China and India can never be friends as China considers India as a big hurdle in her global supremacy ambitions. It has been, therefore, systematically fixing India into her borders by not only turning India's neighbours hostile to her, but also creating a string of pearls (SOP) in the Indian Ocean around India to contain It.
Some of these pearls are SITTWE of Myanmar; Hambantota of Srilanka, Gwadar of Pakistan and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
It was also trying to get a foothold in Maldives but it has been sabotaged by India for the time being. It has considerable influence in Pakistan and Nepal and is trying its best to lure Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh into her lap. It had plans to construct a canal through Thailand for its shipping to avoid the Malacca strait. But it has been stalled for the time being.
Besides India, China’s other hurdle is its trade with the rest of the world. Though not a landlocked country, its trade with most of the world is through insecure sea lanes, primarily the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. It needs to have secure trade routes to ensure economic domination over the world.
"The Indian Navy ought to play an active role in the Bay of Bengal. Maybe there is a need to make a concerted effort to ensure Bangladesh and Myanmar are weaned away from growing Chinese influence."
It may be noted that China’s trade with the rest of the world, particularly the Gulf region, principal source of oil supply to China, is through the Indian and Pacific Ocean Sea lanes. This sea route from the Gulf region, runs over a distance of 12,000 km and passes through many choke points, such as Malacca Strait. This route is vulnerable to hostile action by China’s declared and perceived adversaries.
Land route for trade
It was to offset this disadvantage that China went into a China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement with Pakistan in the year 2015. Development of Gwadar port of Balochistan, province of Pakistan, on the Persian gulf, was the key project of CPEC because it was the shortest land route to the Gulf region from Xinjiang province of China. This land route cuts down the distance of trade convoys to 3,000 km, which is one fourth of 12,000 km. It is not only time saving but also relatively safe and well guarded.
Alternative to Gwadar
But there are always chances of use of Gwadar Port and CPEC corridor being denied by dominating hostile powers like the USA. It therefore sought an alternative. This is where the Bay of Bengal fits into Chinese scheme of things. The Bay of Bengal has been on Chinese strategic planning radar for long. The Sino-Indian military stand off of 73 days, in July 2017, at Doka La, smacks of this intention.
China has been desirous of carving out a land route to Indian ocean through Bangladesh or Myanmar. It has been therefore constantly appeasing and luring these two close neighbours of India. To be very frank it has already created some facilities in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Myanmar at Coco islands, leased out from Myanmar.
To further improve upon this facility, it seeks to use land routes through Bangladesh or Myanmar through much hyped One Belt One Road (OBOR)/Border Road Initiative (BRI) projects.
Significance of Bay of Bengal for China
Why is China showing such deep interests in the Bay of Bengal? It must be noted that 80-90% of China's petroleum products are imported from the Middle East. This is transported over a distance of 12,000 km through the Indian Ocean via Choke points at the Malacca strait and South China Sea (SCS). They say China has only 55-60 days of reserve petroleum products.
Thus, it can not sustain an intense military conflict for more than 60 days. With sea lanes choked by the USA, Japan, Australia and even India it can run out of steam to sustain a war effort which might involve the USA and the West. Indo-China wants to avoid this interruption in oil supply. Thus, it has been looking for alternatives to sea routes for oil and gas supply.
The Belt Road Initiative (BRI) or One Belt, One Road (OBOR) of China are actually part of these strategic plans of China. Significant, too, is the point that China gets an opportunity to sandwich India, her biggest hurdle towards global ambitions, between Myanmar and Pakistan.
The China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are force multipliers for her 'String of Pearls' policy to contain and roll back Indian influence into her borders.
The Dokalam crisis, in July 2017, was a probing attempt by China to see India's reaction. With the Bay of Bengal in mind, it was trying to create a shortest land route to Bay of Bengal through Chumbi valley - Siliguri Corridor - Bangladesh.
It might attempt this again at some convenient and a favourable time in future. For now, it also looks at CMEC as a suitable alternative. India can not ignore Chinese forays into Bay of Bengal through CMEC or CBEC
"India might feel comfortable with the present regime of Bangladesh. But in a long term perspective we must acknowledge that India's Eastern neighbour has its own interests and it needs massive funds for its development."
On 4 October 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his message to Bangladesh a president, Md. Abdul Hamid, talked of taking China-Bangladesh strategic partnership of cooperation to new heights. Acknowledging the Chinese president's message, Abdul Hamid observed that the Bangladesh-China relationship was developing rapidly and has covered cooperation in key areas.
Bangladesh President pointed out that he believes the close and friendly relationship between the two countries would continue to deepen in the future. It seems China was deliberately luring and weaning Bangladesh from Indian influence. This is a definite sign of Sino-Bangladesh ties further cementing which should ring alarm bells in the Indian strategic and defence planning circles.
Imtiaz K Hussain, a Bangladeshi scholar had written an article in Financial Express on 28 July 2016, titled ‘China's one-belt, one-road vision: Bangladesh's one-track outcome’. In this article Imtiaz had argued that Bay of Bengal was an important resource - transportation staging post for China. Thus, Imtiaz points out that from here, China could move its goods overland, through either Bangladesh or Myanmar, or both.
He further sees an important role of China in developmental projects in Bangladesh, such as “ Padma River Bridge. According to him this bridge was critical to both, one, proposed Kolkata - Kunming (KK) Highway and two, Bangladesh - China- India - Myanmar (BCIM) Highway.
