From the vast, tropical quayside of Chittagong port, you can see enormous metal tankers bearing down on simple wooden fishing boats. This squalid city has long been Bangladesh's largest port - but it is about to change forever.
"The Chinese have a very good quality of work," says Commodore Riaz. The naval officer is overseeing Chittagong's commercial port as it prepares for a transformation.
Commodore Riaz has an air of discipline and efficiency about him. He values the professionalism of the Chinese contractors whom he recently hired to complete two huge new terminals.
But now the Chinese government is going much further. China has promised to fund the transformation of this coastline, which reports estimate will cost $9bn.
The plans involve an ambitious new deep sea port further along the coast, and a motorway running all the way to China - via neighbouring Burma. For a little country like Bangladesh, any development is good," says Commodore Riaz.
"The time I spent in China was the best time of my life," he adds. As a senior naval officer, Commodore Riaz spent a year training at an elite Beijing military academy.
Both military and civilian aid coming from China is remarkably generous. Beijing has also recently forgiven all loans it made to Bangladesh before 2008.
Chinese 'grand design'
The various forms of Chinese assistance to Bangladesh have caused jitters in India - the huge country next door which some Bangladeshis still call "Big Brother."
Chinese-backed ports in South Asia worry India
India is concerned because a similar story is unfolding in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and in Burma - where China is also building roads and deep sea ports.
Indian defence experts fear that China is surrounding India with ports. They call it China's "string of pearls".
"This is not a fear, this is a fact," says Professor Shrikant Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
He believes China is "setting up shop" in smaller countries around the Indian Ocean because of oil. An estimated 80% of oil for China's resource-hungry economy comes from the Middle East and Africa, via the Indian Ocean.
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Rapidly-growing India also needs oil, and it stands directly in the middle of China's supply route.
The Indians fear that although these deep sea ports will be for trade, China could call them in for military or strategic purposes if oil becomes scarce.
"When you put together all these jigsaw puzzles it becomes clear that Chinese focus in Indian Ocean is not just for trade," says Professor Kondapalli. "It is a grand design for the 21st Century."
In Beijing, India's fears are given short shrift. "During peace time, these kinds of facilities are only for commercial purposes," says Hu Sisheng, head of South Asia policy at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations.
About 20 years ago, China was also a very poor country - but now it is developing
Chinese engineer Shar Wei
It's a tightly guarded government-run facility in Beijing which analyses foreign affairs and directly advises China's leaders.
China is keen to reassure the world that it has no hostile intent. Mr Hu says the Indians are being paranoid when they talk of a "string of pearls".
"It was minted by a young Pentagon guy," he points out.
The phrase "string of pearls" to describe China's strategy for building ports was originally used by analysts working for the US Department of Defense.
Mr Hu believes Washington is playing games and trying to cosy up to India, as it becomes increasingly concerned about China's rise.
Bangladesh is also adamant that there is nothing in its plans to concern India. "I don't believe if China helps us build this sea port, that China will be able to use it for other purposes," I'm told by Dr Dipu Moni, Bangladesh's foreign minister.
Bangladesh wants to be seen as a "bridge" from China to India, and is careful not to offend either of its giant neighbours.
"Bangladesh will never let any part of its territory be used for any kind of attacks or anything like that," she says.
The bridge is a symbol of a new era in Chittagong
Impoverished Bangladesh is hoping to capitalise on its location between China and India to develop its economy. I see the remarkable impact for myself on the outskirts of Chittagong.
I am stunned when a single track road surrounded by slums suddenly turns into a four-lane motorway. It then crosses a suspension bridge built of gleaming white concrete.
The funds for this bridge came from a Gulf country, and a Chinese firm has done the work.
Next to the bridge, I meet Shar Wei - the project's 28-year-old chief engineer. He left his native city of Wuhan in China to spend three years living in a prefabricated building in the Bangladeshi heat.
"You know, about 20 years ago, China was also a very poor country," he says. "But now it is developing."
