Military & Aerospace

China's String of Pearls vs India's Iron Curtain
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Issue Vol 24.4 Oct-Dec2009 | Date : 19 Feb , 2013

“India’s growing international stature gives it strategic relevance in the area ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca…India has exploited the fluidities of the emerging world order to forge new links through a combination of diplomatic repositioning, economic resurgence and military firmness”.

—Dr Manmohan Singh

“We see the Indian Navy as a significant stabilising force in the Indian Ocean region, which safeguards traffic bound not only for our own ports, but also the flow of hydrocarbons and strategically important cargo to and from the rest of the world across the strategic waterways close to our shores…And so, the safety of SLOCS will always remain a priority for India in the foreseeable future”

—Admiral Sureesh Mehta

The above statements have given grist to China to defend itself on what has been touted by a US researcher as ‘China’s String of Pearls’ of bases in the Indian Ocean. Naval analyst Zhang Ming recently proclaimed that the Islands of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago could be used as a ‘metal chain’ to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca. China has gone further to claim that India is building an ‘Iron Curtain’ in the Indian Ocean, which is debatable.

In recent years, a number of analysts have drawn attention to the similarities of nationalism, between the rise of modern China and the rise of Wilhelmine Germany. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, says that “like Germany in the late 19th century, China is growing rapidly but uncertainly, into a global system (including the Indian Ocean) in which it feels it deserves more attention and honor. The Chinese military ( CMC) is a powerful political player, as was the Prussian officer corps. Like Germany, the Chinese regime is trying to hold on to political power even as it unleashes forces in society that make its control increasingly shaky.”

More recently President Obama has stated that the future of the world will depend on the USA– China relationship, and that could well turn out to be a truism. The 19th century strategic thinker Mahan had prophesised that the future of the world in the 21st century would be decided on the waters of the Indian Ocean and in this, India’s expansion of its maritime power and Navy, and inroads in to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is very much on China’s radar, which deserves introspection.

It is less publicised or talked about, but in the last two decades India has stealthily straddled its interests in the Indian Ocean Rim, which includes the islands of Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Madagascar and the rim states of South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique by very deft moves in foreign policy, economic sops like the double taxation exemption with Mauritius, and military inroads. This is the classical strategy of gaining influence by conjoining economic perks and power, with military diplomacy called ‘Showing the Flag’, so well perfected by larger maritime naval powers in the past. The Indian Navy has transferred offshore naval patrol vessels, provided staff and training, and refit facilities and most importantly provided naval hydrographic support to the island nations of the IOR, which steps have left strategic imprints on the recipients.

Shangrila_dialogueIt is less known, that in the late 80s the Indian Navy moved in a Leander pretending it needed repairs, and concurrently flew in armed personnel to Victoria from Mumbai, to help ward off a coup against President Albert Rene of the Seychelles.

The coup was engineered by Col Mike ‘Mad’ Hoare of the Longreach Company of South Africa, now made public in a book Mercenary Invasion of Seychelles, by Aubrey Brooks and Graham Linscoff. In 1998 the Indian Navy’s INS Godavari berthed at Maldives, and Army troops flew in by IL-76s in ‘Op Cactus’ and staved off a coup. Dissident Abdullah Luthufi had led 80 armed mercenaries of the Sri Lankan organisation (PLOTE), in an attempt to capture and overthrow President Gayoom.

The Indian Navy has deputed warships and helicopters to provide security at the African heads’ meetings, a move very much appreciated by the population at large.

Indian Navy’s Hydrographic Arm’s Inroads in to the IOR

The Indian Navy possesses a sophisticated hydrographic cadre, with eight well equipped survey ships , numerous survey craft, a large world class electronic chart production facility in Dehradun and a hydrographic school at Goa which trains several foreign naval and civilian personnel. Much funding for the Navy’s survey ships has been contributed by the Ministry of Shipping, which allows easier induction of latest equipment, and a swifter procurement route than the cumbersome MOD’s DPP-08, which is still to prove its efficacy. China views India’s hydrographic activities as strategic inroads in to the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese and Indian swords are sheathed for the time being, but they could be out and India has to be prepared for the String of Pearls vs the Iron Curtain debate

The Indian Government, appreciative of the hydrographic work done by the Indian Navy, swiftly ordered six 600 ton Austal (Australia/USA) design Catamaran Survey ships in 2006 at the Alcock Ashdown Shipyard at Bhavnagar. The IN’s Chief Hydrographer Vice Admiral BA Rao has stated the first platform will be in service by 2010, and the balance in annual series production. The Indian Navy will then be the second Navy in the world to employ low draught catamarans with on board helicopters, which will have the advantage to speedily survey close inshore, doing away with the age old time consuming ‘boat work for survey’, which requires meticulous re-validation.

