India Advances Ill-Conceived Plan to Project Military and Economic Power into the Seas

Last week, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo met in Jakarta to set in motion a train wreck.

The two countries agreed that India would build an economic zone and naval base at Sabang, a small island north of Aceh. The key element here is that Sabang is at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, and it is through these straits that $3 trillion of goods travels each year. Half of all the world’s seaborne trade goes through these straits. These narrow waters are crucial to the trade between East Asia—mainly China—and Africa as well as Europe. China has been testy about the militarization of the straits. This naval base will raise its hackles further.

Aware of what this means to China, the governments of India and Indonesia denied that the port would have a military base. They said, in a joint statement, that the port would be mainly for economic use. A senior official at the Ministry of External Affairs (India) told me that the expectation for the port is that it would be used in India’s anti-piracy campaign. At most, he said, Indian and Indonesian coast guards would use the base for their trainings and observation.

It is certainly the case that piracy continues to increase in these waters (a 20 percent increase from 2016 to 2017). But the actual numbers are very low—eight attempts by pirates to board ships in the Singapore Straits and only one attempt in the Straits of Malacca. These ship invasions are also exaggerated. Pirates in small speedboats pull up along the large tankers and cargo ships, board them and—in most cases—scurry off when they are sighted. Capture of ships is rare.

Claims that India and Indonesia have inked these deals to prevent piracy seem far-fetched. It is also the reason given by the navies of Singapore and the United States when they conduct joint naval exercises in and near the Straits of Malacca. But these massive exercises seem out of proportion to the scale of the piracy threat. What then are these bases and exercises doing in waters that are otherwise reasonably peaceful?

Pressure on China

Chinese officials say that this new base at Sabang is intended to put pressure on Chinese vessels as they enter the Indian Ocean.

China is utterly reliant upon the Straits of Malacca—not only to transport its finished goods to markets in Africa and Europe, but also to bring oil and other important raw materials from the Middle East and Africa. China has long been sensitive to the threats along the maritime route, threats not for pirates as much as from the United States and its allies in the region, such as Singapore and India.

To circumvent the straits, China attempted to build its own ports in Pakistan and Myanmar. Now, both are in trouble. Around the same time, the governments of Pakistan and Myanmar began to question the finances around the building of the ports of Gwadar (Pakistan) and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar). The reason for their anxiety is clear. Last year, the government of Sri Lanka had to hand over control of the port at Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease because it failed to pay its debt obligations on the construction of the port. This port at Hambantota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, like the ports at Gwadar and Myanmar, does not have a navy presence. The only Chinese navy port in the Indian Ocean is at Djibouti, near the port of Doraleh.

The Chinese extended Myanmar’s port at Kyaukpyu as well as built an oil and gas pipeline that runs from that part to the Chinese city of Kunming. The cost for the project is substantial—$9 billion. Myanmar’s economy, wracked by sanctions, has not been able to deal with its considerable debt. The debt to Gross Domestic Product ration is almost 36 percent, with the total foreign debt standing at a familiar $9 billion. The cost of Kyaukpyu port has doubled Myanmar’s debt. This week, Myanmar’s government indicated that it might half construction of the port because it was far too expensive. The government is afraid that if Myanmar defaults on its loan for the port—as Sri Lanka did—China will take possession of it. China, unlike Norway and Japan, is unlikely to cancel its debt (Norway recently canceled $534 million of its debt to Myanmar, while Japan canceled $3.58 billion).

In May, meanwhile, the Pakistani government suspended tax concessions that it had given to the Chinese operators of the Gwadar Port. The Pakistanis and the Chinese are arguing about when to start the 23-year tax exemption—from 2007 or from 2013. The Pakistanis want the former number, while the Chinese want the latter. There is no expectation of a permanent crisis here, but there is nonetheless some tension over the cooperation between Pakistan and China.

The tension for China in Pakistan and Myanmar comes at a time when India has exerted itself at the two ends of the southern Indian Ocean, from the Mauritian island of Agalega to the Indonesia island of Sabang.

Tensions on the High Seas

Last month, three Indian navy ships went to Tien Sa Port in Vietnam to conduct joint exercises with the Vietnamese navy. On their return to India, the Indian vessels claimed that a Chinese warship tailed them “at a safe distance.” No contact took place between the ships. China will not verify the Indian claims.

Dangerous tension such as this is likely to escalate in the Indian Ocean, a region that should be a “zone of peace.” With more warships in these waters, the risk of accidents rises—not a simple boating accident, but a military, and therefore political, action. If one of these ships in these crowded waters were to actually fire at another, the next war between China and India would commence. It would be far deadlier than the war of 1962.

Neither side wants war. What they want to do is to use these bases to intimidate each other. China wants the sea lanes to be clear, to be part of the oceanic commons. The United States, which has one of the largest maritime bases in the Indian Ocean (in Diego Garcia), India and Singapore seem unfazed about these tensions. U.S. ships continue to move from Diego Garcia to the South China Sea, threatening Chinese shipping in the international lanes. Now, the Indian ships will join them. This is intended to provoke a response from China. A response—a military response—would be catastrophic.

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