He hopes his new bridge, and the Chinese-built port, will help Bangladesh benefit from China's boom. "I think it will also happen in Bangladesh," he says.
Apart from helping build a port at Chabbhar in Iran, India has resources of building a "string of pearls" of its own that is concentric to China's. The diplomatic scenario allows that.
The key here is Mallaca strait, and how China's ring can be countered (/is being countered) on either sides, by a network of India-built harbours, and Indian Navy bases on the main land. The harbour in Iran is almost complete, and has out-paced the harbour at Gwaddhar in Pakistan, in terms of amenities. Already in the works are tipping each of the Maldives' islands with radars and a port. In the east, either Thailand or Malaysia are in talking terms to set up deep sea ports, both have underdeveloped ports close to the Mallaca strait. And finally, Vietnam's strategic belligerence with China is a juicy one. Worth exploiting as its manufacturing industry booms.
The idea behind China's emplacements in South Asia is to "defend its oil routes in wartime", when it appears more offensive than defensive. India's emplacements neuter that.
The Indians fear that although these deep sea ports will be for trade, China could call them in for military or strategic purposes if oil becomes scarce.
1) is Bangladesh willing to be China's 'proxy' beyond economic co-op/trade? B's offense can be easily smashed by Ind. elephant given her poverty/malmanagemnt and military capacity while C is far far away
2) how will C get through the Malaccas in face of Ind's counter-'strings'?
Between this Sino-Indian chess game, hosts are profiting. Bangladesh got billions in aid from India, China waived off its pre-2008 loans to it. Chittagong got free roads, bridges. Similarly, India built a deep-sea port from scratch at Chabbhar in Iran, gave that town free roads, bridges, and hotels, for example.
China, which is already meeting in the form of a soft loan from its Ex-Im Bank 85 per cent of the cost of construction (US $ 360 million) of the first phase of the Hambantota port in Southern Sri Lanka, has agreed to give another soft loan of US $ 200 million towards the cost of construction of the second phase due to start early next year. An agreement in this regard was signed by the concerned officials during the b-ramanvisit of Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang to Colombo from June 10 to 12, 2010. With this, the total Chinese funding for the project will come to about US $ 500 million, out of its total estimated cost of US $ one billion. The project being undertaken in three phases is expected to be completed by 2023. It is too early to say whether China will substantially fund the third and last phase too.
The first stage due to be ready by end 2010 will allow three ships to berth. The final stage, for which there is no offer of funding yet from China, is planned to accommodate more than 30 ships, which is the present capacity at Colombo. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to develop Hambantota in his home district into another Colombo with its own port as big and as modern as Colombo, its own international airport at Weerawila, its own oil storage facilities and refinery, its own tourist hub, its own international conference hall and its own complex of sports stadia to enable it to bid for the Asian Games one day. He is hoping that the Chinese will ultimately fund the major part of the cost of his Hambantota dream. He has also sought South Korean funding for the proposed international conference hall.
While China has readily expanded its financial commitment for the Hambantota project, it is still to make up its mind on the request from Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, made during her visit to China in March last for Chinese financial and construction assistance for the expansion and modernization of the Chittagong port. While the Chinese have agreed to consider her request sympathetically, they have not yet come out with a concrete project. Expectations that they would make a firm announcement during the just-concluded visit (June 13 and 14,2010) to Dhaka by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping have been belied.
Local news agencies did report that during his talks with Sheikh Hasina, Mr.Xi “proposed to give assistance to Bangladesh for building a deep seaport in Chittagong and installing the country’s first space satellite” and that “Beijing also agreed to quickly disburse its assistance for the Pagla Water Treatment Plant and the Shahjalal Fertiliser Factory”, but there was no official announcement. Briefing reporters on the outcome of the talks, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said the Chinese side assured more investment in Bangladesh, and promised to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance by allowing more Bangladeshi products to have duty-free access to the Chinese market. She added that the Chinese agreed to help Bangladesh in ensuring food security and in combating militancy and terrorism. She also said that China also agreed to extend cooperation for the development of telecommunication and infrastructure in Bangladesh. While there was thus a mention of Chinese assistance for the development of infrastructure, there was no specific reference to the proposal for Chinese assistance for the expansion and modernization of the Chittagong port. The issue was formally raised by Sheikh Hasina with the Chinese leaders only in March and it is perhaps too early for the Chinese to come out with a formal proposal.
