By Alex Vines

When Jean-Paul Adam, the Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister, announced in December that his country had invited China to set up a military presence in his country, Indian, American and Taiwanese policy analysts wrote that this was further evidence of a "string of pearls" strategy to encircle India with naval bases leased by China.

It is worth reflecting on where the "string of pearls" concept comes from. Not from China and, although it is a fixation in some New Delhi policy circles, it is not an Indian strategic concept. It appeared first in 2005 in the report Energy Futures in Asia pre-pared for the US Secretary of Defence by a Washington-based consultancy, Booz Allen Hamilton.

The United States over the past decade has been encouraging India to beef up its naval efforts in the Indian Ocean, as it finds its naval assets increasingly overstretched and sees India as a regional balance against China. The Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review welcomed "a more influential role in global affairs" for India, including in the Indian Ocean.

So perhaps the US is encouraging India's paranoia, as part of its efforts to seek burden-sharing partners? It is correct to say that China has been developing political and commercial interests across the Indian Ocean over the past decade, including closer relations with Pakistan, where the Chinese have built a port at Gwadar. Yet a look at Indian Ocean along its African rim shows that, until recently, India regarded only Mauritius as a strategic partner. In the past few years, India has deepened security and diplomatic co-operation with the Seychelles, South Africa, Madagascar and Mozambique.

Indian naval planners have played up China's intentions in the Indian Ocean to convince their politicians to provide additional resources for naval expansion. India currently sees a modernised navy as supporting its realignment of strategic focus to fit its widening economic and diplomatic interests. The country is planning to spend almost $45 billion over the next 20 years on 103 new warships, including destroyers and nuclear submarines.

India's Maritime Doctrine, published in 2004, has shaped the country's policy in the Indian Ocean. It asserts that all "major powers of this century will seek a toehold in the Indian Ocean region" and envisages an ambient naval presence from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. It also has given particular focus to "choke points" at entrances to the ocean, such as the Mozambique Channel. According to the doctrine, "control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality". The updated doctrine document of August 2009 incorporated new policing operations for the navy, including counter-terrorism operations and anti-piracy missions.

To watch shipping movements along the Mozambique Channel "choke point", India opened its second military listening post on foreign soil in 2007 in northern Madagascar. India has also been in discussions 2012with the Mauritian government about a lease of the Agalega Islands which would officially serve as a high-end tourist resort but could provide an airstrip to serve Indian surveillance aircraft. In August 2009, as part of this strategy, India boosted defence co-operation with the Maldives by agreeing to set up a network of 26 radars across the islands as well as an air station to conduct surveillance flights over the Maldives exclusive economic zone.

Indian naval planners assume that the US military presence on Diego Garcia and the French naval base on La Réunion, buttress their efforts. Since 2001, India has conducted annual joint naval exercises with the French.

The significance of the Indian Ocean to India's economic development and security is immense. Most of India's trade is by sea and nearly 89 per cent of India's oil arrives by ship. India is dependent on oil for roughly 33 per cent of its energy needs, 65 per cent of which it imports. Its coal imports are to also increase substantially. Avoiding disruption of sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean is vital for India's economy.

Indian planners admit they cannot "match China force for force", so need to seek bilateral alliances, maritime domain awareness and network centric operations. Enhancing the security of small island states in the Indian Ocean is part of this strategy.

Chinese commercial and diplomatic efforts in the Seychelles and Mauritius have particularly concerned officials in Delhi. India was alarmed that Chinese President Hu Jintao ended his tour of eight African states in early 2007 by visiting the Seychelles. The Chinese appeared to ignore Indian sensitivities again in February 2009 when Hu's four-nation African tour concluded in Mauritius.

In this multi-polar world, African states also want to attract investment, loans and aid from both China and India. As one African foreign minister from the Indian Ocean region told me: "We benefit from a benign competition between China and India, it allows us to strike better deals and concessions." This is clearly what Mauritius and the Seychelles have been doing, diversifying their commercial and diplomatic relationships.

Even so India's most formidable economic and commercial partnership will remain with Mauritius. Likewise, Mauritius has stressed the "overwhelming importance of India" for its development. Ties between the two countries are particularly close because 68 per cent of its population is of Indian origin. Mauritius is also the single largest off-shore investor in India, accounting for 43 per cent of cumulative foreign fund inflow into India.

Piracy and counter-terrorism feature prominently in India's increasing naval interest in the Indian Ocean. Regular acts of Somali piracy have made its waters the most dangerous in the world for merchant shipping. Indian ships are not immune. The Indian navy deployed a warship to the region from late 2008. The spread of Somali pirates to threaten shipping off India's southwest coast resulted in the Indian navy launching Operation Island Watch, in December 2010, for intensive patrolling of Indian waters.

Since 2008, China has also positioned two frigates and a tender in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. This deployment of the People's Liberation Army Navy started a debate in China on how to provide shore-based logistics support for its fleet operating in the Indian Ocean. Already Salalah in Oman has served as a regular supply port, but the December announcement by the Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister that China was seeking defence resupply facilities there indicates that Beijing has decided that it needs to formalise its logistics support agreements for its naval forces in the Indian Ocean.

So although there is competition, there is no sign that the Chinese are planning any American or French-style bases for a "string of pearls" of Chinese naval facilities stretching from southern China across the Indian Ocean. Their strategy appears benign, seeking agreements allowing access to facilities for resupply. Visits to African ports by the Chinese navy lapsed in 2002 but have re-started after anti-piracy operations commenced.

The United States, with its base in Diego Garcia, France and India will remain the major naval powers in the Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. Piracy and international terrorism, and not the rise of China, are the major strategic concern. These require co-operation rather than competition and the Indian Ocean provides ample opportunity for successful co-operation as shown by the US navy and China's navy during anti-piracy operations. We should not be alarmed that the Chinese seek resupply naval facilities in the Seychelles - avoiding disruption of sea lanes for international shipping in the Indian Ocean is vital for all our economies.


Twitter: @ihavenetnews


Copyright © Tribune Media Services

Piracy, not China, the Real Issue in Indian Ocean | Global Viewpoint