India’s string of pearls November 26, 2009Posted by southasiamasala in : Brewster, David, India, Maldives , trackback
A recent deal to establish an Indian air base in the Maldives is an important step in India’s goal of creating a network of military facilities and relationships across the Indian Ocean. In August, India signed a defence pact with the Maldives involving the use of the old British airbase on Gan island by Indian naval aircraft and the establishment of a system of electronic monitoring facilities across the country. According to the Maldivian President, the installations are to protect the Maldives’ large EEZ from illegal fishing. Perhaps India is also mindful of the unique position occupied by Maldives, astride the major sea lines of communication between the Middle East and East Asia.
The Maldives base is the latest in a string of military facilities established by India outside of South Asia. In continental Asia, India operates an air base in Tajikistan and electronic monitoring facilities in Mongolia. In the Indian Ocean, India has built a major naval and air base in its own Andaman Islands as well as electronic monitoring facilities in Madagascar. India has also entered into security agreements with Indian Ocean states as far afield as Oman , Mozambique , Mauritius, Seychelles and Indonesia.
India’s strategy in the Indian Ocean arguably has two motivations. First, India is following its ‘manifest destiny’ of gaining naval predominance in the region. Whether India is capable of achieving this ambition remains to be seen. Second, and perhaps more worrying, is India’s strategy of ‘countering’ what it perceives as China’s illegitimate incursions into the Indian Ocean – what has been called China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. The ‘String of Pearls’ – a term coined in a 2003 report to the Pentagon by the Booz Allen consultants – posits that China is building its own string of naval bases and security relationships in the Indian Ocean, including in Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The ‘String of Pearls’ has become a clarion call among many in New Delhi for the need to develop India’s naval capabilities to counter China’s ‘strategic encirclement’ of India. In some quarters, maps of the Indian Ocean are covered with Chinese (and not Indian) flags.
There is a considerable degree of skepticism outside of India about the String of Pearls theory and the level of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. Andrew Selth, for example, has ruthlessly debunked claims about Chinese naval bases in Burma. An examination of China’s plans for its navy also casts doubt on its ability to project significant power into the Indian Ocean for many years to come. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that China faces a major dilemma in relation to the security of its sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean, which carries a large percentage of its total trade, including some 80 per cent or more of its oil imports. This makes China extremely vulnerable in the case of any conflict with India or the United States.
The US seems happy to fuel the flames about China’s ‘String of Pearls.’ Earlier this year, a joke by a Chinese naval officer to his US counterpart that China should take responsibility for maritime security in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean was dutifully reported to the Indian press by Admiral Keating of the US Pacific Command, causing widespread indignation. The US, it seems, would like to see the enhancement of India’s capabilities to interdict Chinese trade in the Indian Ocean as a way of helping to contain China’s strategic ambitions in East Asia.
What does this mean for Australia? Australia has little choice but to accept with good grace the expansion of India’s naval capabilities. There are many potential benefits for Australia in developing a good maritime security relationship with India in addressing small ‘s’ security concerns including piracy, sea-borne terrorism and refugee movements. A Security Declaration between Australia and India could be helpful step in pushing that process along. However, Australia needs to be careful before it buys into any String of Pearls theory. A recent report of “concerns” about China’s “military influence” in East Timor, based on the sale of two 1960s era patrol boats and assistance to the East Timor government in the construction of a landing dock is an example of increasingly fantastical claims about a China ‘threat’ in the Indian Ocean. It seems that, on some maps at least, East Timor may now have a Chinese flag attached to it.
Australia should be extremely wary of such claims and of any attempt by India and the United States to exclude China from the region, including through the formation of a maritime coalition that will inevitably be perceived as being aimed at China. Such a development would be unlikely to reduce China’s interest in Indian Ocean security. Rather, it would only serve to intensify China’s security dilemma, increasing the likelihood of heightened naval tensions, particularly between India and China. The most useful role that Australia could play in all of this might be to facilitate a security arrangement which recognizes China’s legitimate security concerns in the Indian Ocean and which seeks to mitigate China’s dilemma.