The Buzz

China: Getting Ready to Dominate the Indian Ocean?

After a PLA-Navy submarine docked twice in Colombo, Sri Lanka last year, there is anxiety among Indian analysts of a renewed thrust by China for a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi’s policy and strategic circles are abuzz with rumours of a likely Chinese naval base in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Following reports of increased Chinese naval activity off India’s Southern maritime frontiers, New Delhi has even revived the proposal for an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace, in the hope that it would discourage Beijing from adopting a proactive maritime policy in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese maritime forays in the IOR aren’t a new phenomenon. For some time Beijing has been trying to expand its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean. The increasing frequency of Chinese anti-piracy deployments and naval exercises, as well as growing investments in maritime infrastructure projects have burnished China’s image as a maritime player in the region. Yet, thus far, it seemed unlikely China had plans for establishing naval bases.

The recent spurt in Chinese naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, however, has led to whispers of a more pre-emptive PLA-N strategy. A string of naval deployments – including one with the 20,000-ton amphibious ship, the Chengbaishan, and another involving a nuclear submarine – has provided evidence that Beijing has its sights set on dominating the Indian Ocean. As a consequence, Chinese maritime basing in the Indian Ocean is no longer a strategic contingency to be taken lightly.

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The first, in a set of revealing events, is the recent docking of a Chinese submarine at Colombo. While there was much discussion of the geopolitical implications of the visit, key operational details escaped critical analysis. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the Chinese submarine did not dock at the Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) berths in Colombo – mandated to accommodate military vessels – but at the Colombo South Container Terminal (CSCT), a deep-water facility built, controlled and run by a Chinese company, the China Merchants Holdings (International). The CSCT may be well-suited for submarine dockings, but it is also a “Chinese enclave” within a Sri Lankan administered harbor. The presence of the Chinese submarine at the CSCT constituted a violation of protocol, but Sri Lankan authorities were reluctant to describe it as such. The SLPA chairman’s explanation that the submarine needed the extra-depth at the CSCT seemed implausible, considering that the Ming-class diesel-electric’s limited draft rendered it apt for berthing at any of the available SLPA facilities. Moreover, as commentators pointed out, the submarine visit was preceded by the docking of two other Chinese naval vessels at CSCT that Colombo tried hard to keep out of the media glare. This strengthens Indian suspicions that PLA-N assets are being allowed privileged access to Sri Lankan ports funded by Chinese investments.

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Colombo is not the only Sri Lankan port with an exclusively Chinese facility. China also has a controlling stake at Hambantota port, where according to media reports Sri Lanka has agreed to grant Chinese state-owned companies operating rights to four berths in exchange for an easing of loan conditions. Apparently, Colombo handed over control of the port to China without issuing a commercial tender, a fact that took many in the shipping industry by surprise.

Similarly, in Maldives, the Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project, or iHavan, reportedly rides on huge concessional loans and aid financing from China. The loans, apparently, have been awarded at such a high rate of interest that Male is almost certain to default, unless it is offered some kind of unilateral waiver. Yet, it is exactly what Beijing is expected to do, as part of a now established formula of relaxing loan conditions in exchange for control over maritime projects it helps finance.