Many in denial over China's quest for bases


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Many in denial over China's quest for bases

LONDON — For a long time, Chinese foreign-policy thinkers and the political establishment have been trying to convince the world that China's rise is peaceful, that China has no expansionist intentions and that China will be a different kind of great power.

What's striking is how many liberals in the West have taken these assertions at face value. There is an entire industry in the West that would have us believe that China is a different kind of great power and that if the West only gives China a stake in the established order, China's rise will not create any complications.

Now, however, one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in China is suggesting that establishing bases overseas is a Chinese right that the government cannot ignore. Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, asserts that "it is wrong for us [China] to believe that we have no rights to set up bases abroad."

Dingli argues that it is not terrorism or piracy that poses the greatest threat to China's interests, but rather the potential of other states to block China's trade routes. To prevent this from happening, China, according to Dingli, needs not only a blue-water navy but also "overseas military bases to cut the supply costs."

Of course, Dingli doesn't fail to mention that the real purpose behind the development of China's military prowess is "world peace" and that China will establish military bases overseas not only to protect its interests but also to promote regional and global stability. Yet the real message is strikingly clear: As China emerges as a major global power, it will expand its military footprint across the globe, much as other great powers have done throughout history.

For some time now, China's expansionist behavior has been evident. China has been acquiring naval bases along crucial "choke points" in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region. China realizes that its maritime strength will give it strategic leverage to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower.

China's growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistic constraints it faces because of the distance to the Indian Ocean.

China is also consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India. China's growing naval presence is troubling for India as it restricts India's freedom to maneuver in the region. Of particular note is China's "string of pearls" strategy, which has significantly expanded China's presence in India's backyard.

The Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma and electronic intelligence-gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal are part of this strategy. Some claims concerning the Chinese naval presence in Burma are exaggerated. The Indian government, for example, conceded in 2005 that reports of China turning the Coco Islands in Burma into a naval base were incorrect and that there were no naval bases in Burma.

Still, the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is gradually becoming more pronounced. The Chinese may not have a naval base in Burma, but they are involved in the upgrade of infrastructure in the Coco Islands and may be providing some limited technical assistance to Burma.

As almost 80 percent of China's oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, Beijing is reluctant to rely on U.S. naval power to ensure unhindered access to energy, so it has decided to build up its naval power at choke points along sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

China also is courting other states in South Asia by building container ports in Bangladesh at Chittagong and in Sri Lanka at Hambantota as well as helping to build a naval base at Marao Island in the Maldives. Consolidating its access to the Indian Ocean, China has signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to finance the development of the Hambantota Development Zone (including a container port), a bunker system and an oil refinery.

The submarine base that China has built in the Maldives has the potential to challenge U.S. naval forces from Diego Garcia. China's presence in the Bay of Bengal via roads and ports in Burma and in the Arabian Sea via the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistan has generated concern in India.

With access to crucial port facilities in Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, China is well-poised to secure its interests in the region. China's involvement in the construction of the deep-sea port of Gwadar has attracted a lot of attention due to its strategic location — about 70 kilometers from the Iranian border and 400 kilometers east of the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil supply route. It can be used to keep an eye on Indian and American activities in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

It is possible that the construction of these ports and facilities by China can be explained away on purely economic and commercial grounds, but for regional powers like the United States, Japan and India, these activities seem to be aimed at them. China's diplomatic and military efforts in the Indian Ocean seem to exhibit a desire to project power vis-a-vis competing powers in the region.

China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers who established military bases abroad to secure their interests. The sooner the world acknowledges this, the better it will be for global stability.


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Chinese Quest for a Naval Base in The Indian Ocean – Possible Options for China