After Gwadar on the Mekran coast of Pakistan, the first phase of which has already been completed and the port commissioned, their focus has been on the early completion of the first phase of the construction of the Hambantota port and its commissioning by the end of this year and the start of the second phase. They are attaching equal priority to the timely completion of the Kyakpyu port off the Arakan coast in Myanmar, the construction of which started last year. While they are interested in taking up the project for the expansion and modernization of the Chittagong port, it does not as yet seem to enjoy the same priority as Gwadar, Hambantota and Kyakpyu,, which, in their view, are important for ensuring their energy flows from West Asia and Africa. They do not seem to attach the same urgency to the Chittagong project from the point of view of their energy flows.
There are so far no indications of a Chinese interest in a naval base at Hambantota or Kyaukpyu or Chittagong. Their interest in a naval base at Gwadar remains strong. Retired Chinese naval officials have been underlining the importance of rest, refueling and re-stocking facilities for Chinese ships deployed in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Gwadar is attractive in this regard, but if the internal security situation in Balochistan where Gwadar is located remains unsatisfactory, Hambantota could become their fall-back choice.
A win-win --
B and SL get investment in infrastrucures as an enabler for economictake-off. C gets biz opportunities for excessive capital and potential overseas markets... Just like what Japan was doing in 1980-90's
When B navy visited C (probably in Qingdao or Shanghai) B sailers were more interested in shopping than ... in the end with e-goods bought piling under canvas on their deck.
Analysts have long wondered if the Chinese navy (PLAN) had a third island chain strategy, beyond the publicly declared strategies for the first island chain (centered on Taiwan) and second island chain (extending from Japan to Indonesia). Many American commentators believed that such a strategy would refer to the ability to project power capable of reaching America's bases in Hawaii.
However, China's recent maritime activities -- such as its extended counterpiracy patrols in the Horn of Africa and its involvement in a number of port development projects in Indian Ocean littorals (dubbed the "string of pearls") -- have raised the suspicion in Indian defense circles that the third island chain lies in the Indian Ocean, and specifically refers to the waters surrounding the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands.
As China's dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources has grown, so has its concern over protecting its sea lines of communication for those energy imports. Given projected rates of growth of the Chinese economy, this dependence is only set to increase, from between 40 percent and 50 percent today to up to 80 percent in 2025. Naturally, the PLAN has been tasked with coming up with a strategy that can secure the lines of communication for China's oil -- not an enviable task, given the tyranny of geography.
As PLA Gen. Qian Guoliang stated in an article written in 2000, the threat to China emanates concurrently from "one point and one lane." While the "point" refers to Taiwan, the "lane" was an allusion to the long voyage of Chinese tankers returning home via the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. It could be argued that China has built up its military capabilities to where the "point," Taiwan, is no longer that much of a concern. But the "lane" continues to be one.
The chief and most immediate area of concern for the PLAN is the six-degree channel that lies between India's Great Nicobar Island and Indonesia's Sumatra Island, where China's shipping is especially vulnerable to Indian and other forces. Indeed, one of the key aims of India's own impressive naval build-up as well as the accretion of assets to its Andaman- and Nicobar-based tri-services command is to "surveillance seed" the Lumbok and Sunda straits as a non-lethal demonstration of Indian capabilities -- in much the same way the U.S. Navy is building up Guam. In this context, China's recent provocations and overall aggressive stance along the disputed Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas could be seen as an attempt to make India spend more on its army and air force, thereby leaving less for India's emerging blue-water navy.