As a silent strategic arm, the Indian Navy’s hydrographic branch has made significant forays in the IOR to undertake over a dozen survey assignments for island nations and recently executed surveys in Oman and now is set to advise Saudi Arabia, for which an MOU has been signed in March this year. These successes have almost blocked out the more expensive western navies that had provided essentially needed hydrographic support to the island nations which possess large coast lines and EEZ. India’s hydrographic policy has already paid off, and will pay richer dividends in the future to compete and ward off China’s influence in the region, and its ‘String of Pearls’ that has funded ports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sittwe in Mynmar, covering the rim of India.

The Indian Ocean Matrix for India–China Relations

The Indian Ocean holds importance for India’s development in the 21st century and the Chatham House paper states, “India’s strategy is deepening not only commercially, but due to concerns over its security and hegemony in the region, which are underpinned by India’s 2004 Maritime Doctrine.” The Chinese views aired at the 2009 Malacca Straits Kuala Lumpur Conference was that ‘India is looking East and forming an Iron Curtain in the Indian Ocean’.

Indian Navy’s responsibility to ensure stability in the IOR, which irks the Chinese as they view the Indian Ocean as their life line for trade and energy.

The Chinese view the Indian Navy’s gathering of 28 IOR Naval Chiefs including France, a riparian state under one roof at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in February 2008 in New Delhi and Goa for a retreat, as ganging up in the IOR. When confronted with the String of Pearls, Chinese brush it off as small change provided to poor nations for port development, adding India gets easy ADB and World Bank loans for port development. The swords were out on this.

India’s Indian Ocean African Rim grouping called IOR–ARC (the Arrangement for Regional Cooperation), and India–Brazil–South Africa (IBSA) forum which are groupings for commercial links, provision of energy and other resources from Africa, are viewed by the Chinese in security terms, as there is another ‘Scramble for Africas’, made famous in a book by that title by Thomas Pakenham.

India’s maritime military strategy and the Navy’s 2004 maritime doctrine, both issued by the Indian Navy are very clear that it is the Indian Navy’s responsibility to ensure stability in the IOR, which irks the Chinese as they view the Indian Ocean as their life line for trade and energy. Chi Haotin had said, ‘It is Indian Ocean not India’s Ocean’. India’s out going Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta made his mandate clear at the recent Shangri la dialogue in Singapore in the presence of Chinese General Mao, stating, “Concerted efforts at capability enhancement and capacity building of the smaller countries of the region (IOR), through active assistance of larger neighbours, would be crucial to such efforts in the long term”.

India has developed a special relationship with Mauritius, which is a fulcrum island state because of its strong Indian diaspora. India has instituted a favourable taxation treaty that makes it India’s largest offshore investor. The Indian Navy set up the Mauritius Coast Guard in the 70s, and has provided ships and personnel, and Mauritius has close security coordination with India’s CIA, the R&AW.

Chinese and Pakistan activities in the IOR are closely monitored by India’s intelligence and India has forestalled Chinese expansionist moves to lease islands in the Seychelles. The India–China competition to seek influence in the region is set to intensify as China’s cheque book diplomacy currently finds favour in small African states especially in Sudan and Zimbabwe. Deng’s philosophy of ‘the colour of the cat does not matter as long as it catches rats’, is still relevant.

