By B. Raman
China’s official Xinhua news agency disseminated the following report on December 12,2011:
“China said on Monday that its naval fleet may seek supplies or recuperate at appropriate harbors in Seychelles or other countries as needed during escort missions.
“It is international practice for naval fleets to resupply at the closest port of a nearby state during long-distance missions, the Ministry of National Defense said in a press release commenting on a recent report stating that China will establish a military base in Seychelles to crack down on piracy.
“Chinese naval fleets have resupplied at harbors in Djibouti, Oman and Yemen since the country sent its first convoy to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, according to the ministry
“Defense Minister Liang Guanglie paid an official goodwill visit to Seychelles earlier this month.
“During Liang’s visit, the two sides exchanged views on their countries’ and armies’ cooperation, as well as on the global and regional situation.
“Seychelles appreciates China’s efforts to maintain safe navigation on the Indian Ocean, as well as the support it has granted to Seychelles, the ministry said.
“Seychelles also invited China’s navy to resupply and recuperate in the country during escort missions, the ministry said.”
An article carried the next day by the “China Daily” said:
“The navy is considering taking on supplies in the Seychelles while conducting escort missions to tackle piracy. “Military experts stressed that the move did not equate to establishing military bases."
According to escort needs and the needs of other long-range missions, China will consider seeking supply facilities at appropriate harbors in the Seychelles or other countries,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement on its website on Monday.
“The statement was in response to a recent report that the Seychelles invited China to establish a military base in the Indian Ocean archipelago to crack down on piracy during a visit by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, the first by a Chinese defense minister, earlier this month.
“The Press Trust of India news agency later interpreted this as Beijing reneging on its promise not to build military bases abroad.
“Li Jie, a professor at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told China Daily “as China will not send troops to protect the supply stop in the Seychelles, by no means can it be called an overseas military base”.
“Beijing has repeatedly confirmed that its policy of not stationing troops abroad will not be altered. It stands alone among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in not having overseas bases.
“Due to anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia, it is only natural for Beijing to ensure naval supplies, Li said.”
“Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based military strategist, said facilities allowing ships to take on supplies cannot be called military bases because “China respects the host’s sovereignty and internal politics, and no political conditions are attached”.
“”Besides, it will be solely used for logistics and supplies,” he added.
“Li Qinggong, deputy secretary of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, said that any arrangements over the use of facilities will be mutually beneficial with jobs provided for people in the Seychelles and the navy better able to protect China’s growing overseas interests.”
Chinese naval ships on long-range anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden area do need ports of call for re-stocking, re-fuelling and rest and recreation facilities. Initially, they were using the Karachi port. They have stopped doing so for some months now due to the poor security situation in Karachi, which was highlighted by a terrorist attack on the Pakistani naval air base in May last. They are not going ahead with their original plans for the upgradation of the Gwadar port into a naval base due to the poor security situation in Balochistan.
They are, therefore, now looking for such facilities in safe Gulf ports and may start using Hambantota in Sri Lanka once it is ready for receiving Chinese naval vessels. The Chinese have never made any secret of their interest in port calls in the Indian Ocean area for availing of such facilities. Because of the long distance involved from the waters of China to the patrolling areas in the Gulf of Aden their requirements for re-stocking, re-fuelling and rest and recreation are natural and genuine.
I understand that as a confidence-building measure, the Indian Navy had also invited Chinese naval vessels returning from anti-piracy patrols to make a port call at Kochi. This was a good initiative which I support. While we must carefully monitor the movements and interests of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean area, we should avoid the kind of paranoia created by the ill-advised PTI report.
In a paper presented at a seminar organised by the National Maritime Foundation at Vizag in July last, I had stated as follows: “The indications are that China’s interest in helping the countries of the South Asian region in the development of their port infrastructure is related to its need to ensure the security of its energy supplies from West Asia and Africa. It has no naval power projection dimension at present.
Till now, the main driver of China’s strategic interest in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong has been the perceived need for refuelling, re-stocking and rest and recreation facilities for its oil/gas tankers and naval ships deputed for anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden area. China is not yet interested in an overseas naval base, but is interested in overseas logistic facilities for its oil/gas tankers and for its naval vessels.
Individual retired officers of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) have been talking of the likely long-term need for an overseas naval base in the Indian Ocean area, but the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been discouraging such talk. Presently, the Chinese interest in playing a role in the development of the port infrastructure is not designed to place its Navy in a position as to be able to challenge the primacy presently enjoyed by the Navies of the US and India in the Indian Ocean region.
China has seen as to how the over-assertiveness of its Navy in the South China Sea has had a negative impact on the comfort level of its relations with the ASEAN countries. The Indian Ocean is not comparable to the South China Sea. China has no territorial claims to islands in the Indian Ocean area. It has no disputes relating to fishing and exploration of oil and gas with any of the countries of the Indian Ocean region. China and its Navy are, therefore, welcomed by the countries of the region. This comfortable position could change if China graduates from energy security to power projection in its strategic planning for the Indian Ocean region.
I do not expect this to happen in the short and medium terms (five to 10 years). However, if the Chinese strategic thinking changes in the long-term, what could be the new threats to India and what will be the options for our Navy? We have to start thinking on this.
While reiterating this assessment, I must highlight that there has recently been important statements and comments by President Hu Jintao and Chinese analysts on the need to give priority to further strengthening the Chinese Navy. My present assessment is that these comments are related to the recent re-assertion of the US primacy in the Pacific and the greater interest taken by the US in the South China Sea. They do not seem to be related to Chinese perceptions of any new core interests they may develop in the Indian Ocean region.
Presently, they have core concerns in the Indian Ocean area arising from the activities of the Somali pirates and likely threats to their energy security from pirates and terrorists. They have no core interests in the Indian Ocean area, but developing a capability for power projection in the Indian Ocean to counter the renewed US power projection in the Pacific could become a driving force of their strategic vision in the Indian Ocean region. We need to closely monitor the evolution of Chinese strategic thinking in this regard.
About the author:
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com