The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.

Out at sea: China’s new power play

Published Apr 6, 2017, 1:32 am IST
Updated Apr 6, 2017, 7:07 am IST
Every nation is a land power, but few nations can be, or are, land-sea powers.
China's President Xi Jinping (Photo: AP)
 China's President Xi Jinping (Photo: AP)

No large (sovereign) land mass can be prosperous, safe and secure without a matching marine strength. Sea capability, historically, has been the sine qua non for virtually every “global-reach aspiring” European power since the 16th century and the Americans in the 20th century. Among non-Western nations, only Japan so far had a Navy with “reasonable reach”, but far from global.

Understandably, when the Americans, at the turn of the 20th century, said “our ships are our natural bulwarks”, they weren’t wrong, as subsequently proved in World War II, from the prolonged Atlantic battles to the June 1944 Normandy landings, to the epic struggle for Pacific supremacy between the Japanese and American fleets. Thus was reborn the concept of “forward deployment”, in which the Navy inevitably replayed a leading role in post-Cold War global trade, commerce and security systems. A nation’s sea power emerged as diplomacy’s most visible arm in geopolitics and other power plays.

 

It’s thus the turn of US “forward deployment” all the way as all contemporary non-US Western navies are a pale shadow of their glorious past, leaving Washington as the sole monopoly player in the world’s oceans. How did this happen? From remote ports and bases or home ports? Unsurprisingly, it comes from at least 50 global “forward deployment” areas/ports which helped America attain its present status. Thus, from Ascension Island to the Atlantic; Bahrain to British Indian Ocean Territory; Canada to Cuba; Djibouti to the Philippines; Singapore to Spain; UK to (now) Ukraine; the US flotilla floats and sails — furthering the American “national interests” in economics, politics, security, diplomacy and gathering of real-time information in every other sphere. It aims to protect the US mainland with forward deployment to sea, to ensure that no conflict reaches America’s mainland.

The existing “sea world order”, however, appears to be changing fast, with an increasingly combative order-of-battle of Communist China’s capitalist government posing an unprecedented challenge to the US monopoly. Though after 1945 the US has never hidden its intention of dominating or being prepared to fight a war with anyone, anywhere — from Korea to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to Latin America, Iraq to Kuwait, and Libya to Syria, China’s style and strategy is a little different. Beijing fought Korean war from the rear in the 1950s, playing to perfection Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” to inflict a humiliating defeat on India (in two sectors of Ladakh and NEFA) in broad daylight; forcibly captured the northeast portion (north of Indus to the area adjacent to Daulat Beg Oldi and Thoise) of Kashmir (1960s), and subsequently inked the grossly illegal Sino-Pak bilateral treaty with Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to usurp more Indian territory west of present Indian deployment at Siachen. Subsequently, though, China made a hard attempt, with its “India success” formula, to capture Vietnamese territory in the late 1970s on the sly, and it got a bloody hard nose from Hanoi as the latter refused to play to the Chinese tune.

Understandably, the Chinese changed tack, and Beijing switched over from land to sea, sensing an opportunity to fill the empty space in the aftermath of the fall of the mighty Soviet Union and its equally impressive naval forces. “Encircle land through the sea” — a bit similar to Mao Zedong’s call to the Communists in the 1930s to encircle static city garrisons through mobile villagers to put pressure on logistics and supply routes of the privileged in urban centres. It is an application of Mao’s and Sun Tzu’s “mobility” and “surprise” in, and from, the sea. The name of the new game is the time-tested “forward deployment” of the erstwhile imperial powers in search of land, loot, labour and larceny, in the guise of laissez faire, for the leisure of their princes.

Expectedly, the Chinese started their first major overseas naval base in Djibouti. Housing thousands of personnel at Obock, a northern port a few hours by boat across the Gulf of Tadjoura from Djibouti City. A former French colony overlooking the southern gateway to the Red Sea, connecting Suez (west) and the Indian Ocean (east), it constitutes one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Djibouti, which comes under the US Africa Command, also houses 3,150 military personnel, comprising transport, special operations squadrons and naval air bases, is a stone’s throw distance from there.

While Beijing’s stand is that it is protecting its interests and investments (worth $30 billion in 2014) throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Djibouti is a multipurpose, all-weather deployment base for CPEC/BRI/OBOR. How and why is that so? This is because all the three Chinese projects primarily pass through land; and land has its own inherent limitations, specially if it is traditionally multi-factor and multi-actor turbulence-prone geography. A land war is bound to loom large. History shows that. Every nation is a land power, but few nations can be, or are, land-sea powers. China now aspires to be one, which is strategic deception at its best, through an effective and catchy “cover” of “collective prosperity”. The mind boggles at the prospect!

China’s unprecedented Djibouti “forward deployment” base is actually a backup for Gwadar — they are separated by 1,525 nautical miles, at 10 knot constant speed and 6.4 days at sea. Shanghai to Gwadar, on the other hand, is 6,170 nautical miles, at 10 knot constant speed and 25.7 days at sea. Again, Shanghai to Djibouti is 6,686 nautical miles, at 10 knot constant speed and 27.9 days at sea. No wonder Gwadar is being linked to Djibouti under the cover of “economics”, amid the unprecedented naval build-up. In case of serious problems in its landlocked Central Asian terrain, the sea power of the state will try to rescue Beijing’s $50 billion-plus CPEC/BRI/OBOR project. To top it all, the world need not be surprised to see the about-to-be-launched second aircraft-carrier of the PLA Navy, with its carrier battle-group based in Zhanjiang, headquarters of South Sea Fleet (Nanhai fleet) in near-future deployment; say around 24 months from now. Djibouti is a supplementary geostrategic, geopolitical, out-of-area operational fulcrum of the Chinese military to further the objectives of CPEC/BRI/OBOR. The aim is to imitate the Western imperialism of the past, with only the colour changed. The land-sea war as the yellow man’s burden?

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