India might feel comfortable with the present regime of Bangladesh. But in a long term perspective we must acknowledge that India's Eastern neighbour has its own interests and it needs massive funds for its development. Imtiaz K Hussain notes in same article in Financial Times of 28 July 2016 that Bangladesh's core 21st century interest is infrastructure-building, and there are just too many projects for any interested investor-country to be disappointed.
He had brought out that 100 such mega projects, would need $ 100 billion over the next 5 years. And this can only come from China or India. While India has her own constraints, China is ever ready to chip in through her surplus funds in AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank).
China would attempt this entry , whether India willing or not. Thus, in a long term perspective, Bangla Desh might cave in to lucrative Chinese advances. After all Sheikh Hasina Wajid and her party might not be in government always. This is what China is now trying .
Myanmar in the Chinese Scheme of Things
Lying at the junction of South Asia and South East Asia, Myanmar enjoys an important strategic position between Indian Ocean and Yunnan Province of China. It gives an easy entry to China into the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. What is more concerning to India was the close proximity of Myanmar coast to India’s strategically important Andaman & Nicobar group of islands.
In fact Northernmost Island from this group is just 15 km south of Coco Island of Myanmar and it has been leased to China by Myanmar.
In 2018, Myanmar had become an important clog in the BRI (Belt Road Initiative) after it had signed a 15 - point memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Chinese Government. This MOU included the whole gamut of national activities. It was virtual penetration into Myanmar’s national life. This is a clever ploy of China everywhere to lure and subjugate.
MOU had pertained to collaboration on many sectors such as infrastructure development, finance, agriculture, transport, telecommunications, technology and research etc. China had proposed 18 projects under the BRI project but Myanmar has only publicised nine projects which include three Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and Mandalay to Muse Railway line.
In December 2019 China's foreign minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar and proposed the CMEC, as part of BRI. Myanmar establishment had reacted very favourably. Wang Yi insisted that infrastructure development was the key to CMEC and it must be expedited. He further elaborated that Kyayukphyu, Special Economic Zone (SEZ). He emphasised that it was key to the China - Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.
The SITTWE port ( Kyayukphyu) in Bay of Bengal was central to this project. SEZ is a 17,00 km long corridor which would connect Kunming, capital of Yunnan province of China with Mandalay, Yangon, Capital of Myanmar and Kyaukphyu (SITTWE) in Rakhine state of Myanmar. (This is the province dominated by Rohingya Muslims and the cause of their enforced exodus).
As has been pointed out, China had taken on lease Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal for 40 years from Myanmar in 1994. This island lies some 15 km North East of Northern most island of Andaman & Nicobar group of Islands of India. China was developing military facilities there. Reportedly, it has created an air strip there, besides having signal intelligence.
This island lies close to SITTWE port of Myanmar which is also leased to China by Myanmar. It is pertinent to know that China has two pipelines, one gas and one oil, running from SITTWE to Kunming in China. Thus, Bay of Bengal is figuring in a big way in the strategic interests of China.
Impact on India
"It is time for India to beef up her defences not only in Andaman & Nicobar but the entire Eastern coastline along the Bay of Bengal."
From the strategic point of view India has many things to worry about if China makes a large scale access by land route to the Bay of Bengal. It would not only cut off its entire North East region but it would be more damaging and disturbing from National Security point of view as under:-
India’s Missile testing range (MTR) in the Wheeler Island, some 10 kms off the coast of Odisha, would directly come under the threat of China. It lies some 150 km East of Cuttack.
- Vishakhapattnam or Vizag India's shipbuilding/Submarine facility would become a target of China. India's Nuclear submarine Arihant was built here.
- Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at Sriharikota can be effectively targeted from COCO Island. This can render a serious blow to Indian space research and her "Eyes in the Sky" programme,
- The Security of India's Andaman & Nicobar island becomes untenable. India has 572 small and medium sized islands here. It controls the entry to not only Strait of Malaika but also it can regulate East - West traffic in the Indian Ocean.
- Indian states along her eastern coast, from Bengal to Tamil Naidu through Odisha and Andhra Pradesh become vulnerable to Chinese sponsored Insurgency. Thus China can effectively carry out its strategic plans to break up India into 20-30 states, as a Chinese scholar had expounded the thesis in an article in 2009 in Global Times. This is a long desired plan of China because it knows India was her final frontier to be conquered before it could lay claim to superpower status and dominate the world.
It is time for India to beef up her defences not only in Andaman & Nicobar but the entire Eastern coastline along the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Navy needs to be strengthened to be able to dominate Eastern coast facing the Bay of Bengal. Besides, India ought to keep straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lambak under its scanner so as to effectively dominate choke points in the Indian Ocean.
There is a case for strengthening Indian navy to deny the Chinese SOP in Indian Ocean. India must aim at the Denial of the Indian Ocean rather than Domination. It needs to have more submarines than aircraft carriers. But India has a naval leverage in the Bay of Bengal and it must dominate and threaten to deny its use by China in a military conflict.
The Indian Navy ought to play an active role in the Bay of Bengal. Maybe there is a need to make a concerted effort to ensure Bangladesh and Myanmar are weaned away from growing Chinese influence. It might not be so easy as Chinese money is a huge temptation for these countries.
(Col. Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into 3 Bihar. He is a battle-hardened veteran of the ’71 War & has served extensively in various counter insurgency environments across the country.
He is a renowned author, and a highly respected defence & national security expert and a regular contributor at the 'Fauji India' magazine, ‘Defence and Security Alert’ (DSA), the ‘Indian Defence Review’ (IDR) among others. You can reach him on Twitter: @RajeeKushwaha, Email ID: [email protected])
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')