Guest Column | Choking the Choke Points

To counter Chinese dominance in the IOR, India should develop the Andaman Nicobar Command into a potent base

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd)

Quoting Hugh White, Robert Kaplan has mentioned in his popular book Asia’s Cauldron, ‘It is a world where sea denial is cheaper and easier to accomplish than sea control, so that lesser powers like China and India may be able to check ambitions of a power like the United States, and submarines and mines and land-based missiles may combine to inhibit the use of aircraft carriers and other large surface warships.’

It is not a coincidence that China’s Military Strategy paper of May 2015 identifies its present geographical constraint and has taken a deliberate decision to develop her maritime forces describing it as ‘Critical Security Domain’. Why is it so critical to China?

China’s Military Strategy Paper of 26 May 2015 says that: ‘The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned; the great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern military force structure commensurate with the national security and development interests; safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests; protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.’

Subsequent to publication of this strategy paper China has pursued her objectives in the near sea i.e., South China Sea/ East Sea and gradually moving towards Indian Ocean region (IOR) thereby transiting towards ‘….PLA Navy will gradually shift its focus from offshore water defence to the combination of offshore waters defence with open sea protection, and build a combined, multifunctional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counter-attack, maritime manoeuvres, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

It is in these contexts that China, through soft power and other means, persuades its neighbours to accept the idea of a dominant Chinese role in the East Asian and larger Indo Pacific order. In the present, it is the US which needs a more forceful response to Beijing’s nationalistic aggressive behaviour. In an opinion column the Wall Street Journal wrote on 25-27 September 2015, ‘the US needs a more forceful response befitting a rival that wants to be a regional hegemon and eventually the world’s dominant power. This does not mean setting on a path of hostility and war. Both countries have much to gain from cooperation. But this does not mean pushing back firmly against predatory behaviour, especially on national security.’ At present the world has to wait for the course which Trump administration will steer in these choppy seas. If tweets and rhetoric are anything to go by, China may have unrestrictive passage.

China has always exploited the time-frame between regime changes worldwide to its strategic advantage. These range from exploitation of the economic disadvantages of target countries to providing military hardware and soft loans to make them dependent which would be to her strategic advantage in future.

Very early, the Chinese realised their vulnerability of energy needs, mainly hydrocarbons, being import dependent. It is to overcome this vulnerability that China constructed pipelines to Kazakhstan and Russia, took control of Gwadar port in Pakistan and built first overseas naval base in Djibouti. Gwadar and Djibouti provide China the ability to keep under surveillance the two most important choke points in the IOR which could be used by adversarial powers in times of confrontational stand off to restrict her flow of trade and oil.

However, that did not address her ‘Malacca Dilemma’. Despite the efforts to create alternate routes for energy flow, the Chinese realise their vulnerability in the IOR given the increased need of energy resources in the path of her progress towards realising Chinese dream of becoming a great power. It is now near certain that a permanent surveillance mechanism would be in place in the third most important choke point in the IOR ie Malacca Strait, the other two, Gulf of Aden and Straits of Hormuz having already been addressed.

The Malaysian government has awarded Melaka Gateway deal to little known KAJ Developments and energy giant Power China International, which will form joint venture and spend RM 30 billion to reclaim three islands off Malacca coast. The Straits Times has reported that entire Gateway development will be completed by 2025 but the deep sea port is expected to be ready by 2019.

The Malaysian government of Najib Razak has claimed that new port is important since Port Klang will be at full capacity by 2020. However, a World Bank study commissioned by the government last year showed that a new port on Malaysia’s west coast is not necessary, as existing facilities have not reached their full capacity. Also, Port Klang and MMC are in the process of expanding the capacity to double its present operations. There have been questions raised of over dependence on China by Datuk Seri Najib who has also struck a loan of RM 55 billion to build a railway line which will link Port Klang on the west to Kunatan Port in Pahang also Teregganu and Kelantan. It is interesting that the reclaimed islands off Malaccan coast is likely to be freehold and the port is likely to be granted 99 years concession, this is rare and generous.

This development seems more to do with military strategy rather than commercial just as CPEC/Gwadar and Djibouti/ Africa, Gulf of Aden.

 Gen. Hj Zulkifeli Bin Mohd Zin
Malaysia’s chief of defence forces Gen. Hj Zulkifeli Bin Mohd Zin

In the overall analysis the Chinese presence in the three choke points of the IOR would be near complete. The economic aid to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives are likely to benefit China in obtaining equity in strategic infrastructure since the repayment of huge loans and interests will be virtually impossible for these countries given the downturn in world economy and their own state of growth.

These developments would restrict the manoeuvring space for the Indian Navy in the IOR. The movement of the navy’s missions and those associated with hinterland developmental programmes would be susceptible to surveillance. Given the iron friendship of China with Pakistan adds further to the strategic disadvantage of India. The 2004 Maritime Doctrine of the Indian Navy articulates her focus to control the choke points at the entrance of Indian Ocean around southern Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the straits connecting Indian and Pacific Oceans as these would be useful bargaining chip (particularly against Chinese assertiveness on land borders).

Long held view that the navy’s force structure would be capable of influencing land battles and performing a constabulary role with present force structure needs re-evaluation by Delhi given China’s growing control on three strategic choke points and increasing possibility of Pakistan turning into a Chinese proxy state. If the choke points hold the key to Indian maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean, it will be inevitable but to increase the force levels of nuclear submarines, surveillance satellites, maritime patrol and long range anti-submarine fixed wing aircraft.

The development of Andaman Nicobar Command into a potent base could provide strategic advantage. A clear shift towards maritime cooperation between India and China along the SLOCs would be in the interest of both countries and peace and stability in the region.

(The writer is former C-in-C, Western Naval Command & chief of Integrated Defence Staff)


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