By James Lamont in New Delhi and Geoff Dyer in Beijing Published: February 17 2010 22:43 | Last updated: February 17 2010 22:43 New Delhi on Wednesday offered Beijing the protection of the Indian navy to help it to secure shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean that are crucial for the energy needs of its fast-growing economy. Pallam Raju, India’s minister of state for defence, said India was “happy” to assist China to keep open vital sea lanes between the Middle East and Asia in order to guard against piracy or conflict. The minister said New Delhi “understands that [China] needed to protect its oil interests” – in explanation of an increasing Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean and its naval expansion. “It’s about oil,” he said. Mr Raju’s appeal for collaboration contrasts starkly with deep-seated anxieties expressed by Indian naval officers and policymakers about the encroachment by China in the Indian Ocean. They view port-building activities in Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the construction of a special economic zone in Mauritius with suspicion. Built for commercial use, they say the facilities can, nevertheless, easily be turned over as anchorages for warships. Yet military analysts believe China is a long way from having a worldwide network of military bases. The potential discussions with India coincide with a debate in China in academic and military circles about establishing overseas military facilities. China has long eschewed a strategy of building overseas bases which it believed would be expensive and diplomatically risky, especially given its stated goal of non-interference in other countries’ affairs. But as a result of its participation in anti-piracy naval operations off the coast of Somalia last year, there has been discussion of need to improve support and supply arrangements in strategic locations for Chinese ships, notably in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean. Several members of the Chinese military have written newspaper articles calling for new “support facilities” for the Chinese navy to be established. India announced this week that it is to deploy two more mountain divisions – about 30,000 troops – in its north-eastern region, which borders China. That is seen as a response to Beijing’s greater assertiveness in a territorial dispute about the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Mr Raju told the Financial Times that New Delhi was prepared to collaborate with Beijing to guarantee safe passage of supplies. He said China and India had similar interests to secure trade, particularly in regard to energy and resources. Both China and India have sent warships as part of an international mission to fight piracy off the coast of east Africa. Some senior Indian policy advisers are less sanguine. MK Rasgotra, a former foreign secretary and an adviser to prime minister Manmohan Singh, said China was trying to copy the US and UK in having offshore naval bases far from its own coast. But he described the strategy as belonging to a “bygone era”. A Chinese bid to gain a foothold in the Maldives had been recently thwarted, he said. Mr Raju said New Delhi was more concerned about China’s role in Pakistan than its infrastructure development in South Asia, loosely termed as the “string of pearls” strategy intended to contain India. He said China, a major arms supplier to Pakistan, needed to play a greater role in bringing stability to the nuclear-armed country wracked with a Taliban insurgency.