Council for Strategic Affairs

Council for Strategic Affairs


December 2011 was the epochal month during which the Chinese neo-imperialistic ambitions were  un-peeled very predictably like the layers of an onion. It started with a Chinese military delegation, headed by the Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie quietly visiting the Seychelles on December 1st 2011. He signed a bilateral  agreement to set up a Chinese naval base in the Seychelles for counter-piracy operations. This was followed by Hu Jintao’s December 6th pronouncement; while addressing the PLA Navy (PLAN) he said that PLAN should make “extended preparations for warfare in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security”. The statement was immediately denounced by the US that demanded more transparency on Chinese intentions.  Chinese claimed misinterpretation of the original statement. Apparently, there is no equivalent word for transparency in Mandarin. Concept of transparency is “Greek” to the Chinese  political & military establishment. Ridiculing the Western criticism, one Chinese analyst Mao Xiaogang made a bellicose statement: ”It is common to see some irresponsible hype and smears around the world aimed at China’s military development, especially the so-called transparency matter. China’s announcement at such an opportune moment is transparent enough”.

The “outing” of the Chinese naval base by the Indian press on December 12th  forced  China to issue a “non-denial” denial. China acknowledged the establishment of a “supply and recuperation facility” in the Seychelles. The Seychelles comprises of 115 islands and is the smallest African country with a population of 85,000 and an army of only 500. The Seychelles government acknowledged the establishment of  a  Chinese naval base ostensibly to crack down on piracy. The Chinese Ministry of Defense tried to  sanitize this  in a statement: “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”. China acknowledged that it already has “re-supply facilities” at harbors in Dijbouti, Oman & Yemen since 2008 when China sent its first naval convoy to Gulf of Aden apparently in an anti-piracy measure. 

China repeatedly stressed that this move did not equate to establishing overseas military bases. China has used a fig-leaf of anti-piracy operations to cover the nakedness its strategic ambitions. It is not going to stop at the Seychelles alone. China plans to establish military bases in other countries also. Despite Chinese insistence that China would not station its troops abroad, we see a pattern of China expressing commercial or economic interests in a territory (land, sea, air, space) as Chinese asset, sending PLA soldiers there to safeguard its commercial interests and claiming sovereignty subsequently.  Professor Shen Dingli from Fudan University has openly advocated the need for China to establish military bases overseas. 

Analogous to  the Japanese euphemism of “comfort women” for Korean sex slaves during the World War II, China calls its military bases as “supply and recuperation facilities”. Of Course, Chinese overseas military bases are very different from the US or  Russian military bases because they are indeed part of “extended preparations for warfare in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security”. Per Chinese rhetoric these supply facilities will never be used for aggression because they have the essential “Chinese characteristic” of serving the Chinese core interests of safeguarding the “divine” Chinese Ocean sovereignty in the Indian Ocean!
String of Pearls is not fervent imagination of delirious minds of hypercritical analysts. It is a long-term strategy that is sequentially unfolding. The façade of trade-oriented commercial ports will be replaced by loud, vociferous and triumphant announcements of China’s core interests requiring conversion to naval bases. There was no “objective evidence” that the China’s first aircraft carrier when purchased in 1998 from Ukraine  would be deployed as a naval asset. China had deceptively and fraudulently claimed  that it would be converted into a floating casino!  Currently the Chinese aircraft carrier is undergoing sea trials. So  much for the “so-called transparency issues”. Although  China has rejected Pakistani exhortations to “please develop a naval base at the Gwadar port”; that is bound to happen in next few years. Chinese “peace and harmony”  rhetoric and its strategic actions are always diametrically opposite.  The predictable pattern is that of initial stonewalling, hostile denials, indignant & abusive comments followed by gradual  but late triumphant proclamations of  Chinese core interests demanding strong action against the enemies.

Pursuing modernization, China has become de facto number two naval power. The PLA navy’s goal is to have a “Thousand Ships Navy”. This  stated “TSN” Goal is to further Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and exploit the mineral & hydrocarbon wealth in the international seabeds. China has already signed an agreement with the UN backed International Seabed Authority to gain exclusive rights to explore poly-metallic sulfide ore deposits in 10,000 square-kilometers of international seabed in Indian Ocean for the next 15 years. China will use its naval base in the Seychelles to claim sovereignty over the Indian Ocean using this contract as the legal basis. If Chinese creeping pattern of expanding its sovereign territory is genuinely understood, it would not be surprising if in the year 2112, China claims the entire Indian Ocean as its sovereign territory and may rename it as  “South Tibet Sea” analogous to China’s characterization of Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet.

China is a rising hegemon that is no longer ashamed of asserting its imperialistic ambitions.  China’s list of core interests is rapidly expanding.   Assertion of China’s Ocean sovereignty as a new core interest issue has been vociferously advocated in last few years. China has disputes with the ASEAN countries about the ownership various atolls and islands and their hydrocarbon and mineral potential. It refuses to deal with these claims in multi-lateral fora and wants to bully the smaller countries bilaterally. China also warned India against exploring hydrocarbon drilling in collaboration with Vietnam in South China Sea. China’s blockade of Taiwan strait in 1996 and raining missiles across the strait is an indicator of Chinese strategic response pattern.  In a  belligerent article published in the Beijing Daily, Mao Xiaogang articulates this: The PLA Navy will forever act in accordance with its duty in regard to China’s Ocean sovereignty and interests with no fear and flinch upon any interference and will ensure the safety of national interests by virtue of its own distinct views and powerful strength”.

