Starting with the early part of the last decade, the Chinese had been carving out a plan that analysts in many parts of the world had assessed as a move to “contain” India. In India, the string was seen as a clever way of using excess money and excess capacity at home to “win” friends for a give-and-take game wherein the ‘take’ would translate in to use of ports and other infrastructure for the Chinese Navy, as well as for ‘special arrangements’ for Chinese trade.
…the Chinese have for the first time, learnt the art of maritime diplomacy by virtue of this deployment.
In many ways, the year 2005 was important for China to re-educate itself on the benefits of sea power. Then President Hu Jintao had been preparing the ground for over two years to celebrate China’s maritime heritage, and to revive its ancient love for venturing to the far seas. The occasion was the 600th anniversary of Admiral Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages which took place between 1405 and 1433. While the anniversary was celebrated with much fanfare, another important ‘announcement’ about Chinese vision emerged from the United States. Consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton had, in an analysis for the State Department, identified a Chinese strategy of creating maritime infrastructure in selected ports in the Indian Ocean (apart from some in the Pacific), and labeled it the string of pearls.
Starting with the early part of the last decade, the Chinese had been carving out a plan that analysts in many parts of the world had assessed as a move to “contain” India. In India, the string was seen as a clever way of using excess money and excess capacity at home to “win” friends for a give-and-take game wherein the ‘take’ would translate in to use of ports and other infrastructure for the Chinese Navy, as well as for ‘special arrangements’ for Chinese trade. All of that analysis is clearly falling in place as seen in Chinese warship movements into some of these ports as well as in the newly promulgated Maritime Silk Road.
PLA (Navy)’s Forays
Gulf of Aden. The best thing that could have ever happened to the Peoples Liberation Army (Navy) or PLAN was the menace of Somali piracy that peaked in the years 2007-2008. A couple of hijacking attempts on Chinese merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden, and an embarrassing incident when another navy’s frigate on patrol rescued a Chinese trader, got the PLAN involved in the anti-piracy mission in Dec 2008. Chinese warships have since been coming to the Gulf of Aden in the form of a Task Force of three ships comprising two destroyers/frigates, and one comprehensive supply ship (Logistics Ship). Each Task Force stays on station for three to four months, before being relieved by its successor. The comprehensive supply ship stays for six to seven months, serving two consecutive Task Forces.
It helps the cause of China’s strategic heft in the most important ocean, and it serves the objective of watching India’s backyard at close quarters before trying to “contain” it.
Currently the 20th Task Force is on duty and is scheduled to get relieved by the 21st Task Force which should be ‘on station’ in the Gulf, by end August. This activity, initially thought by the Chinese, to be a military and economic burden on the country, has proved to be the greatest boon for accumulation of sea power of the State. Firstly, it has made the Chinese earn their sea legs for deployment in distant waters, and have moved the PLAN in to the Blue Water mould. Secondly, the Chinese have for the first time, learnt the art of maritime diplomacy by virtue of this deployment. The formerly shy PLAN officers, who were hitherto restricted in their contact with foreigners, were allowed to interact with other navies’ personnel after the first year of deployment in the Gulf of Aden got over. More significantly, each Task Force, was charged to route via a couple of countries on its way home, to re-establish friendship and institute such confidence building measures (CBMs) through exercises, as would make for partners beyond friendship. In this effort, the homeward journey of the 16th Task Force has been the most noteworthy so far.
On leaving the Gulf of Aden, that Task Force was routed via the Mediterranean, and the West coast of Africa, before returning home. Enroute, it visited eight countries including seven on the West African coast. These went beyond just “goodwill” visits. All the countries visited were countries of significance in the Chinese strategy of creating and nurturing new pearls in various oceans.
What has surprised the world is the fact that while piracy in the area has almost disappeared since 2012, the Chinese are steadfast in their newfound occupation. The first reason is not difficult to assess. The Chinese have suddenly realised the benefits of maintaining station in the North Indian Ocean, where they were always looking for an excuse to establish their presence. It helps the cause of China’s strategic heft in the most important ocean, and it serves the objective of watching India’s backyard at close quarters before trying to “contain” it.
