.nation.sc/index.php?art=23865. Accessed on 14 December 2011.
5. http://www.isa.org.jm/en/node/704. Accessed on 14 December 2011.
6. See James Wan, “Who Benefits From Chinese Investment in Mauritius?” Available at http://thinkafricapress.com/mauritius/sez-jinfei-china-problems-hasty-in…. Accessed on 14 December 2011.
7. “Chinese Military Base in Indian Ocean,” The Times of India, New Delhi, 13 December 2011.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IslandicHopScotchintheIndianOceanRegion_ssparmar_151211

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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