“China is in need of a strong power to maintain the world peace. So it is
necessary for us to build troop bases to face the challenge from other countries.”
The above extract from a recent article titled ‘Don’t shun the idea of setting up overseas
military bases’ by Professor Shen Dingli virtually sums up the scope of the overarching ambitions
that China harbours with regard to its global power projection thinking. China views this aspect as
part of its natural progression towards becoming a superpower. The key words in the above quote
which merit notice are “to maintain world peace”. It is not evident as to how has China received
a mandate “to maintain world peace”, for facilitation of which it seeks to set up overseas military
bases, and hopes that the international community will understand and not get overly concerned by
such a move.
The above article makes a strong pitch for setting up Chinese military bases overseas,
citing the need to “. . . enhance power for safeguarding own overseas interests and to exert
pressure on the potential enemies’ interests. . . .” There is thus no denying the fact that a
domestic debate in favour of China setting up overseas bases is gaining traction, as this is the
second article appearing in the Chinese cyber media within the last month. A milder version
propagating the same theme was articulated by a PLA Navy Admiral Yin Zhuo after the release of
the Chinese Bulk carrier ‘De Xin Hai’ from Somali pirates in end December 2009. The Admiral
proposed that China should set up a permanent base in the Indian Ocean to support the long term
participation of Chinese naval ships in the anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast. It is argued
that this would strengthen the PLA Navy’s logistic capacity, thus enabling fulfillment of its
international commitments with greater efficiency. The common thread running through both the
pieces was that ‘the other nations would understand China’s need for a establishing such overseas
Chinese Options in the Indian Ocean
One of the ‘Pearls’?
Though the PLA Navy Admiral did not suggest a location for such a base, he did believe
that the base should be relatively stable, contain facilities for communications, repairs,
replenishment of fuel, re-supply of rations and offer avenues for recreation. The most obvious
choice for a Chinese base would of course, be from amongst one of the ‘pearls’ from its so called
‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean. The Bangladeshi and Myanmarese ports in the Bay of
Bengal may be too out of the way from the standard transit routes to the Arabian Sea and hence
may not be suitable in the current Chinese scheme of things. This leaves China with an option of
establishing a military base either in Sri Lanka (Galle/ Hambantotta) or Pakistan (Gwadar/Pasni).
While the Sri Lankan ports do lie astride the Arabian Sea transit route, they would still be
well far away (about 2000 NM) from the current scene of action. Further, the moot question will
be whether Sri Lanka would want to risk antagonizing a close and large neighbour like India, to
which it is geo-politically and inseparably linked, by allowing China to set up a naval base on its
The next best option for China would then be Pakistan, for evident reasons, i.e. close Sino-
Pak economic and military association as against the uncertain India-Pak relations. Pakistan and
China also share the land borders, through which such a base can be supported reasonably well.
However, such a base would suffer from certain inherent disadvantages when seen from a
maritime perspective. The base would be too close to India and would be well within the range of
Indian naval surveillance and strike envelope. It could also be susceptible to blockade, as was
witnessed off Karachi Port during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict. Further, the Chinese warships
repeatedly transiting to and from ports in Pakistan would be prone to intrusive monitoring,
signature profiling, tracking and trailing by the Indian Navy, due to the very nature of their
passage constraints.
Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’?
There are however, other options for China, if one were to digress a little from the ‘String of
Pearls’ construct. The various islands of Maldives and Seychelles present a range of opportunities
for a country which seeks to maintain a holistic maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region, as
it would offset all the abovementioned disadvantages associated with the Sri Lankan and Pakistani
ports. China has been actively wooing both, Maldives and Seychelles with offer of economic
assistance, infrastructure development and liberal financial loans / grants. There have been
unconfirmed reports of Maldives having leased ‘Marao atoll’ to China for constructing a naval
However, India and Maldives share very strong bilateral relations built on sizeable
economic, security and social cooperation. India had provided security support in foiling a coup
attempt against the Maldivian Government in November 1988 in an operation named ‘Op Cactus’.
More recently, India handed over a fast patrol craft to the Maldivian Coast Guard in 2006. The
Indian Defence Minister, A K Antony visited Maldives in August 2009 and initiated a series of
measures to enhance defense cooperation. India has promised to transfer two ‘Dhruv’ helicopters,
26 coastal radars and regular Dornier patrol sorties over the island nation as part of the security
plan. India will also set up a 25 bed military hospital in Male and assist in setting up the Maldivian
