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China - Consolidating in IOR at Incredible Pace
Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC (Retd) @

An article in the China Daily in mid-2014 had revealed Chinese plans to build 18 bases in the IOR termed, “Overseas Strategic Support Bases”. It mentioned three specific categories: peacetime fueling and material supply bases like Djibouti, Aden and Salalah; relatively fixed supply bases for warship berthing, fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft and the naval staff ashore rest like Seychelles; and, fully functional centers for replenishment, rest and large warship weapons maintenance like Gwadar in Pakistan. China immediately denied such plans and the article was taken off. 1However, another article in the China Daily Mail on 22 November 2014 quoting Sri Lankan sources confirmed such plans: 18 naval bases in IOR; Hambantota (Sri Lanka); naval bases in Pakistan and Myanmar; naval supply base at Walvis Base (Namibia); 18-19 overseas strategic supply bases in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Madagascar and “other parts” of IOR for supplying, berthing and maintenance bases – very different from US-type of bases, albeit, without specifying what the difference is.

            In July 2017, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port was officially transferred to China for 99 years - since Sri Lanka had to service the debt on the loan it took from Exim Bank China, to build the port. This is just the beginning of the debt trap, which Sri Lanka may find difficult to recover from. In August 2017, China commissioned its first overseas naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It is a virtual fortress, far more than a strategic support base. 2China’s agreement with Djibouti ensures Chinese military presence there until 2026 with a contingent strength of up to 10,000. This of course will be extended and troop strength may be increased, depending on the prevailing situation. Gwadar Port in Pakistan was handed over to China for 49 years, which gives China immense strategic advantage because of its proximity to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. China has indicated plans for deploying PLAN to ‘safeguard’ Gwadar. 3In March 2017, China had already indicated plans to increase its marine corps from 20,000 to one 1,00,000 for  overseas deployment, including at Gwadar and Djibouti.

            Not only has China engaged in ports development in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Chinese economic ties with Africa, and the concomitant rise in its naval profile across the IOR have been conspicuous. The magnitude of investments in Sri Lanka (Colombo and Hambantota) is quiet high, and China fully knows the economy of the concerned country and also that pay back would be aimed to be retrieved in strategic terms. Chinese nuclear submarines and warships do not dock at berths of Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA), in Colombo, mandated to accommodate military vessels, but instead at the Colombo South Container Terminal (CSCT), a deep-water facility built, controlled and run by China through an aid project. CSCT is also a ‘Chinese enclave’ within a Sri Lankan administered harbor, the berthing itself being a violation of protocol. Same thing will happen to Hambantota, despite assurances that it will not be used for military purposes. Similarly, in Maldives, China’s Integrated Development Project rides on huge concessional loans and aid financing; loans are on such high rate of interest that Male will default unless given a waiver. So the waiver will come with a strategic price - the Chinese ‘control’ over maritime projects, (as was done in Sri Lanka) including establishment of naval presence. China recently commissioned its second aircraft carrier, and is building another six, and her nuclear submarines and warships have been crisscrossing the IOR. For the time being China plans to deploy two CBGs in the IOR. 4In July 2017, China unveiled a massive ship described as "magic island maker", named ‘Tian Kun Hao’. The ship is capable of digging 6,000 cubic m per hour, equivalent of three standard swimming pools. That this would be used in the Indian Ocean is obvious with China having met most of her plans in the South China Sea (SCS).

                5In the USI Occasional Paper titled ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): Connecting the Dots’ published last year and authored by Director USI, some of the issues highlighted included: Gwadar with an airport as part of the project is an ideal surveillance and interdiction hub to be China’s first naval overseas port; artificial islands created by China in SCS, and ports such as Hambantota, Karachi, Gwadar and Djibouti need to be part of one continuum. Chinese naval base in Gwadar (Pakistan), just 72 km away from Chabahar Port in Iran was being considered a strategic asset for China to influence the eastern end of the Straits of Hormuz, Arabian Sea and the India Ocean. But China has sprung another surprise. 6According to a recent report in The Washington Times, China is constructing its second overseas military base in Pakistan at Jiwani in the Gulf of Oman, as part of a push for greater power projection capabilities along strategic sea routes. Jiwani is much closer to the Straits of Hormuz than Gwadar; crow flight distance between Jiwani and Chabahar is just 35 km. More significantly, Jiwani is a large peninsula jutting out in the sea. For the present, Jiwani is being showcased as a joint China-Pakistan naval and airbase which is just 56 km distance from Gwadar. However, considering that Jiwani is a huge 24-km long peninsula already having an airstrip, it may well become China’s Eastern IOR Command (sequel to the US PACOM), with China’s Western IOR Command at Djibouti-Seychelles. Chinese troop presence at Jiwani and Gwadar in conjunction with Pakistani ports of Pasni, Omara and Karchi will not only provide control of the entire Pakistani coast to China, the continuum will carry on to Africa.