For its part, the PLAN has also sought to raise the profile of its South Sea Force through the construction of hardened deep-water bases like the one at Sanya, on Hainan Island. That base, in particular, is designed to handle both attack and nuclear ballistic submarines, as well as possible future Chinese aircraft carriers, the first of which may be inducted by 2015. Nevertheless, China is still two decades away from being able to project serious carrier battle groups into the Indian Ocean, and for the near future, any unfolding "third island" strategy will depend essentially on nuclear attack submarines and air bases in Burma.
More specifically, China is likely to resort to a greater number of nuclear-powered submarine patrols in the Lumbok and Sunda straits, as well as the northern Indian Ocean, to demonstrate what it calls a "punishment strategy" for nations making contingency plans to interdict Chinese energy supplies. The Chinese may also be looking to station SU-30 MKK attack fighter jets in Burmese bases such as Ann and Sittwe to extend an airborne strike umbrella over the channel.
Despite the military posturing around the "third island chain," some observers feel that the Chinese string of pearls located further afield in places such as Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Mukkala (Yemen) will remain essentially commercial ventures. By this logic, China is hoping that substantive economic relations with Indian Ocean littoral states will weave a "soft-power web" around India, making it politically costly for India to take military action against Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean.
However, India is naturally wary of such moves, which perhaps explains why it refused to give China either observer or associate member status in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. That 33-member grouping of Indian Ocean littoral states, started by India, seeks to evolve a common security agenda for member states in the seas that wash their shores.
The Chinese have also sought to ensure that their posture does not encourage further Indo-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Despite recent naval incidents in the South China Sea, the Chinese have consistently sought to signal to the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) the regional nature of the PLAN's buildup. In fact, PACOM's commander, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, recently revealed that a high-ranking Chinese officer had "offered to divide the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions between China and the U.S. after Beijing launched its own fleet of aircraft carriers."
Keating went on to describe the remarks as tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, the PLAN is clearly considering more permanent basing in the eastern Indian Ocean, as highlighted by comments made by retired Rear Adm. Yin Zhou last week, referring to the difficulties encountered by the Chinese navy's counterpiracy patrols with respect to logistics and sailor health in the absence of port calls.
For its part, India has already acquired berthing rights in Oman, and may be setting up military facilities in Madagascar and the Maldives. It seems New Delhi also wants to convince Beijing that the latter's best chance of securing SLOCs lies in a "joint initiative," rather than possible confrontation. Only time will tell whether the "third island chain" strategy becomes a factor driving heightened geopolitical rivalry between Asia's emerging giants or, to the contrary, serves as the chill before the thaw.
**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," is scheduled for publication in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at [email protected].
BANGALORE - Concerned about China's growing interest in the Indian Ocean, a body of water and region that New Delhi considers to be its own sphere of influence, India is strengthening its already close military cooperation with Maldives, a nation of 1,192 tiny, low-lying coral islands strategically located about 300 miles off subcontinent's southeast coast.
India is transferring to Maldives INS Tillanchang, a 260-ton fast-attack craft commissioned in 2001, which has a range of 3,600
kilometers and is designed for quick and covert operations against smugglers, gun-runners and terrorists. India will also provide Maldives with funds for training, material and technical assistance for three years after the transfer of the vessel.
The ship will be formally transferred to Maldives in mid-April when Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee visits the Maldivian capital, Male. Besides, an Indian navy survey ship, INS Darshak, will conduct a hydrographic survey in the waters around Maldives.
Close cooperation between the two countries is not new. In 1988, in response to the request of the Maldivian government, India rushed paratroopers and naval forces to crush a coup attempt. India's relationship with Maldives has deepened in the post-coup period. It has provided Maldives with armored cars and other military equipment and has trained Maldivian paratroopers in counter-insurgency operations. Indian navy vessels patrol along the archipelago's many coastlines and watch over its sea lanes.