The second reason is that for China, the Gulf of Aden is half way to anywhere else in the world! So why not maintain station with a fully capable flotilla, in the name of providing security to international shipping? And, a test of this geographic theorem came in 2011 during the Libyan crisis when the Chinese had the largest numbers to be evacuated from the port city of Benghazi.
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean also stems from its locational advantage for tracking its satellites.
Frigate Xuzhou from the Seventh Task Force in the Gulf of Aden was dispatched to supervise and protect all the Chinese evacuees who were ferried to Greece and Malta, before being airlifted home. Then, in end March 2015, when the Yemen crisis erupted, one of the three ships of the 19th Task Force was diverted to Aden harbour (just next door), to ferry the 400 odd Chinese citizens to Djibouti for further airlift to mainland China. The Chinese were the first ones to be able to dock a warship in Aden harbour – thanks to its location within the Gulf of Aden where their Task Force operates.
Just a month and a half later (May 2015), the annual Sino-Russian Bilateral Exercise was inaugurated in Novorossiysk in the Black Sea, and conducted in the Eastern Mediterranean. The PLAN dispatched all three ships of the 19th Task Force which was concluding its three month mission, to participate in that exercise. It was not just found convenient to nominate the 19th Task Force for this deployment in the Mediterranean, but was obviously done as per a plan scheduled from beforehand! Perhaps the reason for shifting the exercise from the Western Pacific (its normal locale since inception in 2012), to the Mediterranean, was also to utilize the Task Force after its duty in the Gulf of Aden, while simultaneously projecting PLAN’s ‘far seas’ deployment capability, to the world.
So, China will not like to wind up from the Gulf of Aden. And now, the latest Defence White paper, released in May, 2015 – for the first time titled as China’s Military Strategy – clearly states that the PLA (Armed Forces) will continue to discharge their duty in the Gulf of Aden. Clearly, as suspected two years ago when other navies had started reducing their presence because of a decline in piracy, China is here to maintain “presence” in the classical naval sense. Recently, there has also been substantial news that the possibility of a Chinese Logistics Base in Djibouti is now closer to reality. That would mean a base and not just a place within the Indian Ocean.
The string of pearls was initially appreciated by some, to serve the purpose of securing China’s energy lines of communication, in fact its “strategic” lines of communication in the IOR…
Other Locations. In end 2013, a PLAN flotilla, comprising of the Expeditionary Operations platform Changbaishan, and two destroyers, Wuhan, and Haikou steamed down from Hainan Island, down the Sunda Strait, almost hugged the Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean (belonging to Australia), and turned North through the Lombok Strait. This flotilla carried out maneuvers throughout its passage including through the International Straits within the Indonesian Archipelago. This adventure seemed a deliberate move by the Chinese to firstly test the reactions of Indian Ocean states – particularly Australia, India, and Indonesia, and secondly to tell the world that China’s new maritime capability had translated its expansionist strategy in to action.
In end 2013, the Foreign Affairs Department of China’s Ministry of Defence informed the missions of six countries including India, Pakistan, Russia, and United States that one of its nuclear powered Attack submarines (NATO code: SSN), would be making an entry into the Indian Ocean. This was the first time ever that any nation owning nuclear powered submarines was announcing its intentions to “patrol” certain waters. Even conventional submarine’ patrols are never promulgated. But the reasons for doing so was twofold: first, to deliberately tell the world that China is now a player in the elite club; second, to forewarn all littorals and nuclear powers operating submarines, of the presence of a Chinese submarine so far away from home, that could need assistance in any eventuality. (Till 2013, PLAN nuclear powered submarines were reported to have had some glitches in their propulsion/control systems, because of which they had never been deployed for prolonged patrols even within home waters). This excursion was the first ever by a Chinese strategic platform in to waters of the Indian Ocean.
