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  Opinion   Columnists  03 Dec 2021  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Fire in water: China in big Indian Ocean push

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Fire in water: China in big Indian Ocean push

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : Dec 3, 2021, 7:52 am IST
Updated : Dec 3, 2021, 7:52 am IST

CPC has moved on to its mega snow-to-sea drive after completing its land, trade, commerce, banking and telecom penetration of India

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo:AP)
 Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo:AP)

Beijing’s overlord Xi Jinping, elevated in China’s pantheon and placed at par with Chairman Mao Zedong at the recent session of the Communist Party central committee, is planning to target India by sea, using the increased firepower and growing reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) in the Indian Ocean, the way Mao had tried to teach India a lesson over the Himalayan frontier back in 1962.

The writing is visible on the wall — from the Himalayas to the seafront. It is no more a question of what and why, but when the PLA Navy, which serves the Communist Party of China (CPC), will set up its India-centric Indian Ocean Theatre Command, hunting all and sundry through its “Sea Command”, “Sea Control” and “Sea Denial” ops!

The CPC has moved on to its mega snow-to-sea drive after completing its land, trade, commerce, banking and telecom penetration of India, and “purchase” of a few targeted Indian actors, and with very little blowback. The CPC has also compelled India to enhance its border expenditure to Himalayan heights following the ongoing standoff in the Ladakh region that began in April-May 2020, aided by its annual profit of $50 million from bilateral trade (which is likely to be $60 billion in 2021). India’s 2020 annual defence budget was $64.1 billion (Military Balance 2021). China’s annual trade profit, therefore, is almost at par with India’s defence expenditure. Is the Indian taxpayer bearing his country’s as well as the rival nation’s expenses?

China’s $193.3 billion 2020 defence budget is three times that of India’s.
Can it be argued that China’s defence budget is really $253.3 billion ($193.3 billion-plus $60 billion from India)? India thus stands at the precipice today, with the CPC’s dictator finding new ways to target it on every front.

One example will suffice. No Chinese visa has been issued to an Indian in over a year. This has severely affected the lives and careers of over 25,000 Indian students enrolled at Chinese institutions. But criminals from China are roaming freely all over India, indulging in a variety of activities ranging from smuggling, espionage, illegal fishing and banking and financial fraud. Will Indians in Beijing and elsewhere be allowed to get away with a fraction of this? Bertrand Russell once wrote: “Has man a future?” If he were alive today, he surely would quip on prime-time TV: “O Lord! Does India have a future before the Chinese peril?”

The People’s Republic is determined to disrupt or interdict India’s uninterrupted access to the world’s third-largest water body, the Indian Ocean, and the flexibility its Navy has, manoeuvring without hindrance. The enduring Han dream to rule the waves and cut rivals to size remains unfulfilled, mainly due to an inbuilt unkind geography, notwithstanding the long 7,830 nautical mile coastline with the Yellow, East China and South China Seas, dotted with over 3,400 offshore islands serving as an insurmountable hurdle.

China’s Pacific access problems multiply as all key island nations around it have some issues with Beijing. The PLA Navy is, however, still bent on tension and confrontation. There’s desperation to subjugate each and every maritime state, and to hold the Chinese ensign high is alluring. The Soviet Union almost succeeded in a similar endeavour, and its Navy rose to giddy heights, only to fall without a fight 30 years ago, in December 1991.

China’s fundamentals are, however, formidable, and it has to focus on feeding its 1.5 billion population. There are also factors like fishing, fuel, finance, factory and firepower -- for which it has zeroed in on the Belt and Road Initiative, and the attendant CPEC. The CPC knows very well that breaking through the Pacific won’t be easy as the United States won’t tolerate any challenger the way the Japanese had done between the two world wars and afterwards. Besides the two smaller navies of Japan and South Korea, the combined fleets of Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are also no pushover.

The Chinese thrust towards the Indian Ocean is clearly visible. Pakistan’s Navy and bases are already procured and penetrated, turning Islamabad into a virtual vassal state. The Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb (Asia-Europe gateway) have been fortified. Beijing’s supply of ships and submarines to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar have extended its influence. After its takeover of a Sri Lankan port, at least four Indian Ocean island nations are on the CPC’s radar along with the Persian Gulf states of the UAE and Iran. The UAE, as a crew rest and refit station, is a distinct possibility for its hospitality and growing tech infrastructure.

On the Indian Ocean islands, the actual game starts with the uncharted, uninhabited, untapped and unmapped points, as in the South China Sea. Lucrative long-lease from the ruling class could be irresistible to small islanders. Who can really refuse billions of dollars for leasing barren islands?
As of now, however, the PLA Navy doesn’t have minimum provisions yet for “Sea Command” — for one’s own use and to deny it to the enemy. Thus, despite the vigorous and vitriolic claims over the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake”, the PLA Navy can’t stop the flotillas of the US and its allies from transiting through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

If “Sea Command” doesn’t work, there is always “Sea Control”, implying more realistic control in limited areas, for a shorter duration. For China, this will be in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. For a few nations like Britain and France, which still possess remote islands like the Falklands and British Indian Ocean Territories, and the world-embracing US naval command, the amalgamation of Sea Command and Sea Control have grown into a policy compulsion.

For India, if the PLA Navy starts probing deep into its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), which it is already doing through so-called fishing vessels equipped with modern satellite communication and electronics, what is the best strategy? It could be “Sea Denial”, which normally the weaker navy adopts against a stronger fleet. Like the Pakistani Navy’s constant attempts in the Arabian Sea. For the Indian Navy, however, the strategic threat increases manifold in Pakistan’s “Sea Denial” and China’s “Sea Command/Control”.

Virtually adjacent to India’s EEZ, the main Pakistan-China strategy is to keep the Indian Navy confined to the “brown water zone”. This is what New Delhi simply cannot allow.

Xi Jinping may be getting too big for his boots. He might do better to keep his focus on Taiwan, Tibet and the Taliban, and not venture too far into the Indian Ocean region.

Tags: china's president xi jinping, mao zedong