By B. Raman
The main security threats to Indian interests in the Indian Ocean area arise from three factors—firstly, the gradual erosion of the Indian political influence in the area; secondly, the increase in the Chinese presence in the area; and thirdly, the uncontrolled activities of the Somali pirates.
Nowhere is the erosion of the Indian political influence more evident than in Sri Lanka where despite our assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka in its successful counter-insurgency operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) we have not been able to protect either the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils or the lives and livelihood of Indian Tamil fishermen, who have been repeatedly at the mercy of the Sri Lankan Navy.
Our repeated pleas for finding an early political solution to the grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils and for stopping attacks — some of them brutal and fatal — on Indian Tamil fishermen have had no impact on the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, while pretending to be sensitive to Indian interests, has been ignoring them without any fear of the likely consequences. He has no fear because he is confident that there will be no consequences. India’s core interests in the region to the south of India have been repeatedly ignored by Rajapaksa.
Our dilemma in Sri Lanka underlines the hard reality that having a strong Navy alone would not be sufficient to make our core interests prevail in the Indian Ocean region. There has to be a political courage and will to use our naval strength in support of our core interests. In the absence of such courage and will, the ships of our Navy will remain not a powerful arm of the Indian State ready to go into action if our core interests are threatened, but mere oceanic curios, exhibited in public and admired, but not feared.
The negative state of affairs that we are confronted with in Sri Lanka today could be repeated in the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles in the years-if not months — to come if the Indian political leadership is not more assertive in protecting Indian interests in these Island countries.
Fortunately, in the Maldives, the Indian interests still prevail despite an increase in political and economic contacts between China and the Maldives. The Government of Maldives continues to look up to India for strengthening its capacity for meeting threats to its security, which presently mostly arise from non-State actors such as Pakistan-based jihadi elements and the Somali pirates. It is still attentive to Indian interests in the area.
So is the case in Seychelles. Despite the Chinese offer of help to Seychelles for strengthening its anti-piracy capabilities, which its has accepted, the Government of Seychelles continues to be as receptive to Indian offers of assistance and co-operation as it was before.
However, one has reasons to be concerned over recent developments in Mauritius since the visit of President Hu Jintao of China to Port Louis in February,2009. During his visit, China announced a credit at low interest of US $ 260 million to Mauritius to modernize and expand its airport. He said that trade between the two countries had increased by 11.7 per cent during 2008 to reach US $ 323 million. He also announced an interest-free loan of US $ 5.9 million and a grant of 30 million yuan ( about US $ 5 million ). Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam said that the two countries had discussed possible further assistance to improve transport in and out of the island’s congested capital.
Hu pledged to speed up the construction of the China-funded $730 million Economic and Trade Zone north of the capital. The Tianli project, as it is called, will be the largest single foreign-funded project in Mauritius creating about 40,000 jobs. Between the recognition of China by Mauritius in 1972 and Hu’s visit in February 2009, the total value of the Chinese assistance to Mauritius amounted to US $ 117 million. The fresh assistance extended since then has crossed US $ one billion — an almost ten-fold increase. Thirteen Chinese companies operate in Mauritius in the textiles, construction and IT sectors.
The 521-acre economic and trade zone is an important part of what China calls the “going out” policy and its Africa strategy. The objective is to use Mauritius as a platform for servicing its construction and business projects in Southern Africa. The corporate headquarters of Chinese companies operating in Southern Africa are expected to be located in the new commercial city which China will construct outside Port Louis under this project. The zone with a modern Chinese-styled city is being built by a consortium consisting of the Shanxi Tianli Enterprise Co., Ltd., the state-controlled Shanxi Coking Coal Group Co. Ltd and the Taiyuan Iron & Steel Group Co. Ltd. The idea seems to be to convert Mauritius into a Singapore of Southern Africa to serve China’s Africa strategy. Since Mauritius does not have enough skilled workers to meet the requirements of the Chinese-aided projects, it has allowed China to bring its own nationals to work in these projects. As a result, about 50 per cent of Mauritius’ foreign labour force could be Chinese. There could be more Chinese than Indians working in Mauritius.
The corporate city being built by the Chinese will compete with the Ebene Cyber City constructed with Indian assistance. Huawei, the Chinese IT company, reportedly operates from the Cyber City. It provides financial services to Chinese companies in Southern Africa.
In an article titled “China makes foray into Mauritius” published on January 25,2010, the “Financial Times” of London wrote: “China’s state-led approach to foreign investment is muscling India aside in its traditional “backyard” by investing $700m in a special economic zone in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius to service Beijing’s expansion in Africa. Ramakrishna Sithanen, the vice-prime minister of Mauritius and minister of finance, said China was “extremely aggressively” pursuing its objectives in Africa via Mauritius with a wave of strategic investments on the island. He said China’s “different approach”, which forcefully combined business and government interests, was in contrast to India’s more fragmented style that had less backing from the state. So strong was his government’s relationship with Beijing that he said the island had been able to call on the personal intervention of Hu Jintao, China’s president, to sort out problems. China’s participation in Mauritius is a key part of the island’s diversification away from a sugar cane and tourism economy into logistics, information technology and financial services. There are plans to build a logistics and services hub in the economic zone, together with a university and an oceanographic research centre. Mr Sithanen said the Mauritian government had secured China’s consent that the economic zone would not be exclusively for Chinese companies but could be used by others seeking to invest in the region.”