In addition to strengthening Maldives' internal security, there exists close cooperation in developing the archipelago's health, civil aviation, telecommunications and other civilian sectors. Indian and Maldivian coast guards have also participated in joint dosti (friendship) exercises. Moreover, the Indian navy was at the forefront of massive relief operations after the 2004 tsunami.
Not everyone in Maldives is not happy with the growing military relationship, as some see this as further consolidating President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's grip on power. Maldives, a seemingly serene tourist paradise, has in recent years been rocked by street demonstrations opposing Gayoom's autocratic rule. There is concern that Gayoom will use the military assistance he gets from India against his domestic political opponents, whom he tends to label indiscriminately as "Islamist terrorists".
So there are plenty of good reasons for New Delhi to keep a close watch over its neighbor. Maldives shares ties of religion with Pakistan (both countries are Sunni Muslim). India would not want that bond to blossom into a stronger political-defense relationship or have other interests inimical to India gain influence in territory so close to its coastline.
That's why reports of growing ties with China are of great concern to New Delhi. The visit of then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji to Male in 2001 immediately prompted rumors that the Chinese were seeking a base on one of the atolls. According to these reports, the Chinese managed to persuade the Maldivian government to grant them a base on Marao, one of the largest islands of the archipelago, and that Pakistan had played an important role in pushing the deal through. The base was to become operational in 2010.
The deal appeared to have run into trouble in 2002, but reports of renewed maritime cooperation on the part of China and Maldives surfaced again in 2004. Both the Maldivian and Chinese governments denied the reports and have since maintained that the deepsea surveys that were carried out were for environmental protection, not for military purposes.
China might deny it has plans for a base in Maldives, but such plans fit a long-standing pattern. To the west of India lies China's longtime "all-weather friend" Pakistan. China's cooperation on missiles and nuclear weapons is well known and its funding of Pakistan's Gwadar port will enable the Chinese navy to sit at the mouth of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which passes much of the world's petroleum supply, as well as provide it access to the Arabian Sea.
To India's east, China has substantial influence over the military junta in Myanmar. It is helping modernize several bases along the Andaman Sea in Hianggyi, Akyab, Kyun and Mergui to support Chinese submarine operations. Myanmar is said to have leased a base to the Chinese in the Coco Islands, which are just a few nautical miles from India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India believes that Beijing's surveillance facilities there facilitate its monitoring of India's missile-testing activity in the eastern state of Orissa. China also has extensive military relations with Bangladesh. Dhaka is said to have offered the Chinese access to Chittagong port.
Given China's known interest in having bases around the Indian Ocean littoral, a Chinese base in Maldives would not be surprising. But while defense experts in India see the Chinese base in Maldives as motivated by Beijing's determination to contain and encircle India, it is possible that Beijing has another motivation for stringing bases like pearls from the Strait of Hormuz to Southeast Asia, namely securing energy supplies to feed its growing economy.
This strategy is described in a report titled "Energy Futures in Asia" produced by Booz Allen Hamilton for the Pentagon. The report draws attention to the "pearls" in this string such as the Chinese naval presence at Gwadar in Pakistan, at Chittagong in Bangladesh, in Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand, and in the South China Sea. The base in Marao, Maldives, could be part of this strategy of securing the sea lanes through which pass oil tankers from the Middle East heading for China.
Of course, India has its own designs in the Indian Ocean. Analysts view India's security perimeter - its "rightful domain" - as extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, from Africa's east coast to the western shores of Australia. It has been reaching out to Indian Ocean littorals from Africa and Asia through joint naval exercises with some countries and by patrolling sea lanes. Recent reports suggest that India is planning to set up a high-tech monitoring station in northern Madagascar. The package to Maldives is part of this larger Indian Ocean strategy.
India's military package might prompt some smiles in the Gayoom government. But whether it will keep Gayoom from courting the Chinese remains to be seen. India just might find itself having to do more than offering a speed boat to keep the Chinese away from its southern doorstep.