China's access to the Indian Ocean

Published: Fri, 11/24/2017 - 08:11 Updated: Fri, 11/24/2017 - 08:12

China cannot give up its newly- won access to the Indian Ocean and Myanmar's strategic importance to Beijing cannot, therefore, be overestimated.More than 60 per cent of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East’s oil field to China, Japan and other strong economies in the region, as does 70 per cent of all container traffic to and from the Asian industrial countries and the rest of the world.While traffic across the Atlantic has diminished and that across the Pacific is static, trade across the Indian Ocean is increasing. Parts of the ocean, especially in the west around the horn of Africa and next to the Strait of Malacca in the east, are areas where pirates are active and terrorists have been shipping arms to various conflict zones in the region, which has prompted tighter regional co-operation. But there are more fundamental, geopolitical, threats to stability in the Indian Ocean. Not only the United States but also Japan and India distrust China. For India, It began with the border conflicts which culminated in the 1962 War and Japan has for decades been involved in a dispute with China on the ownership of a group of islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese.

With two nationalists now as prime ministers of their respective countries, Shinzo Abe of Japan since December 2012 and Narendra Modi of India since 2014, the battle of lines and alliances have become clearer.Although regional naval cooperation actually began in 2007 with annual joint exercises, called Exercise Malabar, by India, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and the United States, they were initially held with relatively informal arrangements in the sea of Japan. But, in 2015, Exercise Malabar was upgraded, with more participants after an agreement between Modi and Obama, and a joint naval exercise was held by the United States, India, and Japan in the Bay of Bengal.


The future of the Kyaukphyu port facility and the pipelines for the oil and gas that China has built from there to Yunnan to bypass the potential chokepoint at the Malacca Strait, through which most of its oil supplies now have to go, is also not clear since the Myanmar government has adopted a new foreign policy and the country no longer wants to be seen as a Chinese client state.



India’s Fleet is the strongest in the region, with aircraft carriers, submarines and over 90 other kinds of ships. The Indian Navy is currently undergoing a modernization drive to upgrade its submarines and other vessels, especially those that can detect foreign submarines. Meanwhile, China has invested in a number of port projects in the region: Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and, most important of them all, Gwadar in Pakistan. The deep sea port in Gwadar combined with the Karakoram Highway, which was opened 1979 and connects Northern Pakistan with Xinjiang, gives western China a direct outlet to the Indian Ocean.China is basically a huge inland empire with a relatively short coastline for a country of its size and its landlocked inland provinces depend on outlets through neighboring countries for trade with the outside world.Kyaukpyu in Myanmar was designed to fulfill the same function for Yunnan and other southwestern Chinese provinces, from where it is a long way to China’s own ports. Chinese plans to open a trade route from Tibet through Sikkim down to the port of Kolkata have not been met with enthusiasm in India and may never materialize.

The future of the Kyaukphyu port facility and the pipelines for the oil and gas that China has built from there to Yunnan to bypass the potential chokepoint at the Malacca Strait, through which most of its oil supplies now have to go, is also not clear since the Myanmar government has adopted a new foreign policy and the country no longer wants to be seen as a Chinese client state.So, while arms continue to flow to the UWSA, here, too, as in India’s northeast, China does not want to see another war break out. It is China’s way of putting pressure on its neighbors in order to exert its influence over them in the post-Mao era.

It may seem as if China’s interests are only about trade and economic development, but given the importance of the transportation of China’s oil supplies from the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that Beijing is also pursuing a defence umbrella to secure such vital lines of communications.In 2005, the US consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton coined the expression ‘String of Pearls’ to describe China’s port project in the Indian Ocean, Which now also include Obock in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.China calls the new initiatives ‘The Maritime Silk Road” and the ‘One belt One Road’ and reiterates its assertion that its only aim is to peacefully promote trade in the region.

The port project in Obock will, according to China’s own admission, become a base for the anti-piracy operations which its fleet carries out in the area and therefore, represents no threat to other powers. But Obock will nevertheless be China’s first military base abroad, as Chinese plane will be stationed there. Even Gwadar will have an airfield and combined with the facility at Obock, this means increased freedom of movement for the Chinese Air Force outside the country. The US is already in the area, in Djibouti as well as on Diego Garcia, a British possession in the Indian Ocean where it established a large air and naval base in the 1970s. Diego Garcia has been used extensively during the United States’ war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Chinese submarines have already been observed in the Indian Ocean, mainly around the Andaman and Nicobar islands, north of the entrance to the Strait of Malacca. The Indian Navy says it encounters Chinese submarines at least once a month, which is not so surprising given the volume of Chinese trade and oil supplies through the Indian Ocean. But it is a completely new development in a maritime region where, only two decades ago, China was not present at all. India and the United States now co-operate to detect and identity Chinese submarines. 

China cannot give up its newly- won access to the Indian Ocean and Myanmar's strategic importance to Beijing cannot, therefore, be overestimated.More than 60 per cent of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East’s oil field to China, Japan and other strong economies in the region, as does 70 per cent of all container traffic to and from the Asian industrial countries

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