PLAN submarines have started making “visible” forays into the Indian Ocean is in itself a matter of serious concern to not only India but also many other powers – within and without the Indian Ocean.
In 2014, two Chinese submarines called at Colombo South port in September and November respectively, a move that was seen as intimidating to the peaceful texture of the Indian Ocean. (The first submarine in Sep 2014 was also accompanied by a Submarine Support Vessel). In all likelihood, it was the same submarine – a Song Class – that called at Colombo, first on its way to the Gulf of Aden, and then on its return. What made these port calls intriguing to India were not only the visits but also the explanations offered by the two sides.
As per China’s Xinhua news agency, a Chinese Ministry of National Defence spokesperson said after the September visit: “It is an international common practice for submarines to stop for refueling and crew refreshment at an overseas port.”1 He also laboured the point that the PLAN’s submarines were joining the Surface Task Force in the Gulf of Aden, to supplement the anti-piracy mission (!) The Sri Lankan statement went a step further to paint it in the ‘business as usual’ colour. It read: “A submarine and a warship have docked at Colombo harbour ….. there is nothing unusual ……. Since 2010, 230 warships have called at Colombo Port from various countries, on goodwill visits and for refueling and crew refreshment.”2
The fact that PLAN submarines have started making “visible” forays into the Indian Ocean is in itself a matter of serious concern to not only India but also many other powers – within and without the Indian Ocean. Over the last decade, there have been many pieces of news that had indicated Chinese submarines having made quiet patrols in the Indian Ocean. But none was ever seen on snort (breathing to charge batteries), or calling at friendly ports, and therefore news – whether from international sources, or as a result of media speculation – remained unconfirmed. The repeated visits now (including the most recent one at Karachi), however, appear to be a deliberate move by China, to nudge all interested powers, particularly India, with a catch-me-if-you-can nuance.
Coupled with the impressive economic growth over the last decade, the eye-catching naval expansion of China is being directed by a clearly defined maritime strategy. Initially it was thought that the naval expansion was a result of the hurt felt by China in the third Taiwan Strait incident3, and was intended only for imbibing the capability of offensive defence against any future US adventure in the Western Pacific. This was of course true; but simultaneously the Chinese also had the Indian Ocean in mind. After all the Indian Ocean maintains all the crucial sea lanes for Chinese import of raw material including oil, gas, and iron ore, and, export of its manufactured products to the Western hemisphere.
In so far as China’s use of submarines as messengers of deterrence is concerned, one has to remember that the first offensive arm to be raised by China was its submarine arm – right from the days of Chiang Kai Shek!
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean also stems from its locational advantage for tracking its satellites. Starting with the early part of the last decade, the Chinese used to station special “research” vessels with huge parabolic antennae in the Indian Ocean, to track their satellites, and to monitor, and conduct telemetry for ballistic missiles from these floating earth stations.
Another reason for frequenting the Indian Ocean is China’s newly acquired real estate here. In 2011, a big piece of the ocean, measuring 10,000 sq. km area on the South West Indian Ocean Ridge (SWIOR) was allocated by the International Seabed Authority to China for exploration and production of polymetallic sulphides. Now the pieces in the jigsaw are clearly falling in place. The Chinese are known to be long term thinkers and planners. Their strategy for presence in the Indian Ocean was scripted more than a decade ago. The allocation of area by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – a UN body – itself came as a surprise to many including India. The Chinese had done their homework, lobbied hard at the ISA, and received approval in record time. That was a huge bonanza to legitimize one more interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), while simultaneously securing their future with promise of precious metals like gold, silver, and other strategic minerals including rare earths.
The string of pearls was initially appreciated by some, to serve the purpose of securing China’s energy lines of communication, in fact its “strategic” lines of communication in the IOR; but it is now becoming abundantly clear that China had crafted a strategy that hinges on force projection – as correctly appreciated by India – aimed at building its stock outside home waters, as also of building its deterrence threshold beyond the Pacific.
