Amid all the Chinese manoeuvring to extend its economic and political footprint, the Chinese navy has held out an offer to India to jointly maintain the security of the Indian Ocean. “It is my opinion China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” Capt Liang Tianjun, Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet told a group of visiting Indian journalists recently. His remarks came as China’s Navy embarked on a massive expansion to extend its global reach. Liang also explained the growing forays of the Chinese warships and submarines into the Indian Ocean, where China for the first time established a naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Defending the first Chinese overseas naval base against criticism that it would amplify China’s growing influence, he said it will act as a logistics centre and support anti-piracy, UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief missions in the region. India has indeed learnt over time to take Chinese claims with a pinch of salt so India is not jumping at the the pious intent being projected. The theory that China is in the process of surrounding India with a string of naval bases is causing understandable apprehension in this country.
The role of the Chinese Navy is increasing as China’s 2.3 million strong Army, the world’s largest, recently announced plans to downsize the strength of its troops to under a million. Under the new plan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will increase the numbers of other services, including the Navy and missile forces. Both are expected to get the lion’s share of the annual defence budget which last year amounted to $152 billion, second only to the US.
The South Sea Fleet is also responsible for keeping an eye on the resource-rich South China Sea where China has maritime disputes with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. China claims almost all of the South China Sea and is currently building multiple artificial islands in the area to control them as more than half of the world’s annual cargo fleet passes through it. The Chinese game plan is to control the waterways so that it can extend its hegemony over much of the world through the control of trade routes. It is a strategy that India cannot but be wary of, since it would jeopardize Indian strategic and economic interests.