Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Defense: Interest and concern over Chinese naval visit to Myanmar

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At a time when there is already concern over the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the South and East China Seas, the first port call by two ships of the Chinese Navy in Myanmar while on their way back from anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf has aroused considerable interest and some concern in the neighbouring countries.

2.China has a long history of army-army cooperation with Myanmar, including a militaery supply relationship. It has also been helping Myanmar in building an oil/gas terminal at Kyaukpu off the Arakan coast. The new port, when completed, will place three modern ports at the disposal of China----the other two being Gwadar on the Mekran coast of Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. The Bangladesh Government is interested in securing Chinese assistance for the modernisation of the Chittagong port.

3.Till now, the Chinese authorities and the Governments of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh have projected these ports as purely commercial ventures with no naval significance. Only Pakistan makes no secret of the significance of Gwadar for the navies of Pakistan and China. It hopes that a modern naval base at Gwadar will give the Pakistan Navy a strategic depth by reducing its dependence on the Karachi port, which is vulnerable to attacks by the Indian Navy. It is prepared to offer the proposed naval base at Gwadar to the Chinese Navy for use by its naval ships visiting the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

4.Some retired Chinese naval officers are of the view that a viable Indian Ocean fleet for their navy would require forward bases in this area. How to acquire such bases without adding to the alarm of the US, which is already talking of the Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean area as Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, did during his recent visit to New Delhi? The Chinese have not yet openly reacted to his comments though they reacted quickly and vehemently to the comments of Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, on the Chinese naval assertiveness in the South China Sea at the recent Asean Regional Forum meeting at Hanoi.

5.The US view of the Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean are still confused despite the lucid remarks of Admiral Mullen. While he was clear and forthcoming, Ms.Michele Flournoy, the US Under-Secretary of Defence, was not that forthcoming during her visit to Delhi in the third week of August to prepare for the forthcoming visit of Shri A.K.Antony, our Defence Minister, to the US. She avoided any reference to the Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean area.

6.Her remarks could be interpreted as discouraging any Indian expectation of major Indo-US naval co-operation against Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean as one of the possible results of the forthcoming visit of President Barack Obama to New Delhi coming November. She reportedly told the Indian media on August 10: " There has been tremendous progress in the number of joint exercises, but the need is to make them meaningful so that they are reflective of the real world situation....The exercises must prepare both sides to jointly undertake counter-piracy operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. We also have to respond to maritime security and freedom of navigation against those contesting the accepted rules of the world. We will have to work to prevent that. We have to be prepared in terms of capability."

7.The visit of the two Chinese naval ships to the Yangon port in Myanmar must have been under preparation for some time and could not have been the Chinese way of reacting to the pronouncements of US officials while visiting New Delhi. At the same time, the port call in Myanmar proclaims openly the beginning of Chinese activism, if not assertiveness, in the Indian Ocean region.

8.The Chinese have taken note of the speculation in India and elsewhere as to what the port visit portends. Is it an innocent halt while returning home from the Gulf or does it have a strategic significance? Is it meant to convey a message to the US and the Indian Navies that China has core interests in the Indian Ocean too as it has in the South and East China Seas? This subject should figure in the agenda of the forthcoming talks with Mr.Obama when he visits New Delhi.

9.To calm any frenzied speculation over the Chinese intention, the Party-owned "Global Times", in an editoriial on September 1, has proposed a naval trust-building exercise among the Asian navies.

10.This may pleae be read in continuation of my article dated July 24,2010, titled MONITORING CHINA'S NAVAL ASSERTIVENESS at and article dated August 10,2010, titled "CHINA: A Wake-Up Call for Vietnam & India" at (1-9-10)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.