By: David Brewster
Putting ‘String of Pearls’ Theory into Practice
As per the recent reports from Pakistan, China is about to construct a naval and air base near Gwadar. This would be China’s second base in the Indian Ocean and indicates that it may be moving fast to establish a network of military bases across the region.
China’s first overseas base at Djibouti
In July 2017, China opened its first (and so far only) foreign military base at Djibouti. The base includes a naval port and a large helicopter base as well as accommodation for 10,000 troops. Its establishment was a big step for Beijing which had long decried foreign bases as the domain of Western imperialists.
But a base at Djibouti makes a lot of sense for China, for several reasons. It was a relatively uncontroversial move given the existing presence in Djibouti of French, US and Japanese forces (soon to be joined by the Saudis). Djibouti makes a convenient hub for supporting China’s anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea and Chinese–UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. It would also be a good staging point for civilian evacuations and in time would be handy for supporting Chinese military interventions across Africa and the Middle East.
China’s first colony on the Indian Ocean
The Djibouti base is only the first step in what is likely to become a network of Chinese bases across the Indian Ocean. Many analysts had long thought that the next Chinese naval base would be established at Gwadar. The port city is on track to become a major waypoint in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Indian Ocean node of a new overland pathway to western China.
China’s Gwadar Plans
China’s plans for Gwadar are ambitious. There are reports that it is planning to build accommodation for up to 500,000 Chinese nationals in Gwadar within five years, and it seems likely they will be accompanied by a large contingent of Chinese marines. This would overwhelm Gwadar’s existing population of around 100,000 people, effectively making Gwadar China’s first colony in the Indian Ocean.
A Base at Jiwani
A US report in January claimed that China is about to start construction of a new naval base and airfield at Jiwani, some 60 kilometres west of Gwadar. While this has not been confirmed by Beijing, Jiwani would make a good location for a base. It would separate Chinese naval forces from commercial shipping at Gwadar.
Jiwani already hosts a small Pakistan naval base which could be expanded, and there are airfields in the area dating from the Second World War which could be developed for the Chinese air force (or China’s naval air arm, which is now undergoing a major expansion). Compared with Gwadar, Jiwani is also closer to the Strait of Hormuz and further away from Indian airfields.
While Jiwani might be too exposed for a major Chinese fleet base, locating a forward operating base there, along with China’s facilities in Djibouti and access to Karachi, would provide Beijing with additional options in the event of a crisis in or around the Persian Gulf. It would also make life a lot more difficult for China’s adversaries.
A new network of bases
Chinese facilities at Djibouti and Gwadar/Jiwani are unlikely to be the end of China’s expanding military presence in the Indian Ocean. China will also require facilities or staging points in or around east Africa, to help protect its massive energy trade from West Africa travelling around the Cape.
There are a number of potential candidates among the weak and underdeveloped countries in that part of the world. Many analysts think Tanzania would be a good location. China has a close and longstanding relationship with Tanzania and recently took control of the newly-built port of Bagamoyo, around 50 kilometres north of the Dar es Salaam.
China will also likely require naval facilities in the central and/or eastern Indian Ocean as part of a new Indian Ocean network. China recently took control of the port of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka, leading to a lot of speculation about Beijing’s intentions. But the Sri Lankan government strenuously denies that China will be permitted to develop any naval presence there, and it has previously given formal undertakings to India that it would not do so.
Other analysts look at the Maldives islands south of India as a likely place for a Chinese base. Although traditionally within India’s strategic sphere, in recent years the Maldives has become unstable, impoverished and increasingly desperate. Indeed, much of the nation could soon disappear beneath rising sea levels. We may soon see China’s ‘magical island-building ship’ pay a visit to the Indian Ocean.
Despite these dramatic developments, the shape and future purpose of China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean remains an open question. We should not automatically assume that the Chinese navy intends to challenge the US Fifth Fleet, at least in the short term. China will remain at a big geographic disadvantage in the Indian Ocean.
However, building a network of naval and air facilities across the region will at the very least provide China with a range of options to respond to a range of potential crises affecting its interests. This could include the need to evacuate Chinese citizens from failing states, the protection of Chinese nationals and investments from local insurgents, or even supporting military interventions where its interests are threatened.
China’s moves in the Indian Ocean can be likened to a game of ‘Go’, a fiendishly difficult board game in which each player tries to acquire the largest area in the board using black or white pebbles. One’s position in the endgame is determined by where one places one’s chips at the beginning.
India’s Ambitions to Buy Hambantota Airport
Geopolitical rivalry between big powers sometimes yields odd results. The latest development in growing strategic competition across the Indian Ocean region is India’s purchase of what has become known as the ‘world’s emptiest international airport’ in Sri Lanka in the small fishing town of Hambantota, near the southern tip of Sri Lanka.
Hambantota burst into international consciousness around a decade ago when Chinese companies were contracted to build a big new port, an international airport and an international cricket stadium. It was all part of a plan by Sri Lanka’s then president Mahinda Rajapaksa to turn his own sleepy constituency into a new global shipping hub. The Chinese takeover of Hambantota port increased New Delhi’s worries that it will become an Indian Ocean hub for the Chinese navy. But, in fact, Hambantota’s proximity to India would make it highly vulnerable to air attack in the event of conflict between the two countries. But short of war, Hambantota would make a fine logistics point for an expanded Chinese naval presence. Although Colombo has repeatedly claimed that no Chinese naval facility will be permitted in Sri Lanka, New Delhi worries that China’s influence will one day reach a point where the Sri Lankan government simply cannot say no. This is where the world’s emptiest airport comes in. India is proposing to spend around US$300 million to buy out Sri Lanka’s debt to China in return for a 40-year lease over Hambantota airport. A key element in any overseas naval base, and even a logistics facility, is easy access by air for people and supplies. A naval base also requires maritime air surveillance capabilities. Control over Hambantota airport will give India considerable control over how the port is used. It is difficult to conceive of the Chinese navy developing a significant facility at Hambantota without also controlling the airport. In short, India is spending US$300 million buying an airport to block a Chinese naval base.