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Chinese string of pearls could choke India

September 08, 2010 16:11 IST

A regional power struggle between India and China, however muted be it, will be more and more evident as China pushes the envelope to be a greater global player. India must prepare for it, says Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

The Chinese string of pearls around India is finding firmer anchorage at a fairly even pace. The pearls of the string on the seaward side start with Hainan the southernmost Chinese province that has a submarine bay; listening post at Coco, Hianggyi, Khaukphyu, Mergui and Zadetkyi Kyun port facilities in Myanmar; Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka; Chittagong in Bangladesh; and Gwadar on the Arabian Sea in Pakistan.

The neck, or the continental mass around which the string will hang, when viewed in our context, includes Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In effect, it surrounds India all around its frontiers, except Bhutan where it can be stated with some degree of confidence that we remain by far the preferred partner.

However, to make an assessment that the string of pearls is meant solely for confining Indian influence would be a gross underestimation of Chinese strategy. Apparently, it was neither conceived nor is it meant to be solely an India centric strategy. With the Indian Ocean becoming the most important waters in the 21st Century, replacing the primacy of Atlantic and Pacific of the previous century, China wants to be a major player in the Indian Ocean.

At stake for them, are the sea lanes of communications through which most of their energy requirements transit to fuel a double digit growth.

India's has a huge geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean, with southern peninsular India jutting out into the ocean like a floating barge. Further, the Andaman Nicobar islands complement peninsular India in its ability to effectively extend influence over the sea lanes of communication. Air power and land based assets to include missiles and long range artillery deployed in these areas, provide multiple options in the sea waters around. The gradual evolution of our navy and its projected two carrier based forces by 2012 provides considerable strength, should we be able to adhere to our planned induction of assets for the navy, and possibly opt for increments to them, both in terms of technology and platforms.

However, the Chinese have not lost sight of our geographical advantages. Their pearls in the sea are complemented by growing relationships with our neighbours, providing military aid, economic assistance and investments. It is also a fact that our disputes with China are primarily along our land borders. The ramifications of Chinese influence on our neighbours have significant implications for us.

The Karakoram Highway that now links Tibet with Gwadar port in Pakistan provides for the synergy that can transform the equations along our borders. It allows movement of troops from either country, should the situation so demand in what we term as the two front war. Gwadar, a deepwater port, can give the Chinese navy a huge flexibility in deployment.

Nepal has also been displaying an ambivalent stance. It is not the case to state that the Chinese control on Nepal is enough to force a tilt; yet, the Maoists in Nepal could turn to China as a natural ally.

Though Bangladesh has been very much more responsive post the current dispensation of Sheikh Hasina coming to power, the Chinese are involved in modernisation of the Chittagong port. Hopefully, Bangladeshis will continue to elect responsible governments, however, the previous regime and Khalida Zia's hobnobbing with fundamentalist groups and a pronounced anti-Indian attitude, cannot be lost sight off.

Of greater import is China's growing imprints in Myanmar. The Chinese are involved in upgradation of a large number of ports, airports, road and rail infrastructure. A pipeline project is also underway to deliver Myanmar gas to the western Chinese district of Yunnan. As compared to the Chinese, our investments, though of strategic import, are but far behind.

Myanmar provides China with a huge economic and strategic advantage. China's land locked west, particularly Yunnan province, finds a proximate outlet to the Bay of Bengal. In military-strategic sense, a port facility for the Chinese navy in Myanmar provides it with a direct access to Bay of Bengal without having to voyage through South China Sea, and the Straits of Malacca. It shortens the journey to Bay of Bengal by 3,000 km or six to seven days. Ports in Myanmar undoubtedly provide China one of the biggest advantages in the region.

The Chinese are also upgrading the Sri Lankan port at Hambantota. Though the Sri Lankans have assured that the objectives are purely commercial, such deep water facilities are equally useful for naval shipping.

The Indian response to the growing Chinese influence lies in its diplomacy and military might to include strategic alignments. With diplomacy not a firm assurance, the immediate requirement is the strengthening of the armed forces. The two new divisions being raised for the eastern sector and the modernization projects being pursued need necessarily to adhere to timelines. The infrastructure projects in our northeast also require to be executed with speed.

Having settled all their border disputes except with us and Bhutan, the Chinese can now build up greater forces against us in Tibet, given also the improved infrastructure on the plateau. We still cannot redeploy our forces meant for the western theatre, to the east.

In the competitive battle for influence that is bound to characterise power play in the sub-continent tomorrow, we need to be pre-eminent partners of nations in our neighborhood. Chinese forays in these countries will always be there but as long as we remain the more trusted and favoured partner, it may be possible to deny military advantage to Chinese. In addition to immediate neighbours, Thailand needs to be engaged because of its proximity to the Andamans. Certain critical Indian Ocean states like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles have to be always firmly in focus for a strong relationship.

We also need to synergise with such powers as would be reluctant to witness a major Chinese surge in the Indian Ocean. Surely, the US and EU countries, Japan and even Australians, as also most of ASEAN would not be comfortable with it. The string of pearls, when viewed beyond the Indian context, is complemented by the Chinese anti-piracy force in the Gulf of Aden, and further supplemented by its growing economic clout in the African continent.

The opportunities for alliances, should the Chinese decide to flex their muscles in Indian Ocean, are plenty. As of now the issue needs to be a part of our dialogue with the other stake holders.

Along with our economic growth, our military prowess and diplomacy has to register matching strength. A regional power struggle between India and China, however muted be it, will be more and more evident as China pushes the envelope to be a greater global player. The sooner we are in a position to make any ingress into our areas and interests a cost-prohibitive exercise, the better is our future secured.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)