China's first overseas naval base makes waves in India

BEIJING (The Straits Times/ANN) - The facility in Djibouti seen as a first step towards growing military presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese may prefer to call their new naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, on the north-western edge of the Indian Ocean, a support facility. But this does not change the fact that China has set up its first overseas military base, a significant development.

"It is the first major step of the Chinese military to improve its power projection capability," said  Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

It is also possibly the first of more to come as the rising power's interests grow worldwide and it develops its blue water navy – one that can operate globally – to protect those interests. Analysts have said that for now, China's focus is still closer to home – the Asia-Pacific, particularly the East and South China seas and the western Pacific.

But its efforts to strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean, through whose sea lanes much of its trade and energy supplies flow, will bring it up against the major power in the region, India.

China began building the logistics base in Djibouti last year and, last Tuesday, ships carrying troops that will man the facility left the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang.

It would "ensure China's performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia", reported state news agency Xinhua last Tuesday. "The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks, including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways," it added.

This development has come after China started deploying naval ships to waters off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden in 2008, to run escort missions for merchant ships in the pirate-infested waters there.

China also has 2,500 soldiers and police officers taking part in United Nations peacekeeping missions in various parts of Africa, including South Sudan, Liberia and Mali.

There are also about one million Chinese nationals living and working in Africa. The base would allow for quick evacuation of these Chinese nationals if needed, some analysts have said.

China's is not the first foreign military base on Djibouti soil. Because of its strategic position close to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal that links the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, other countries including the United States, France and Japan also have bases there.

However, while the US will be watchful of Chinese activities in the region, the base is not a major concern for the Americans yet, noted Li. This is because the base is mainly for repairs and supply, and its power projection function is limited at the moment.

Instead, the country that would be most concerned would be India as the base is "a clear signal that China's naval presence in the Indian Ocean will dramatically increase in the years to come," he said.

And indeed, The Times of India in a report last Tuesday said the base "represents the 'first pearl of a necklace' unfolding along the sea route that connects China to the Middle East".

"It has fuelled worries in India that it's part of China's strategy to encircle the Indian subcontinent ('the string of pearls') with the help of military alliances and assets in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka," it added.

Already, relations between the two regional powers are fraught, with simmering border disputes that flare up from time to time, including a current row involving a road that China is building on disputed territory.

Also, India, the US and Japan conducted their largest naval exercise ever last week in the Indian Ocean, under the Malabar series that began in 1992. It had the Chinese worried, with the China Daily noting in an editorial that "China should feel 'security concerns.'"

Certainly, China's increasing presence in the Indian Ocean has heightened tensions in its relations with India. It has not helped that China's Belt and Road Initiative to revive the ancient land and sea trade routes that link China to Africa and Europe involves deepening economic ties between China and smaller countries in India's neighbourhood.

However, analysts like Nilanthi Samaranayake of the US-based think-tank CNA said India has to come to terms with China's entry into the Indian Ocean.

One approach India could take, said Li, would be to include China in the institutions of the Indian Ocean region, including the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, of which China is an observer.

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