Air Force. Thus the geographical proximity of Maldives to India as also its close political ties, will
pose the same dilemma to Maldives as applicable to Sri Lanka., if it were to consider the basing of
Chinese ships on its territory. The Chinese leadership would surely take these factors into account,
when they mull over the ‘military base’ issue.
Therefore, in the opinion of the
analyst, a base in Seychelles, which is
virtually in the centre of the West Indian
Ocean and the focus of the current
Chinese maritime activities, would be
more appropriate for the Chinese Navy.
The island nation is located close enough to
its energy traffic transiting through the Red
Sea, as also heading homewards from the
West African coast around the Cape of
Good Hope. It would enable the PLA Navy to monitor this vital energy route and provide security
when needed. Seychelles is also not too distant from the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden,
where the PLA Navy ships are currently deployed, and for whose logistics support, the Chinese
Admiral recommended the setting up of a base in the Indian Ocean. The biggest maritime
advantage for PLA Navy would be that the naval base as also the assets using it would be well
away from the prying eyes and intrusive surveillance by the Indian Navy. The base would be also
be close enough to the sea route of US naval assets transiting to Diego Garcia, enabling China to
mount some kind of surveillance in future as and when their capabilities grow to an appropriately
advanced level.
A comparative table shown below indicating distances in nautical miles between various
points of interest is instructive.
Chinese economic engagements with Seychelles have been growing in the recent past.
China announced $ 4.5 million grant to Seychelles and also signed an agreement on technical and
economic cooperation during the visit of the President of Seychelles, Mr. James Alix Michel, to
Beijing in November 2006. Chinese President, Hu Jintao thereafter visited Seychelles in February
2007 as part of his eight-nation African tour. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee
of China's National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature also visited Seychelles
in November 2008 during his five nation African tour. China contributed more than 90 percent of
the funds for the new ‘National Assembly’ building and provided technical assistance in its
construction. During its inauguration on December 04, 2009, the Chinese ambassador in
Seychelles stated that the new National Assembly building was one of the highlights of the
friendship between Seychelles and China. On November 25, 2009, China and Seychelles also
signed an agreement for the equivalent of a US $ 6 million for financing the construction of a new
Supreme Court building, which will be called the ‘Palais de Justice’.
India has also been maintaining cordial economic and defense relationship with Seychelles.
The Indo-Seychelles Joint Commission was set up in October 1990 and discusses common
economic matters during biennial meetings. India also committed financial assistance for the
government’s reform program and its debt rescheduling, when the President of Seychelles visited
India in 2005. The Indian naval ships have been regularly visiting Seychelles for the last two
decades. In 2005, the Indian Navy handed over a fast attack craft to the Seychelles Coast Guard to
help them secure their maritime interests. India also gifted naval workshop equipment to
Seychelles Sri Lanka Maldives Gwadar
Seychelles - 1800 1400 2100
Sri Lanka 1800 - 500 1800
Maldives 1400 500 - 1600
Gwadar 2100 1800 1600 -
Mauritius 1000 2800 2000 3100
Diego Garcia 1200 1000 700 2300
Gulf of Aden 1200 2000 1600 1200
Mogadishu 800 2400 1900 1900
Madagascar 700 2600 1900 2600
Malacca Entrance 2800 1000 1500 2800
Seychelles in September 2008, during the visit of the Indian Navy ships. India has also provided
military experts to upgrade and restructure the Seychelles Peoples Defense Force (SPDF). The
extent of Indian engagements with Seychelles however, remains on a lesser scale as compared to
that of China, as is evident from the above.
China has deep anxieties about the geographical location of India that places it astride the
Indian Ocean. It has therefore always kept its options open with regard to deploying its armed
forces in the region. Thus the establishment of a Chinese naval base in the region, irrespective of
its location, would have considerable security implications for India. The sustained presence of
PLA Navy ships in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Arabian Sea, will result in limiting the
availability of maritime space for the Indian Navy and curtail its area of influence. This will also
boost the morale of India’s inimical neighbour, howsoever notionally. The Indian Navy will have
to factor in the presence of Chinese naval ships in the Indian backyard while planning operations,
missions and exercises.
While there is neither any indication at present to suggest that China will set up a base in
Maldives or Seychelles, nor whether Maldives or Seychelles would willingly accede to any such
Chinese request, an attempt has been made to identify the most suitable location for China from
the maritime perspective. Given the Chinese propensity for springing surprises in international
arena all invariably ending up in its favour, the Indian strategic and security establishment must
take due cognizance of this probability turning into reality and prepare strategies to preserve the
Indian national interest in the Indian Ocean and its littorals.

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