Historically, India never shared land border with the middle kingdom till 1949. In ancient and medieval times, Indo-Tibetan border was very porous and was part of the great Indic religious civilization. While Tibetan Buddhist monks and lamas visited northern India for spiritual enlightenment in the Land of Buddha,  Hindus never needed Chinese visa for pilgrimage to Mouth Kailash & Man Sarovar Lake.  Tibet once was under the suzerainty of the Dogra Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir whose official title included the “Deshaadhipati of Tibet”. Since the Chinese occupation and annexation of Tibet in the nineteen fifties, entire Tibet has become a vast Chinese military garrison. 

Indo-Tibetan Border has been heavily fortified and militarized by China. China has built permanent military-cum-civilian infrastructure in the so-called Autonomous Tibetan Region (ATR) which should be aptly called China-Occupied Tibet (COT).  While India foolishly chose to leave Indo-Tibetan border undeveloped in both eastern and western sectors to “deter” aggression, China has constructed military barracks and motorable roads that can move tanks and heavy armored vehicles along the entire Into-Tibetan border. All this so-called civilian infrastructure development in the occupied Tibet has military applications. China has built five air ports along the Indo-Tibetan borders.  The Beijing-Lhasa rail-road connects the Chinese heartland with the Occupied Tibet and has military significance besides being a tourist attraction. In the event of hostilities, this rail-road would not be carrying tourists or the western war correspondents. China further plans to extend this Beijing-Lhasa rail-road into Nepal and indeed very close to Indian borders. PLA routinely conducts high altitude military exercises  in the occupied Tibet. There are frequent incursions of the PLA soldiers inside Indian territory across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with repeated damage to Indian civilian & military infra-structure in both Eastern and Western sectors. 

Since Pakistan ceded part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to China in 1961, it has built the Korrakoram highway to facilitate Chinese access to warm water port of Karachi. Though China has denied it consistently, PLA has at least 10,000 troops stationed in the Pak-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in the northern territories. These developments amount to China de facto establishing an army base in the POK. Presence of Chinese troops in POK indeed poses a military and security threat to India as POK is an illegally occupied territory by Pakistan.

India is going through internal political turmoil, uncertainty and leadership crisis that is not conducive to long-term strategic planning. India’s current political leadership has been in deep slumber and has been totally unresponsive to China’s persistent and purposeful hegemonic behavior in India’s sphere of influence. A situation has developed whereby India is forced to react to Chinese aggressive postures by adopting an ostrich like approach. India has either denied strategic significance to Chinese moves or tried to minimize the significance by buying the Chinese fibs for explanation. The Prime Minister denied last year the possibility of China attacking India under any conceivable circumstance. Ministry of External affairs has become an excellent spokesperson for mouthing Chinese core interests. Indian Defense Ministry has repeated denied about the Chinese incursions into Indian territory. This defeatist mindset was amply demonstrated by yet another Pavlovian denial of geo-political reality that India and China are strategic adversaries by Shiv Shankar Menon, the NSA, who claimed that such determinism is “misplaced”.  

Admittedly, in the bilateral and multilateral diplomatic dances with the Dragon, India’s political leadership and bureaucratic mandarins may be forced to indulge in verbal hyper-gymnastics;  India’s security establishment & non-governmental strategic community must not allow the repetition of the strategic blindness India suffered from in the nineteen fifties and sixties.  Owing to India’s vulnerabilities and current strategic weakness, the Government of India continues to appease China while secretly hoping that the numerous strategic threats posed by an aggressive and expansionist China will somehow disappear. Some strategic experts have rightly cautioned that the carefully choreographed Dragonese Dance may culminate in a full-fledged attack on India while India’s political leadership and Defense Ministry establishment are doing their level best to purposefully humiliate India’s Chief of Army and thereby demoralize the Indian soldiers. The public display of the “dirty linen” about the Army chief’s date of birth issue by the Indian defense ministry will embolden China to strike at India, yet again, at an opportune moment just like in 1962.

For the last several years the Indian Defense Ministry has been in a persistent vegetative state leading to strategic asymmetry with China. Future Governments of India will have to rectify this inertia and take corrective measures to increase India’s comprehensive national power.  The self-induced coma of the Indian defense establishment needs emergency interventions on “war footings”. Future Governments of India will have to make tough decisions and increase the budgetary allocation for the defense sector by many-folds. Military modernization must be accelerated despite the pernicious and ever-hanging issue of corruption in defense procurements. India must leapfrog the military preparedness and indigenous weapons design and production. We do need long-term strategic planning and prepare the nation for the multi-dimensional strategic challenges posed by China in the Indian Ocean, in the POK, on the Indo-Tibetan border, in Myanmar, in South China Sea, in the Indo-Pacific  region, in the air, in the field of long-range ballistic missiles, in cyberspace, and in militarization of the space. 



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