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How India can eternalise its predominance in the Indian Ocean

January 11, 2012 09:47 IST

The Maldives will be the nucleus of future security order in the Indian Ocean. Patently the Maldivians will have to migrate before the portended watery grave.

Given what could happen by 2100, it is imperative for India to act in good faith, and also with an eye on our national interest.

India should offer the Maldives statehood within our Union, says M P Anil Kumar.

The People's Republic of China aspires to be the next international hegemon, and therefore it was puzzling to see the Dragon weaselling, coyly, while reacting to the report of a Chinese military base on Mahe in the Indian Ocean island-nation of Seychelles.

By baring its claws and growling now and again, China has inflicted an image disorder upon itself; the bad cop is compelled to impersonate the good cop -- to furbish the surly image. Seychelles-coyness is another try at such extenuation.

Unfortunately for the People's Republic, the dual-use nature of the port-cum-naval facilities (such bases double up as listening posts too) is no secret, and nobody will buy window-dressed Chinese pacifism and the seek-supplies-and-recuperate grade of the facilities.

So, why this coyness di?

By the by, China already has a foot in the Indian Ocean door by bagging 15-year exclusive rights to prospect for polymetallic sulphide over 10,000 square km of seabed from the UN-backed International Seabed Authority. Mind you, Seychelles sits thereabouts (southwest Indian Ocean Ridge) where this rare-earth-rich seabed lies. Mind-read what China is up to.

Every global power needs to string together overseas bases to look after the long-distance logistics of military operations. How Great Britain used the mid-Atlantic waystation Ascension Island to telling effect during the 74-day Falklands War to launch Vulcan bombers as well as to service the British armada.

Baby steps to long sea legs

But for the early 15th century voyages of mariner-Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have been scarce. China lost its maritime strategic marbles thereafter and remained content to lord over the China Seas.

Given this unremarkable history, small wonder the modern Chinese Navy (PLAN) is deficient in something that all major sea powers have -- the expertise to operate without let or hindrance far away from homeports.

While stalking the Somali corsair was the ostensible remit of the first convoy of warships despatched to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, it's actually meant to help PLAN master the ropes of long-distance deployment. Once in the blue water, like any great power, China roped in 'resupply' facilities at Oman, Yemen and Djibouti to service its fleets.

Presently, there are 21 aircraft carriers in active service with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, India, Brazil, Italy, Spain and Thailand. China's retrofitted Admiral Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag has so far sailed out twice for sea trials. Varyag, likely to be rechristened Shi Lang, likely to host 33 Shenyang J-15 aircraft, might need another 15 to 18 months to go operational and tag China to the elite club. More importantly, the induction of Varyag will plug a big hole in China's power projection.

An indigenous aircraft carrier is unarguably a capstone of any nation's technological prowess. PLAN could induct up to three self-born carriers by 2025. Before that, the nuts, bolts and rivets of long-distance logistics need to be hooked up. That explains China's frenetic pursuit of ports and bases (Sonadia Island in Bangladesh, Kyaukpyu and Coco Islands in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Marao Island in Maldives, and now Mahe in the Seychelles).

China's turbocharged military modernisation and expeditious acquisition of gamechanging strategic assets like the carriers are perfectly in tune with the new Chinese strategy of 'far sea denial'. Besides, the other major objectives of this muscular naval build-up are:

  • By policing the vital sea lines of communication about the Strait of Malacca and beyond, PLAN can ensure unencumbered transit and commerce;
  • The carriers will propel PLAN into an expeditionary force. Having unfastened its energy, mineral and business interests across the seven seas, the carriers will circumnavigate, do the nautical rounds, to ensure that no one messes with Chinese interests;
  • Gunboat diplomacy: To wield the military-goad to prod South Korea (Ieodo Island), Japan (Senkaku), Vietnam (Paracel), Philippines (Spratly), etc, to resolve festering disputes, of course to the sole satisfaction of China;
  • It's a shot across America's bows. And India's -- the Dragon has arrived and it shall not brook challenge to its ascent as the top dog.
  • Like the UK and the US, China has grasped, albeit behindhand, the measure of the Indian Ocean in the global scheme, and knows they need strategic depth in the IOR to outflank their adversaries in the Game great powers play.