There is no doubt in any one’s mind now, that China craves a permanent strategic presence in the IOR. After all, the various ports and other infrastructure projects she has established in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and in a number of East African countries over the past decade, were planned only with the purpose of “enabling” presence in this ocean.
Having learnt from the cold war experience, China had made such lucrative propositions to the host countries that they could not think of refusing…
In other words, China has executed a carefully crafted plan of creating for itself, places which, in time of need, could also double as bases – tweaking the methodology of creating, and dictating the utilization rights of such ports, as distinct from the cold war models of the two sides which had their own problems of uncertainty of lease or offer by the host countries. Having learnt from the cold war experience, China had made such lucrative propositions to the host countries that they could not think of refusing because of the openly lavish funding incentives that accompanied these proposals.
So, Gwadar in Pakistan (a half Billion Dollar port project in Phase1) was almost entirely funded and built by the Chinese, and now the Chinese have even taken over management of that port by edging out the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) which had stood guard for the first couple of years. Now, the Chinese are also in the process of expanding the port further (Phase II), at another Billion Dollars in direct funding.
In Sri Lanka’s case, the story is even more interesting. Hambantota’s first phase was built by the Chinese, with 85% of the 361 Million dollars having been financed by the EXIM Bank of China. It is located on the East-West trade route and was intended as a transshipment hub. Till recently, it was reported 80% underutilized except for an odd car ferry-a-week that brought vehicles from India’s Mudra Port, for transshipment (on larger vessels), destined for other countries. Phase Two of Hambantota Port too is now under construction, and will be much more expansive and deeper than Phase I. Its cost – almost a Billion dollars – is once again being financed by the Chinese, on long-term-low-interest basis. This would obviously mean that the Chinese will have a fair say over utilization of Hambantota, for its own forces – whenever required. But much more significant is the case with the Colombo South Port Project. The Colombo Port is old, and has limited capacity for handling general cargo, and particularly, containerized cargo.
…under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, that makes it obligatory upon Sri Lanka, against making any of its ports available “for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests…
Therefore, in the year 2008, a US $ 360 Million project (majority funding by ADB), was executed to extend the old port, by building two long breakwaters to provide additional terminals, and tranquil waters for what is now known as the Colombo South Port. These breakwaters were built by M/s Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in well under the contracted period of four years, and the infrastructure created with these, including congruent perimeter roads, a Port Administration and Operations Control Building, and a unique 5 metre high concrete barrier wall along the Main Breakwater – to provide shelter against rough weather – can all be described as of contemporary global standards in terms of design/quality. Then in mid-2011, it was time to award a contract for making the Container Terminals on the Main Breakwater of this extension. Hyundai, it is learnt, sought preferential rights to build the Container Terminals, but they were denied the bid. It was once again a case of “Hobson’s Choice”.
In Dec 2011, the Chinese firm, M/s China Merchants Holding International (CMHI), was awarded the contract to build only one large terminal of 1200 mts length x 300 mts width along the Main Breakwater. (The entire breakwater is 5.1 km long, and has provision for creating three such terminals of 1200 mts each, with up to four berths on this length). Construction of the terminal (including massive reclamation) was commenced in Dec 2011, and the terminal was ready by Apr 2014, as per schedule.
This is the terminal that is named the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT).
The CICT has the capacity to add 2.74 Million TEUs (20 ft containers) to the existing throughput of the old Colombo port. The deal with the Chinese was concluded with a 35 year Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) model. Even though the international norm is to offer a lease of 30 years in projects financed by the builder, this terminal will be operated by the Chinese for 35 years. This is because the Chinese have 85% stake in financing the project and therefore must have dictated the lease terms. The balance 15% has been provided by the Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA). The Chinese Song Class boat had docked at this very terminal in Sep and Nov 2014. So, is there any analysis needed on the give-and-take equation in this project? The Chinese were obviously very clear about their long term plans. Undoubtedly, they are going to extract every pound that they have pooled in to this port.
Today, however, China has so many of them (conventional, as well as strategic boats), that it is able to send them on reconnaissance patrols in the Indian Ocean – its secondary area of interest (after the Pacific).
