The neologism of the 21st Century as the ‘Chinese Century’ (as opposed to the 20th Century as the ‘American Century’ or the 19th Century as ‘Pax Britannica’) has ensured a wary spotlight on China, through 2016. Historian AJP Taylor notes, “The test of a great power is the test of strength for war”, and on this count, China has displayed unabashed propensity to take on the established world order, economically, militarily and diplomatically. Having displaced the USA as the biggest economy in the world, by routinely flexing its military muscle in the neighbourhood and by patronizing a certain roughish set of nations (North Korea, Pakistan, Philippines etc.), it is displaying an copybook behavioural pattern of an emerging, Great Power.
Militarily, the restive South China Seas has been the cynosure of strategic posturing between the Chinese bloc and the rest. Two developments dominated the headlines last year, first was the continuing belligerence of the Chinese Military in the disputed and contested waters of the neighbouring countries (whilst, claiming sovereign rights on the small islands, lagoons, atolls and reefs, or even constructing artificial islands therein), and the second was the formal rebuke from the International Tribunal in Hague, on a case initiated by Philippines, that rejected China’s claim of historic rights on these disputed waters (ironically, the maverick new Filipino President, Rodrigo Duterte unexpectedly decided to steer away from the Washington’s security umbrella and has moved towards the Chinese).
However, the South China Seas has remained dangerously choppy with the reciprocal hostility exhibited by the US Navy to call off the Chinese bluff and bluster. The year ended with the dramatic capture of a US Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) or an ‘ocean glider’, by a Chinese warship. Even though the underwater drone was deployed by an oceanographic survey ship, USNS Bowditch (with an "an all-civilian crew of civil service mariners and scientific support personnel") - the optics of the incident riled the President-select of the USA, Donald Trump to shoot back, “We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!”
At the heart of the Chinese aggression in the region is the heightened-sense of vulnerability of its economic juggernaut that survives on the free passage of its seafaring routes, via the South China Seas. As the largest oil importer of the world, fueling its gargantuan industries and the furious stockpiling of its Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR), and, as the largest exporter of goods in the world – both the fear of a debilitating blockade of energy resources and the hopes of sustaining its hyper-production based economy are rooted in securing its seafaring abilities towards the Western axis, skirting India, for both essential sustenance and continuing the lucrative exports.
The recent South China Sea bullying tactics are an localised form of its extended and famed, ‘String of Pearl Ports’ theory, that strategically envisages these Chinese ports along the seafaring routes to protect the Chinese access, to and fro. Unlike the US Navy which has true ‘blue-water’ capabilities, the Chinese Navy needs support facilities in such ‘Pearl’ ports and establishments en route to provide the requisite cover (hence the coercive appropriation of disputed landmasses and in an unprecedentedly brazen manner, the creation of artificial airstrips in the middle of the disputed seas).
However, the real sense of vulnerability and a specter for the worst nightmare of the dreaded Chinese seafaring blockade, is further westwards from the South China Seas, towards the Indian sovereign waters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This shining-outpost of India, juts out strategically at the virtual ‘windpipe of fear’, the Malacca Straits. Even though there is a relative lull and the famed Chinese belligerence is concentrated upstream in the South China Seas, the ultra-narrow Malacca Straits (4-8 nautical miles width), accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world trade.
With an estimated 90000 cargo ships sailing across the Malacca Straits, the traffic is twice that of the Suez Canal and thrice that of the Panama Canal. Geographically and providentially, positioned at the very mouth of the Malacca Straits, is the Campbell Bay area, of the Indian Nicobar Islands. Unlike, the South China Seas, the Chinese have not opened any contentious claims or flexed military assets in these waters, yet the nervousness of the Chinese is palpable. Instead, the area was sought to be ring-fenced with ‘Pearl Ports’ in Coco Islands of Myanmar (15 nautical miles away from the Northern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota in Sri Lanka – encircling the Andaman and Nicobar ‘theatre’ with a menacing and strategic, Chinese counter-presence.
However, the change of political guard with a decidedly pro-India dispensation in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has put to rest the Chinese ‘Pearl Port’ plans, as of now. Therefore, a possible explanation for the alternative strategic axis of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), that is underway at a furious pace of development to connect the Chinese heartland with the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan, with a series of road and railway networks.
For now, the Chinese angsts and restlessness is concentrated in its immediate frontiers – last week, in a show of strength, its first indigenously developed aircraft carrier, Liaoning, along with a flotilla of five other warships ratcheted up the heat by sailing past the Pratas Islands or Dongsha Islands, a Taiwan controlled atoll in the Northern part of the South China Seas that saw a familiar mounting of tensions between China and its old nemesis, Taiwan. In yet another sign of times to come, Donald Trump had earlier broken the long-standing hypocrisy by calling up the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen (Trump had noted, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call”).
While, a lot of Chinese seafaring belligerence is historical (e.g. with Japan and Taiwan), the essential cause for the same is rooted in its obvious nervousness of protecting the passage of its survival-depending, seafaring routes. The weakest link from a Chinese vulnerability perspective is the Malacca Straits – however, that for now it is beyond the immediate theatrics and capabilities of the Chinese military wherewithal, and hence the lull in the area. But, given the impending hostility of the incoming US presidency that has centered China as the principal foe, the emergence of the ‘pivotal lever’ in the Malacca Straits will see Andaman and Nicobar Islands emerge as a natural location of counter-poise. The Andaman angularity is inevitable to the Indo-US dimension of containing Chinese hegemonic instincts, though subdued for now, given the Chinese focus upstream in order to consolidate its presence in the immediate waters before the strategic seismic zone shifts to its logical epicenter, the area in the proximity of the Malacca Straights, near the Indian sovereign land of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
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(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)
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