    From now on, the Chinese naval and maritime assets in the IOR will swell gradually; although the Indian Navy will have the bulge on them, PLAN could become a destabilising force here in another 15 years. India has time on her hands to batten down the hatches.

    While PLAN augmentation in the IOR, among other effects, will haul the Indian Navy face to face with the Chinese navy, the worst-case scenario is the ganging up of the navies of China and Pakistan to confront our navy forcing us to expend considerable resources to trip up the Sino-Pak tango.

    To counterbalance, India needs to invest economic, diplomatic and military capital to engage the Indian Ocean island-nations of Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and the Maldives.

    Seafood for thought

    India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982. It gives every coastal State the right to establish its territorial sea up to a limit of 12 nautical miles, contiguous zone up to 24 nautical miles from the baselines, and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles.

    Under UNCLOS, nations have rights to the continental shelf up to 350 nautical miles from the coastal baseline beyond the EEZ though such areas are not part of their EEZ.

    Besides, the stipulations of the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and other Maritime Zones Act of 1976, have provisioned and allocated India a mine site of 150,000 sq km in the central Indian Ocean for exploration and development.

    The British understood the strategic pivot of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and they strained to cling to it by resettling kinsfolk of Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese extraction on the islands -- to create a nation. These islands joined the Indian Union in 1956 once the Royal Air Force handed the Car Nicobar airbase -- which had been a staging post for the movement of troops and equipment between the Middle East and the Pacific -- over to India.

    Andaman and Nicobar have been an infinite boon to us; look at how it has expanded our EEZ and helped us to base our forces almost at the entryway to the Strait of Malacca.

    Located at the virtual centre of the Indian Ocean, the first superpower and past master Britain worked the geostrategic scope of the Maldives. In 1941, during the Second World War, the British Raj developed a naval and air base at Gan Island on the Addu atoll of Maldives. Till 1976, the Gan complex remained a military hub and a communication facility for both Britain and her Cold War allies.

    Straddling the vital sea lines of communication between the Middle East and East Asia, the Maldives will be the nucleus of future security order in the Indian Ocean. The nation of Maldives is essentially an archipelago comprising 1,192 small islands, supporting a population of 300,000. The boffins probing global warming and climate change have warned that rising waters will encroach and submerge the island nation in about a century. The way enervating waves of the 2004 tsunami engulfed these dwarfish islands almost presaged what might happen.

    Patently the Maldivians will have to migrate before the portended watery grave. And their destination can only be India. And the grapevine has betokened the beginning of the relocation.

    Given what could happen by the year 2100, it is imperative for India to act in good faith, and also with an eye on our national interest. India should offer Maldives statehood within our Union. This move, apart from letting the Maldivians resettle on the mainland with minimum legal fuss will help to extend India's EEZ. A win-win prospect for both parties.

    Superpower United States ached to establish a military outpost in the Indian Ocean, zeroed in on the Aldabra Islands in southwest Seychelles first, but opted for a more apt isle later. Situated approximately 270 nautical miles south of the Maldives is the Chagos archipelago, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

    In December 1966, Britain and the US executed an agreement allowing the US the use of BIOT for defence purposes for 50 years followed by an optional extension of 20 years. The US has converted just one atoll -- Diego Garcia -- into a military facility. The optional extension will expire in 2036.

    A favourable outcome may seem iffy for the nonce, but in two decades, a hefty India can assuredly talk, if not inveigle, atrophied Britain and America into transferring the ownership of Chagos. More EEZ.

    Even if they decline, India can ask for the belt of waters surrounding the archipelago to be converted into mare nostrum. Yep, the EEZ pitch is a decoy.

    For this landsman, Maldives and Chagos are also about outstretching our strategic depth beyond the middle reaches of the Indian Ocean, thus elbowing aside China to the periphery.

    We have the ball at our feet, but bet, we will have to dribble deftly to eternalise our predominance in the Indian Ocean.

    M P Anil Kumar is a former pilot with the Indian Air Force. You can read his amazing story here.

    M P Anil Kumar