                7PLA and Pakistani Military officials reportedly met at Jiwani on December 18, 2017. Supposedly a group of 16 Chinese People’s Liberation Army officers met with about 10 Pakistani military officers. Jiwani is located on a peninsula, about 15 miles long stretch of land with one small airfield. According to sources, the large naval and air base will require the Pakistani government to relocate scores of residents living in the area. Plans call for their relocation to other areas of Jiwani or further inland in Baluchistan province. The Chinese also asked the Pakistanis to undertake a major upgrade of Jiwani airport so the facility will be able to handle large Chinese military aircraft. Work on the improvement of the airport is expected to begin in July 2018. The naval base and airfield will occupy nearly the entire strategic peninsula. Pakistan’s military has already been moving additional troops and security forces into nearby Gwadar. Pakistan is also going full throttle against the Baluch population who have been resisting the Pakistani military excesses and exploitation of their resources and land. The buses in London and taxis in America may have “Free Baluchistan” painted on them, but the population of Baluchistan is being subjected to rape, abductions, killings and genocide in every form on a daily basis. Ironically, three helicopter gunships gifted by China to Pakistan are used in support of the artillery, tanks, and physical attacks on the hapless population. 8That China may have gifted these for specific use in Baluchistan is quite possible due to China’s strategic interest in that area, and this would not be surprising considering recent revelations that the PLA in the past had butchered some 10,000 of its own citizens during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

            It can be seen that China is consolidating in the IOR at incredible pace. For China when it comes to the safety of its own SLOCS, there is little doubt that China plans to militarize the IOR akin to the SCS, and with its nuclear talons of North Korea and Pakistan covering the Indo-Pacific. The façade of China’s peaceful intentions is explicit - continue to claim territories of 23 countries, even though it has borders with only 14. India also has to take note of China’s tacit support to Pakistani terrorists, the recent Doklam standoff, continued trans-LAC incursion by Chinese troops, PLA lodgment in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), and China undertaking projects in POK (which is Indian Territory) without reference to India. It is the Chinese aggressive actions, in conjunction or without Pakistan, which may lead to conflict situations in the IOR. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) aimed at replacing the Dollar with the Yuan, is liable to create more turbulence. On balance, the establishment of PLA both at Gwadar and Jiwani in conjunction with other existing and planned Chinese establishments, pose great strategic challenges for India and the rest of the world, especially considering in the past China’s actions in the SCS where it paid scant regard to global norms. Hopefully, better sense will prevail and China’s territorial ambitions, disdain for UNCLOS and freedom of navigation, and penchant for arbitrarily drawing its own AAD areas will not take the Indian Ocean towards conflict.

End Notes

1Chankaiyee2, China to build 18 naval bases in Indian Ocean, China Daily Mail, November 22, 2014, https://chinadailymail.com/2014/11/22/china-to-build-18-naval-bases-in-indian-ocean/

2China to open first overseas military base in Djibouti, Al Jazeera, July 12, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/07/china-open-overseas-military-base-djibouti-170712135241977.html

3China to expand marine corps for deployment in Gwadar, Djibouti, The Indian Express, March 13, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/world/cpec-indian-ocean-logistics-base-4567831/

4The Straits Times, November 5, 2017, http://www.straitstims.com/asia/east-asia/china-unvils-magic-island-maker-ship

5Lt Gen PK Singh, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): Connecting the Dots. USI Occasional Paper No. – 8 – 2017, http://usiofindia.org/publications/OccasionalPapers/China-Pakistan_Economic_Corridor__CPEC__Final.pdf

6Bill Gertz, China building military base in Pakistan, The Washington Times, January 3, 2018, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jan/3/china-plans-pakistan-military-base-at-jiwani/

7Ibid.

810,000 were killed in China’s 1989 Tiananmen crackdown: British Cable, DAWN, December 23, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1378407

9Craig Hill, ‘China claims territories of 23 countries, even though it only has borders with 14, China Daily Mail, December 1, 2013, https://chinadailymail.com/2013/12/01/china-claims-territories-of-23-countries-but-only-has-borders-with-14/

 

@ Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC (Retd) is  the Distinguished Fellow at USI.

(Article uploaded on 10 Jan, 2018)

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.

CENTRE FOR UNITED NATIONS PEACEKEEPING (CUNPK)

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