The India China competition to seek influence in the region is set to intensify as China’s cheque book diplomacy currently finds favour in small African states especially in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

When the IOR–ARC was formed, Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique supported India’s move to block Pakistan’s membership and later China’s access to India, Brazil, South Africa – IBSA. The Indian Navy has also made in-roads to gain over flying and berthing rights in Oman, which holds a strategic location especially for the fight against piracy off the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Navy can monitor the SLOCs of Hormuz and Aden. India has signed an MOU to provide piracy patrols to Mozambique. It was also reported that India has established a listening post in Madagascar in 2007. No denial was issued by the Government. The Chinese alluded to these issues at the Malacca Conference held in Kuala Lumpur, offering all support for the security of the Straits, in what is termed as China’s Malacca dilemma.

India’s Military Maritime Strategy in the IOR – C3i

India’s maritime strategy envisages a swathe of area as its watch from Aden and the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca and Mahan appears to have seen the coming importance of this region which provides 70 percent of the world’s hydrocarbons. K Santhanam, former Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and one of the architects of India’s nuclear programme , has coined the C3I theory for India–China relations and needs heeding. It envisages that India and China will seek active cooperation as China has become India’s largest trading partner, and yet both will always be in competition.

China feels it has a stake in providing maritime forces and resources in the IOR when it has the capability or havens to do so.

In the future, confrontation cannot be ruled out if both nations’ interests clash, hence the C3i, as India has an unresolved border dispute with China. The ‘I’ stands for which nation will obtain superior ‘Intelligence’ and includes space and cyber warfare abilities. This writer feels the world has to be prepared for C3I as nation’s juggle to balance China and India in their relations as both are growing economic powers.

China has invested $200 million and China Harbour Engineering Company has assisted Pakistan to set up Phase One of the Gwadar deep water port, which is 75 nautical miles east of the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. India uses Bandar Abbas, which is at the narrow entrance of the Hormuz as a transit hub, to transport its $1.2 billion worth of on-going aid projects in Afghanistan.

The Chinese plan to use Pakistan’s Gwadar as the transit hub for its energy and other imported resources, especially from Africa to be ferried by road and pipeline to Central China in the not so distant future. This is a core national endeavour and aspiration for China. Hence China supports Pakistan and this leads to the importance of Pakistan–China vis a vis the India–Iran relations. This triangle needs to be factored as it could lead to challenges if any nation’s national interests, like Iran’s nuclear ambitions are at stake.

The Chinese plan to use Pakistan’s Gwadar as the transit hub for its energy and other imported resources, especially from Africa…

Much of India’s oil and gas arrives by sea from the Middle East. Hence ensuring no disruption of the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean are not only vital for the world’s economy, but for India too, and China feels it has a stake in providing maritime forces and resources in the IOR when it has the capability or havens to do so. The Nippon Foundation and China contribute generously to the Tripartite Technical Expert Group (TTEG) of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore that administer the Malacca Straits.

India recently decided to contribute $1.2 million as a response, and advanced $774,000 to the TTEG on 31st March, 2009. India has volunteered to survey wrecks in the Malacca Straits which has been accepted by the TTEG, another red rag to the Chinese.

The Chinese and Indian swords are sheathed for the time being, but they could be out and India has to be prepared for the String of Pearls vs the Iron Curtain debate in what Santhnam has coined as C3I, for it was Chi Haotin who had said, “The Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”. As the Chinese warn, never dig a spear in to the Dragon’s eye, and do not hammer at a stone, chisel it. The stationing of three PLA Navy ships to fight piracy off Aden and Somalia is China’s way of chiseling in to the Indian Ocean. In the 21st century, China’s PLAN may well straddle the Indian Ocean, to protect its national interests.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Cmde Ranjit B Rai

Cmde Ranjit B Rai, former director - Naval Intelligence and Operations, and author of a 'Nation and its Navy at War'.

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2 thoughts on “China’s String of Pearls vs India’s Iron Curtain

  1. “Iron curtain ” is rarely talked about whereas the string of pearls theory and ‘ Asia Pivot ‘ is much touted all over the newspapers , debates and discussions in India . The C3i theory is quite interesting as it’s going to keep the world on it’s toes.
    It’s delightful to watch a soft power like India preparing to stand up against the excesses of 21st Century aggressive superpower.

  2. What I liked in the first photograph, seems to be that the Indian Navy has an aircraft, not like the Boeing 747 Air Force One. It is really simple to perception, and really it would be extremely nice to fly in the aircraft, provided there are navy personnel on the aircraft. Why would people want to get VVIP choppers for leaders?

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