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After South China Sea, China sets sights on Indian Ocean

02 July 2015

After almost completing the build-up of a 3,000-metre-long airstrip on one of the artificial islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, China is now looking to make a big show of its presence in the Indian Ocean region as well.

However, in the case of the Indian Ocean, the thinking is different for Chinese PLA Navy, which is trying to convince India that the recent moves to expand its influence in Indian Ocean were motivated purely by trade and security considerations and not aimed at India.

PLA submarines recently visited Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which the security establishment has noted with mounting concern, though officially India has opted to play down.

"The Chinese navy's presence in the Indian Ocean is to protect maritime security and of sealines of communication. We should make efforts to strengthen trust. If there are still doubts and concerns of navigation in the Indian Ocean then I believe we haven't done enough to enhance mutual trust," Zhang Wei, Researcher of the PLA Navy Academic Institute, who was present at a briefing, said.

At the same time, China has different views about its role in South China Sea, where it does not want navies of non-regional countries to operate.

Indian thinking of the Indian Ocean as its backyard could be dangerous, Zhao suggested.

One American scholar had warned of the possibility of "clashes" in the Indian Ocean, adding, "I don't agree. But if some countries view it as their backyard, then this (possibility) could not be eliminated."

"I admit that geographically speaking India has a special role to play in stabilising the Indian Ocean region and South Asian region. But (for the Indian Ocean), backyard is not a very appropriate word to use for an open sea and international areas of sea," Senior Captain Zhao Yi, who is associate professor at the Institute of Strategy of the elite National Defence University in Beijing, said.

"If the Indian side views the Indian Ocean as its backyard," he added, "It cannot explain why navies from Russia, the United States, and Australia have the right of free navigation in Indian Ocean," he told Indian journalists.

PLA officers said there was need for transparency, especially in the wake of concerns in Indian strategic circles over submarine visits by the PLA Navy to Sri Lanka last year and to Pakistan earlier this year. China described both visits as routine.

"When most submarines navigate we inform our neighbouring countries to reduce concerns and enhance mutual trust," Zhang said, adding that China's attention on the Indian Ocean region was driven by trade, with key energy imports passing through the waters.

Both countries need to do more to build trust - and be more transparent, PLA officials said.

"India has extended an invitation to the PLA Navy to attend a fleet review in 2016. This shows a lot of cooperation and understanding at the military level," Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, who is the deputy director general of the defence ministry's information office, said.

"Some misunderstanding and speculation comes from a lack of understanding or knowledge about these developments. Now relations between two sides have become much more mature than before," he said.

Yang Yujun, said the [Chinese] navy's expanding role included anti-piracy escort missions in the Indian Ocean. It has provided protection for 6,000 ships, of which 60 per cent were foreign, since its deployment in the area in 2008.

China seems to be annoyed by India's move to build strategic assets in two Indian Ocean countries, Mauritius and Seychelles, with New Delhi signing agreements  to develop ''infrastructure'' in one island each in both the countries.

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting, the top leadership of the two countries in March, New Delhi firmed up plans towards building strategic assets in Agalega in Mauritius and Assumption in Seychelles.

The pact, which provides for ''setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the Outer Island of Mauritius, will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote Island. These facilities will enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island,'' a note on the MoU said.

The Modi government had said that Delhi will do whatever may be necessary to secure India's mainland and island territories and defend its maritime interests.

Since the terror attack on Mumbai at the end of November 2008, Delhi has been acutely conscious of the potential terrorist attacks coming via the sea. At the same time, Delhi has also been deeply aware of the growing strategic significance of the Indian Ocean in global politics.

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