Many years ago a Chinese General in charge of safeguarding his country’s energy supplies had snapped: “The Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”. China has since taken energetic steps to challenge India’s natural, geographic dominance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China intends to build an impressive naval fleet, spearheaded by 5-6 huge aircraft carriers by 2030. Two of these will always be on station in the Western Pacific and two in the IOR. In one fell stroke, China has secured a naval base on the Arabian Coastline by building the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC) and securing its mouth at Gwadar with a naval base for its prowling submarines.
This one move has transformed the entire geo-political architecture of IOR. The base at Gwadar has been in the news for some time because of the high profile nature of the CPEC economic initiative. What is, however, generally not known is that China has built another naval base at Doraleh in Djibouti, right on the Horn of Africa. The bulk of India’s energy supplies emanates from the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Africa. Chinese naval bases in Djibouti and Gwadar pose a serious threat to these energy life lines. Additionally, China is seeking (or has obtained) naval bases and berthing facilities in Maldives, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Hanguei in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh. The String of Pearls Strategy is not a mere metaphor any more. The Chinese are translating it into hard facts and they have deep pockets that can enable them to buy their way through.
A number of Western countries, including USA and France, have had Naval bases in Djibouti. The US was paying annual rental of $63 million for its base there. China’s Navy muscled into this area under the pretext of anti -piracy operations. China has paid Djibouti $100 million annually to acquire a naval base at Doraleh Port. It spent $540 million to develop this port, which has six births, one of them reserved for the ships of the Chinese Navy. China spent $4 billion to create a gas pipeline, which brings gas from Ethiopia to this Chinese port. In more ways than one, the Djibouti Naval port and pipeline infrastructure mark an extension of the CPEC One Belt-One Road into Africa. Latest reports indicate that the Chinese have installed anti-aircraft guns and missiles at its Djibouti ports. Guns and missiles are not needed to safeguard against pirates. It has also created a battle obstacle course for its soldiers and marines. This indicates the rather disturbing possibility of China also stationing its ground forces at Djibouti.
A very curious report surfaced last year on radio Djibouti. In April 2016, Chinese Admiral Sun Jeanguo visited the Djibouti base. He is the Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department in the Central Military Commission and is in charge of Military Operational planning. He was accompanied by the Deputy Commanders of the newly- raised Rocket Forces and the Western Theatre Command. Now the Western Theatre Command was formed last year by combining the erstwhile Military Regions of Chengdu and Lanzhou—both of which were deployed against India in Tibet and Xinjiang respectively. The Western Theatre Command, therefore, combines all the land and air forces deployed against India and in the event of any conflict in the Himalayas will control operations in the entire land theatre against India. What then was its Deputy Commander doing in the far away naval base of Djibouti? This has intrigued military analysts in India. Is Western Theatre Command HQ located in Lhasa a tri-service command that will also control the Chinese naval forces deployed in the IOR? Does that indicate a grand strategic design to wage massive tri-service operations against India—on land, seas, in the air and outer space.
Is China planning to wage an integrated theatre battle against India in which even as Chinese land forces, air forces and rockets attack across the Himalayas, the units of the PLA navy will seek to strike India’s sea lines of communication and energy and trade supply routes in the IOR. Gwadar and Djibouti Naval bases will play a very major role in these submarine and surface ship strikes. Two Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups could also steam into the IOR. China already has the 60,000-tons aircraft carrier Liaoning with 36 aircrafts on board, some 24 J-15 fighters and 10 helicopters.
The second Chinese aircraft carrier called Shandung will shortly join the fleet. The Chinese are feverishly working on their third aircraft carrier, which is slated to be much bigger. All this seems to signify that the era of small or local wars is over. The Chinese are preparing for major air, land and sea engagements that will be waged concurrently against India in times of a major conflict. Such a war will most definitely not remain confined to the Himalayan mountains. It will be waged on land, sea, air and outer space. It will most likely commence with large-scale cyber attacks. This is hardly the time to bring our defence budget down to 1.63 per cent of our GDP. That was the level it was at before 1962.We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand—or sea for that matter!
Maj. Gen. (Retd) G D Bakshi
War veteran and strategic analyst