Having seen the gradual erosion of the Indian political influence in Sri Lanka, we are now seeing a similar erosion in Mauritius It used to be under Indian cultural and economic influence. It continues to be under the Indian cultural influence, but the economic influence is more and more Chinese. As the Chinese economic influence grows, so will its political influence. In protecting one’s core interests, it is the economic and political influence that matters and not the cultural influence.
The gradual decline in our political and economic influence in the Indian Ocean region — whether we admit it or not — has been accompanied by a steady increase in the Chinese onshore presence in the countries of this region — mainly for helping these countries in developing their infrastructure — an airport and an economic and trade city in Mauritius, a commercial port and an international airport in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, expansion and modernization of the Colombo port, road and rail repairs and construction in others parts of Sri Lanka, construction of a new port at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, gas and oil pipelines connecting Kyaukpyu and Yunnan so that gas and oil produced locally and coming by tankers from West Asia and Africa could be moved to Yunnan without having to pass the Malacca Strait and construction of a rapid rail system connecting Rangoon (Yangon) with Yunnan. Talks are on with Bangladesh for Chinese assistance in the modernization of the Chittagong port and for connecting the rail systems of Bangladesh and Myanmar. China is the largest foreign investor in Mynmar today, with the total value of actual and promised investments already touching US $ three billion.
For expanding and strengthening its political and economic influence in the Indian Ocean region China has two precious assets which India is not in a position to match now and will not be in a position to match in the foreseeable future—- its vast cash reserves and its vastly superior infrastructure construction skills. There is a hunger for the development of the infrastructure in all these counties. When these countries think of expanding and modernizing their infrastructure, they think of China first and only then of India.
Even the best of Navies with a vast reach in the Indian Ocean region will be only of limited use in the absence of commensurate political and economic influence in the countries of the Ocean region. In building up its onshore presence and influence, China has taken a head-start over India. The Chinese Navy still cannot match and will not be in a position to match the off-shore presence of our Navy in the Indian Ocean area, but Beijing’s onshore presence and influence will pose increasing challenges to the Indian political leadership and diplomacy.
Periodic reports of a speculative nature regarding a Chinese interest in the acquisition of military base — particularly naval-base — facilities in the Indian Ocean region have not been corroborated. The present Chinese interest is in strengthening their economic presence in this area. When the economic presence goes up, political influence automatically goes up. Yes, the Chinese have been developing a robust military supply relationship of a strategic nature with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. One could see the beginnings of such a relationship with Bangladesh too. Do these relationships form part of a well thought-out strategy to acquire a permanent military presence in this area? There is no evidence at present in support of such a suspicion. The Chinese focus is on establishing a strong economic presence and through that a strong political influence. Their willingness to enter into military supply and capacity-building relationships with the countries of this region is a tactical move to strengthen their economic and political influence.
The Chinese have been taking care to prevent their growing on-shore influence in this area from being seen as a carefully calculated move to undermine the Indian influence. They project their moves as not inspired by a larger Indian Ocean strategy, but merely as responses to requests for assistance received from the countries of this region. Whether the Chinese are making calculated moves to undermine the Indian influence or not, the net effect will be an undermining of the Indian influence
The present Chinese focus is on the Pacific. Their efforts are concentrated towards building a strong Pacific presence for their Navy and Air Force so as to be able to counter the US presence and achieve parity with it. Building an equal Indian Ocean presence is not yet part of their short or medium term strategy. They are not in a position to achieve parity with the Indian Ocean presence of the US and India. I do not visualize a Chinese threat to the naval presence of the US and India in the short and medium terms.
Compared to their Pacific naval strategy, there is very little debate in China on the contours of an Indian Ocean strategy. They do not have the required material resources to be able to challenge the prominence presently enjoyed by the US and Indian Navies in the Indian Ocean region. Their interests are presently focused on protecting the security of their energy supplies and keeping Pakistan propped up as a credible threat to India.
The entry of Chinese naval ships on anti-piracy patrols into the Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden has not created any adverse reactions in the region or in the West. The Chinese concerns over the growing threats from the Somali pirates to their ships and crew are accepted by the countries of the region and the West as natural. The regular anti-piracy patrols undertaken by ships of the Chinese Navy in this area ,without causing any regional concerns, have enabled the Chinese Navy to familiarize itself with operating conditions and difficulties in the waters of this region, build up Navy-Navy relationships and offer Chinese assistance in capacity-building.
Should their anti-piracy forays be used as the initial building block for a long-term Indian Ocean strategy? The Chinese are avoiding any open discussion on this question lest they give rise to unnecessary concerns in the region about Chinese naval assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region as a follow-up to their assertiveness in the Pacific. Occasional voices are heard from the community of retired Chinese naval officers on the need for a naval base in this region to meet the logistics and rest and recreation requirements of their anti-piracy patrols, but such voices have been discouraged by the Government and party leadership to prevent undue concerns. A long-term Chinese naval strategy for the Indian Ocean region is not yet in the making.
In working out an Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean region, the political, economic and naval aspects have to receive equal attention. So too the aspect of the Indian and US Navies co-operating with each other to maintain their present primacy in this region. Working out a national Indian Ocean Region strategy should go hand in hand with working out a joint Indo-US strategy to safeguard their interests in the Indian Ocean region.
( Based on a talk delivered by the author at a seminar on the Indian Ocean at Bangalore on February 26,2010. It was jointly organized by the Asia Centre, Bangalore, and the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi )