By Barun Das Gupta
The geostrategic scenario in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is changing fast and a new power configuration is in the making to contain and counter the rising threat from an aggressive China. Two recent developments confirm this. The first was the Goa Maritime Conclave, held earlier this month. Naval chiefs of eleven countries, including India, participated in the three-day conference to discuss the establishment of multinational maritime collaboration between nations of the IOR.
The second was the discussions held between India, Japan, the US and Australia on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila to give concrete shape to what was till now a decade-old idea of setting up a four-nation security quadrilateral. The unstated objective of both the Conclave and the Quadrilateral dialogue was to meet the increasing Chinese challenge in the IOR.
The Chinese footprint is becoming more visible in the Indian Ocean. According to Naval chief Sunil Lanba, the Navy is keeping a permanent surveillance on all the ingress and egress routes of the IOR. Under the ‘mission-based deployment’, 12 to 15 ships are permanently deployed at the choke points and important sea lanes of communication.
The importance of the IOR becomes obvious when it is borne in mind that it has 65 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, 35 per cent of the world’s natural gas reserves and huge quantities of mineral resources.
The Indian Navy started the planned expansion of its fleet strength during the UPA regime. In an article published in May, 2012, Prokhor Tebin of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote: “India already possesses one of the largest navies in the world and once the current programme for naval development has been implemented, India will be one of the top-five most powerful navies on the planet.”
Indeed, for quite a long time, the Navy’s requirements did not get the priority they deserved. But now things have changed. Enormous resources have been allocated for the rapid expansion of the Navy and if everything goes on schedule then by 2030 India may become the second largest navy in Asia. It will have three aircraft carriers that can deploy 110 to 120 aircraft. It will also have fifty to seventy corvettes, frigates and destroyers and some thirty submarines, including four to six nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles from under water (SLBMs).
Corvettes are anti-submarine ships. Their job is to ferret out and destroy submarines. It is possible to use carbon fibre composite material in building corvettes. This reduces the weight of the ship by nearly 30 per cent. With reduced engine noise, their ‘stealth’ quality has also improved considerably.
From the strategic point of view, there are nine ‘choke points’ in the IOR, which are important to India. These include the straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb, the Cape of Good Hope and, of course, the Suez Canal. Some time ago, China set up a naval base in Djibouti in eastern Africa, close to the Gulf of Aden. India’s taking over of the Chabahar port from Iran will counter the threat from the Chinese naval base in Djibouti.
In any future armed conflict with China it is the Indian Ocean rather than the High Himalayas that may become the main arena of battle. The Indian Navy is preparing itself to meet any eventuality in the Indian Ocean even as China’s neighbours are having more and more misgivings about the intentions of Beijing. It is not merely China’s military strength but also its economic muscle that is causing them anxiety.
Chinese companies finance projects in the neighbouring countries liberally but the loans come with very rigorous terms and conditions. Quite often the debtor country is unable to repay the debt and has to sell the ownership of the projects in part or full to liquidate the loan. Sri Lanka had to sell its equity in the Hambantota port to the Chinese companies as repayment.
Very recently, Pakistan has said ‘No’ to Chinese assistance to build its ambitious 4,500 MW Daimer-Bhasa hydel project in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The $14 billion project is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which runs through PoK. India has strongly objected to the CPEC because it violates India’s sovereignty as PoK is an integral part of the country.
Pakistan had earlier approached the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for financial assistance for the project but the ADB turned down the request because it is located in a ‘disputed’ territory. Now Pakistan has declined to accept Chinese assistance for the project because of the stringent conditions attached. Pakistan Power and Water Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain has said Pakistan will do the project on its own as it finds the Chinese conditions “against our interests”.
The same story has been repeated in Nepal. A Kathmandu report quoting Energy Minister Kamal Thapa a few days ago said Nepal had scrapped the $2.5 billion dollar agreement with the Chinese company Gezhouba to build the Budhi Gandak hydel project, which would have become the country’s biggest hydro-power plant, ostensibly because the agreement was ‘irregular’.
China wanted to encircle India with its ‘String of Pearls’ policy. Now it is finding itself getting isolated from its neigbours. If the Goa Maritime Conclave decisions start getting implemented and the Quad project turns from the conceptual stage to take a concrete form, China will find itself arrayed against the combined strength of a number of countries.
India-Vietnam defence cooperation is increasing, much to Beijing’s displeasure. After signing the Missile Technology Control Regime, India can develop the suspersonic Brahmos missiles with a far longer range than the present 290 kms. India and Russia are already developing a 600-km range version of the Brahmos. After signing the MTCR there is no bar to prevent India from selling the improved version to friendly countries like Vietnam. China may soon find that its policy of encircling India is boomeranging on itself. (IPA Service)