China’s ‘String of Pearls’ – Is Male Next?
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Issue Vol. 28.2 Apr-Jun 2013 | Date : 24 Jul , 2013

India has provided aid to Seychelles and in June 1986, in ‘Operation Flowers are Blooming’ INS Vindhyagiri under Captain S Ramsagar in Port Victoria was sent with the support of intelligence agencies and Soviet Union, to stave off a coup attempt by Defence Minister Patrick Berlois against President Renee’s government. Although Seychelles has been an Indian ally all along, China has made inroads recently and secured Operational Turn Around (OTA) facilities for PLA (N) ships on the pretext of assisting Seychelles on piracy patrols and for the protection of Chinese tourists.

With Weiqi-like moves and ‘cheque-book’ diplomacy, China is moving into the ambit of influence in the IOR.

In 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an agreement with PM Jayawardhene of Sri Lanka and hastily deputed troops to Sri Lanka in ‘Operation Pawan’ to help quell the JVP and mediate for LTTE in Sri Lanka for federalism but the foray ended in failure by 2001 with 1,400 army deaths, and little achieved. Many attribute Operation Pawan to being a diversion for the Bofors scandal that broke out in 1987. Since late 1990s, Sri Lanka has been embroiled with combating the LTTE menace and its attitude towards India has been cool. From 1998 onwards, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces with weapons supplied by China, decisively crushed LTTE by 2009 killing the LTTE leader V Prabhakaran in the process.

India cultivated the Maldives with military and economic aid, educational support and the survey of the Maldivian coast by ships of the Indian Navy. In 1988, in ‘Operation Cactus’ the Government of President Gahyoom was re-instated through Indian military intervention. But now, with Weiqi-like moves and ‘cheque-book’ diplomacy, China is moving into the ambit of influence in the IOR with economic sops. India’s relations with the Islands, that the Indian Navy had contributed to strengthen, need regenerated attention.

Surprisingly, Chinese tourists make up 25 per cent of the tourists to Male and other Maldivian islands. GMR’s contract to build and run Male airport was cancelled; soon after pro-Indian President Nasheed was replaced by President Waheed in February last. GMR lost its legal battle in Singapore whose judiciary prides in upholding a nation’s civil and criminal law. In February 2013, former President Mohamed Nasheed had taken an 11-day refuge in the Indian Embassy in Male as he faced criminal charges which he dubs to be politically motivated to ensure his disqualification and non-participation in the September elections. With Indian intervention, Nasheed left the Embassy but was re-arrested and freed. Nasheed may have fair support for his party but the situation is most unstable as Maldives has a fragile economy and China’s interests to make inroads appear evident, in Weiqi style.

Pakistan has given China a free hand to build the challenging Karakoram highway in POK…

China and Pakistan- The Close Links

China has an incestuous security cum economic relationship with Pakistan. Chinese leaders have dubbed the relationship as ‘higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas’. Chinese moves are based on the strategy that Sun Tzu advocated to cultivate an enemy’s neighbour as a friend in a ‘Cats-Paw’ circuitous manner. Pakistan has received military aid, missiles and nuclear know-how from China. In turn, not only has Pakistan given up a part of the Shaksgam valley in POK but has also signed an international border delineation agreement near Siachen.

More recently, Pakistan has given China a free hand to build the challenging Karakoram highway in POK and to link the two countries with the strategic port of Gwadar constructed mainly with Chinese aid worth $248 million. The port of Gwadar has been handed over by the Port of Singapore International (PSA) to China Overseas Ports Holding Ltd. to operate. China’s southern state of Xinjiang will connect to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and plans are afoot for an SEZ and refinery at Gwadar. The Chinese move is reminiscent of the ‘Great Game’ attempted by Russia in the nineteenth century from Central Asia through Afghanistan. Pakistan has also signed a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline agreement to link Chabahar port next to Gwadar, to Pakistan’s hinterland.

A secret agreement to get the Chinese to build a naval base at Gwadar has also been mentioned in Pakistan and this would fit the game of ‘Weiqi’ to encircle India with a necklace of friendly ports and forward bases in the long term. China clearly wants to counter the US’s ‘Pivot in the East’ and emulate a similar forward-basing policy. With bases in Japan, South Korea and Philippines, the USA has leased Diego Garcia in the IOR from Britain. The lease expires in 2016 but renewal must be agreed upon by 2014. The US is looking to the Island of Gan in the Maldives.

Sri Lanka is grateful to China and will try use the ‘China’ card against India in realpolitik.

China and Sri Lanka

Since 2006, China has made deft ‘Weiqi’ moves to provide aid to Sri Lanka for strategic port and airport construction projects worth around $200 to $300 million, which Chinese term ‘small change to developing countries’. China Harbour Engineering Company and Sinohydro Corporation constructed the strategic port of Hambantota at a cost of $360 million. 85 per cent of the funding was provided by the Chinese Government and 15 per cent by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Phase-I of the project and modernisation of the airport was completed by November 2010 and Chinese ships have begun calling.

In 2008, China got an opportunity to provide military hardware including planes, helicopters and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the Sri Lankan military under President and C-in-C Mahendra Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to decimate the LTTE (2007-2009) in a full-fledged war. India did not interfere despite Tamil goading but the then National Security Advisor MK Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon proceeded to Colombo and cautioned Rajapaksa not to seek arms from China or Pakistan. This apparently did not go down well with Rajapaksa who went ahead with his war with the LTTE and emerged victorious – again with Chinese support.

Sri Lanka is grateful to China and will try use the ‘China’ card against India in realpolitik. On August 14, 2012, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Group signed an investment agreement with China Greatwall Industry and Sino Satellite Communications Company Ltd., to set up Sri Lanka’s first Space Academy at Kandy. The facility consists of a state-of-the-art Satellite Ground Station to control the already co-branded satellites of SupremeSAT and Chinasatcom.

China’s strategy of ‘Weiqi’ is working to pierce India’s ‘Iron Curtain’ in the Indian Ocean.

China’s long-term plan is to utilise the planned orbital slot of Sri Lanka, which is located at 50 degrees East, and launch SupremeSAT, Sri Lanka’s first telecommunications satellite, on the lines of the Dong Fang Hong-4, which means ‘The Rising of the Shining East.’ India’s ISRO has been bypassed. China has also made investments in Myanmar in ports and pipelines and offered Bangladesh military equipment and aid to construct ports in what it terms as ‘friendship projects’.

China’s strategy of ‘Weiqi’ is working to pierce India’s ‘Iron Curtain’ in the Indian Ocean, and needs to be heeded by Indian planners.

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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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