In so far as China’s use of submarines as messengers of deterrence is concerned, one has to remember that the first offensive arm to be raised by China was its submarine arm – right from the days of Chiang Kai Shek! Mao went a step further by introducing nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union, and insisting on indigenization – for the sake of self-reliance. What the PLA thought at the time to be an instrument of power projection, was actually intended for sea denial against bigger powers whose surface and air forces could not be matched. Today, however, China has so many of them (conventional, as well as strategic boats), that it is able to send them on reconnaissance patrols in the Indian Ocean – its secondary area of interest (after the Pacific). It finds the timing right, as clients in the IOR are now “hosts” who have no choice but to offer port facilities at the asking. But these countries do not realise the implications on their own security, and on their political independence, while accepting infrastructural largesse.
In so far as International Law goes, as an independent nation, Sri Lanka did not flout any rule in providing a temporary (transit) home to the submarine and the accompanying tender. Men-o-war routinely visit foreign ports – after obtaining diplomatic clearances – whether on goodwill visits, or on transit to another area. The only condition in which Sri Lanka could be found legally at fault is, if it had allowed these actions while India and China were at war. That would have meant violating the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). However, between India and Sri Lanka, there is a clearly spelt out agreement under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, that makes it obligatory upon Sri Lanka, against making any of its ports available “for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”4 Sri Lanka has, of course, cited the international norm of permitting warships on goodwill visits, and not bothered about the 1987 accord, as it kept another answer up its sleeve (as already used by China): that the Chinese submarine was on its way to the Gulf of Aden – for the anti-piracy mission (!!) and that apart from goodwill, the submarine being conventional, required a “rest and replenishment” (R&R) halt!
For India, not conducting this “education” in time for friends in the IOR could mean hanging the albatross around its neck!
The good thing is that with the new dispensation in Sri Lanka, there has been a lot of course correction. First, the new President had mentioned that Sri Lanka will not allow relations with China to be strengthened at the expense of India. Then, during a visit to China earlier this year, the new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera noted that Sri Lanka would not allow visits by Chinese submarines to its ports. “I really don’t know under which sort of circumstances that led to some submarines… to [visit] the port of Colombo… we will ensure that such incidents, from whatever quarter, do not happen during our tenure.”5 However, India must remember that the other pearls in the string, namely Pakistan (Gwadar), Myanmar, Bangladesh will also be used by China soon enough. While Pakistan cannot be tamed (and is a “gone” case), it is time for India to start interacting with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and East African countries with more than those frugal “Lines of Credit”. These countries that have had the benefit of Chinese largesse will need to be rerouted through the soft power route so that they are fully aware of the dangers of falling prey to the game of give-and-take.
For India, not conducting this “education” in time for friends in the IOR could mean hanging the albatross around its neck! Simultaneously, India’s Navy must be spruced up fast enough, with larger force levels so that sufficient numbers are available to patrol areas of interest, and are “visible” to the others.
- Times of India online edition Nov 04, 2014, downloaded at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/China-defends-docking-of-its-submarine-in-Sri-Lanka/articleshow/45029781.cms .
- Chinese Submarine Docks in Sri Lanka Despite Indian Concerns” by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal, Reuters online, Nov 02, 2014, downloaded at http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/11/02/sri-lanka-china-submarine-idINKBN0IM0LU20141102.
- The Third Taiwan Strait incident was triggered by the grant of a visa by the United States to then Taiwan President Lee where after a standoff between China and the US brought two carrier battle groups off Chinese coast (including one in the strait itself). It is since then (1996) that China has been on a rapid modernization of its navy.
- This clause was accepted in letters exchanged between then Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and then SL President Jayewardene on the day of signing of the accord, and are therefore treated as part of the very accord.
- Sri Lanka May Bar Port Visits by Chinese Submarines” by Ankit Panda, The Diplomat, downloaded at http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/sri-lanka-may-bar-port-visits-by-chinese-submarines/.