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China’s Expanding Horizons

January 11, 2010

In December of 2009, the Chinese president Hu Jintao inaugurated the Turkmenistan –Xinjiang gas pipeline. This 1800 kilometer gas pipeline will pass through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on to Xinjiang. By the time the whole project is completed in 2013, Turkmenistan will export 40bn cubic meters of gas to China. This will cater to fifty percent of China’s energy needs. This is the first time that Turkmenistan is not depending on Russia for exports. China in this sense has become a major player in the region. China will in effect import more than fifty percent of Turkmenistan’s gas exports at 70bn cubic meters of gas. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will be major beneficiaries as they shall be earning substantial revenue in terms of transit fees. Russia is feeling left out and finds China a threat to its regional influence. The west is of course wary of China in that while they have been hankering for the Turkmenistan’s oil cache, and their forays into Afghanistan are an effort to unlock the central Asian gas, they find that the Chinese have already managed to get into the region in a big way. This will mean Chinese access to cheap energy with limited transportation cost and security of the pipeline not really an issue. This could further increase China’s competitiveness in the world market and could catapult the Chinese economy to greater heights. As it were, China has become the largest exporter in the world overtaking Germany. Undercutting could further lead to increase in Chinese exports worldwide and increased economic might will mean greater say in international affairs. The Kazak president quipped that this pipeline has as much political significance as economic. China has shrewdly managed to make their borders with Central Asian republics tension free by floating the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO), for China realizes that its focus should be away from its western borders.

China, however wants to secure the sea route that the world is using, from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and on to the South China Sea. The much discussed String of Pearls strategy that Beijing is pursuing is as much a challenge to India’s influence in the Indian Ocean including the Strait of Malacca as it is to the west. The string of pearls is really Chinese presence along the route from the Strait of Hormuz down to the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s over dependence on Karachi as a sea port is strategically untenable and therefore the Chinese have invested heavily in Gwadar that is close to the Strait of Hormuz. While this could be a great economic opportunity the more important reason for the billion dollar investment in Gwadar is strategic. Down south in Sri Lanka the Chinese have invested heavily into the deep sea port of Hambantota, president Rajapakse’s constituency. This is the second pearl in the String of Pearls. It is strategically located and would increase Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean from a vantage point. Once it is complete, huge frigates will be able to dock in this sea port that may eventually rival Colombo for commercial space too. But from the Chinese point of view, this is a strategic investment and security issues get primacy over commerce. The Indian government had objected to the development of Hambantota but the Sri Lankan government rejected India’s plea.

Burma is an extension of China. The close Chinese ties with the Burmese junta are well known. The Chinese have developed Sittwe as a deep sea port and Chinese fleet regularly dock there. The Strait of Malacca is strategically important and the Burmese ports help the Chinese keep a tab on the Strait. India has a presence in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and have fighter aircrafts stationed but the Chinese naval presence dwarfs any Indian strategic assertion. The Chinese have a SIGNET listening device in Burmese Coco and the Great Coco Islands to keep a tab on Indian strategically important Sriharikota missile testing facilities. The Chinese are also developing the Kyaukpyu port on Ramree Island in the Bay of Bengal. This is going to be a deep water sea port with a depth of at least twenty meters. They plan to build a road to Yunnan Province with a view to transport Burmese gas.  This is another of the pearls in the string of pearls.

Chittagong in Bangladesh also interested the Chinese and till the BNP was in power this port was being developed by the Chinese as one for their strategic needs. However, with the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina taking over the reign of power, the Chinese influence in Bangladesh has been restricted. There is a tug of war going on for influence in Dhaka and the situation is far from stable. There was a report of a possible coup attempt in Bangladesh. China would hate to see a pro-India government in Dhaka. Chittagong sea port is vitally important from the Chinese perspective.

Chinese influence in Cambodia and Vietnam is also strategically important and while this ensures security of sea lanes and therefore an uninterrupted supply of oil and gas to the expanding Chinese economy, it also gives strategic depth Chinese regional influence. The whole exercise is aimed at encircling India, a country that is viewed as a threat by Beijing. If one looks at Myanmar as an extension of China, which it is, then one realizes that from Tibet in the north, Burma in the East, Sri Lanka in the South and Pakistan in the West, the Dragon has encircled India from all sides. Nepal is another area of concern for India as the Maoists have taken over Kathmandu. The murder of King Birendra was a big blow to India and the Indian security concerns have taken a serious jolt ever since. India is trying to claw back in Kathmandu, but it is going to be an uphill task.

Islamabad is becoming bold and is trying to shrug off its dependence on Washington. The Americans have started to complain about the ‘harassment’ to their diplomatic and military personnel. Were Beijing to extend economic guarantee to Pakistan, Islamabad will not hesitate to call off the American bogey and refuse all help in their ‘war against terror’.

With a Prime Minister who is as fluent in Mandarin as he is with English, Canberra is increasingly veering towards China when it comes to Australian position vis-à-vis India. The spate of attacks against Indians in Australia could have a political angle to them and not just a racial slur.

Even in Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf has been propped up by Beijing to challenge the influence of the west. Taiwan is being threatened on a regular basis by their brothers across the sea. Taipei is being told not to arm itself, and the west is listening. Taiwan may have received a $6 billion defence package from Washington including the vitally important Patriot missile defence system, but Obama recently vetoed the sale of F-16’s to Taipei. The news is that now they are going in for the French Mirages. China on its part has recently tested its own missile defence system.

Chinese have not only made strategic moves to increase their regional influence. They have started to nibble away at the Indian territory. There is a report in the Times of India of 11th Jan, 2010, which states that Indian territory has shrunk along the Indo-Chinese border and the Chinese have moved in leading to a loss of vital landmass. There have been reports earlier that the People’s Liberation Army of China has objected to India building roads on its side of the border in Ladakh. This expansionist policy of Beijing has found little resistance from New Delhi. Such East Asia experts from the JNU as Alka Acharya see this as difference in perception between the two sides, India and China on the exact border and there has been no exchange of maps between the two countries for long. The truth is that China has always tried to brow-beat India into submission and this loss of territory in the north could mean a blow to India’s strategic interests in the region. The Shaksgam Tract is already with China and this movement south by the Chinese troops rob India of vital strategic depth.

India needs to check Chinese expansionism which is direct threat to Indian and western interests in the region. China is looking at the region as it will be twenty years from now. India should not hesitate to make moves that will limit China’s growing influence in the region that is a direct challenge to India in its own backyard.

Update 12.01.2010: The frosty relation between India and China has come to the fore when three Chinese engineers were arrested for the accident at BALCO in Korba in which the chimney of the plant fell killing more than forty people. China has reciprocated by detaining (read arrested) 21 Indian diamond traders hailing from Gujarat in Shenzhen.  They have been charged with ‘smuggling’. The Chinese will give consular access to the Indians detained on Wednesday.


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