China’s OBOR initiatives have caused extreme consternation to the US-led West and its allies like Japan, Australia, India, et al. The US feels that the OBOR threatens its economic primacy at the global level. It is now creating newer alignments/alliances to manage, contain and counter this ominous Chinese initiative which epitomises China’s inevitable rise!
The US and its allies are wary of China flexing its economic muscle to position itself in critical choke points/littoral areas of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Asian mainland. They expect these positions to eventually morph into formidable economic-military complexes that will radiate serious threats to their individual national and collective interests. They fear that Chinese strategic reach and influence will ultimately spread into the IOR, mainland Asia, Africa, Europe, and beyond.
The IOR thus acquires enormous strategic dimensions as an arena of future confrontations between China and the US-backed India, with the US hovering portentously in the background. The tussle is on as both aspiring Indian Ocean powers move frantically to occupy key strategic positions in the IOR.
The bulk of global East-West trade including about fifty percent of the world’s sea borne oil trade goes through the Indian Ocean (IO), thus making it one of the most important avenues of trade in the world. Maritime trade corridors through it link the Far East to South and Western Asia (the fossil fuel rich Middle East) and onto Europe and the Americas. It includes about 32.2 million barrels of oil that pass through the Malacca and Hormuz Straits daily, including 84% of China’s oil supplies, 60% of Japan’s and 80%of India’s. The IO will gain further importance as the trade corridors built under China’s CPEC/OBOR initiatives complete the connectivity triad – linking sources of raw materials with industrial zones which in turn will get connected to the markets. This assumes immense importance for landlocked regions like the CARs and Afghanistan as they get connected to the IO/Arabian Sea through Pakistan.
Both China and India are manoeuvring to occupy significant strategic spaces in the IOR by developing deep water ports in the littoral states, acquiring military bases and carrying out exercises/naval patrols/anti-piracy operations throughout the region. China’s ambitions include having a permanent regional presence. Its Strategy of String of Pearls “is a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its SLOCs which extend from China to Port Sudan”. (Wikipaedia). The SLOCs run through several major maritime choke points like the Straits of Lombok, Malacca, Hormuz and Mandeb as well as other maritime centres in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Somalia, Djibouti etc. By establishing itsself on the Makran Coast, China has literally become a two ocean state touching both the Pacific and Indian Oceans – with serious strategic connotations, in particular, for the US-India Combine.
As part of preliminary operations towards containing this Chinese juggernaut the US-India Combine and especially India, is moving feverishly to pre-position itself to secure its SLOCs and vital strategic spaces within the IOR. The Indians have dabbled in the South China Sea conundrum to prove their loyalty (and utility) to the US at the extra regional level. They have acquired access to the US bases at Diego Garcia and in the Persian Gulf, to monitoring facilities in Vietnam, to the Changi Naval Base in Singapore and are further developing their naval and air bases in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands. Malacca Straits thus fall within Indian strategic reach and oversight. A Trilateral Highway will link Assam (India) to Thailand via Myanmar. They are also building the US $ 1 billion Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal road. They are investing US $ 750 million in building the Payra Port in Bangladesh. They have gained access to the Trincomalee Port in Sri Lanka. In 2016 the US and India signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) under which both countries will share facilities, allow the US to base its troops in India and have both militaries operate together. The intention is to highlight maritime security, ensure the freedom of navigation and over flights throughout the region. It also covers submarine safety and not surprisingly, anti-submarine warfare. The Indians and French are collaborating too by giving reciprocal access to their respective naval bases. India now has access to French facilities at Djibouti (bringing the Bab el Mandeb within its strategic reach) and the Reunion Islands. The Indians have a base on the Seychelles (Assumption Islands) at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, thus acquiring a toehold near the Horn of Africa as well.
Does this strategic posturing establish Indian authority in the IOR or is it a classic case of strategic overreach by a desperate, aspiring regional power whose megalomaniac ambitions far outstrip its current capabilities?
Nevertheless, a sub-set of this Indian strategic posturing is the existentialist threat it emanates for Pakistan from the Arabian Sea. India literally straddles the mouth of the Hormuz Straits with its acquisitions of Duqm Base in Oman and the Chahabahar Port in Iran thus bringing the SLOCs to and from it and the CPEC/OBOR projects within its strategic reach and oversight. These bases/positions directly threaten Pakistan and its interests in the region. At Duqm the Indians will have naval, air and logistics facilities including oil storage. At Chahbahar, the Indians have invested huge amounts of money in its development and in the process have got operational control of the Port for eighteen months, initially.
This development portends serious strategic connotations for Pakistan once viewed in the light of the Indo-Iran Defense Pact of 2003 which allows India the use of Iranian bases (Chahbahar- a future military base?) in case of an Indo-Pak war! This Indo-Iran connivance/convergence of interests gives the Indians an undue strategic advantage over Pakistan. It completes India’s double envelopment of Pakistan and presents it with the menacing possibility of a three-front war – India on the eastern borders, in Afghanistan and Iran, in addition to the threat from the Arabian Sea! Potential Indian military bases in Oman and Iran will constitute an existentialist threat to Pakistan and must be dealt with as such!