Sino-Indian conflict in the Bay of Bengal is both economic and strategic
Colombo: Indian strategic experts worry that increased Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal is aimed at strategically “encircling” India. But Nilanthi Samaranayake of the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analysis (CAN) says that the aims of the two rivals are both economic and strategic, in fact, more economic than strategic.
Samaranayake says in her paper entitled The Long-Littoral Project: Bay of Bengal that China is trying to connect its relatively under-developed western provinces to the globalized economy by constructing lines of communication via Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. China’s interest in the Bay of Bengal also lies in its search for an alternative to the Malacca Straits. The Straits of Malacca are crucial for the flow of global trade and oil to China. It is the shortest sea route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, over one-third shorter than the closest alternative sea-route. If chocked by hostile powers, China could be denied vital resources like oil. To reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits, China has been trying to establish a land link with Myanmar from Yunnan in Eastern China to a Chinese-built port at Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar.
Then there is the Myanmar-China Gas Pipeline which starts at Ramree Island on the western coast of Myanmar and ends at Ruili in China's Yunnan Province. Running in parallel is the Myanmar-China Crude Oil Pipeline. Despite Myanmar’s political turmoil, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are proceeding with the military junta’s cooperation. According to The Diplomat in February 2021, China began the construction of the Kyaukphyu gas-steam combined cycle power plant project. The US$ 180 million project will contribute to the operations of the Chinese-built deep sea port Kyaukphyu and its SEZ. In March, the Yunnan Provincial Energy Investment Group’s Mee Lin Gyaing natural gas power plant project in Ayeyarwady region, worth US$ 2.5 billion, was approved by the Myanmar military junta.
On its part, India is trying to give its land-locked North Eastern States of Assam, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura, an outlet to the sea for the sake of their economic development. Although Bangladesh could provide transit their goods, a hostile regime in Dhaka could deny it. Therefore, an alternative was necessary.
That was the US$ 484 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project to connect Kolkata port with Sittwe port in Myanmar. In Myanmar, the project would link Sittwe to Paletwa in Chin State via the Kaladan river route, and then from Paletwa via road to Mizoram in Northeast India. India completed the Sittwe port in 2021 but the entire Kaladan project is expected to be completed only by 2023.
Other infrastructure projects in which India is involved in Myanmar include the Trilateral Highway Project, which is an East-West corridor connecting our Northeast with Myanmar and Thailand; assistance in setting up institutions for higher learning and research, namely the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, and Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education, Myanmar-India Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills, and the India-Myanmar Industrial Training Centres. Under the MoU on Rakhine State Development Program India has committed to giving US $25 million of assistance to Myanmar over a period of 5 years.
According to Samaranayake the strongest manifestation of Sino-Indian rivalry in the Bay of Bengal has been in Myanmar.
An important motivating factor for India is the ‘Look East’ policy which stemmed from India’s economic success and a wish to cultivate not just the West but the burgeoning economies of South East Asia. “Indian strategists and pundits are ruminating on India’s geography and civilizational ties with countries in the Indian Ocean region, especially along the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi is preoccupied with the question of how India should fulfill a leadership role in the region commensurate with its growing economic might,” Samaranayake observes.
But such huge economic commitments require a security cover. The military dimension of this rivalry focuses on the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the Indian Ocean. According to Indian navy chief, Adm. R. Hari Kumar, “at any given time, there are between five to eight Chinese navy units in the Indian Ocean”.
Because Chinese navy ships must cross the Bay of Bengal en-route to and from the Arabian Sea, where they are involved in anti-piracy operations, they show China’s flag by conducting port visits in Bay of Bengal countries, Samarnayake says.
On its part, India is devoting substantial resources to naval modernization. Founded in 1968, the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) based in the Bay of Bengal has units in Vishakhapatnam, Chennai and Kolkata. The navy has improved the capabilities of its air fleet at the Rajali naval air station at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu by deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
“In addition to the 50 warships already with the ENC, the navy deployed one of its newest warships, the indigenously manufactured stealth frigate INS Shivalik, which is armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and a short range air-defense system. Two more indigenous stealth frigates (INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri) are now based at the ENC, in addition to a new fleet tanker (INS Shakti). Formerly the U.S. Navy’s USS Trenton, the landing platform dock INS Jalashwa is well suited for humanitarian and disaster relief missions and is assigned to the ENC. The ENC also received the P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft. In April 2012, India inducted the nuclear-powered submarine, a Russian Akula-class attack submarine, INS Chakra. Tellingly, it is homeported at Vishakhapatnam,” Samaranayake notes.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The Indian Tri-Forces’ base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N) provides India with substantial strategic advantages, the US-based scholar says.
“The 572 islands of the two island chains run roughly north and south: they begin at the mouths of the Irrawaddy River in Burma and stop just 90 miles from the province of Aceh on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra. Therefore, they create a chokepoint for east-sailing maritime traffic bound for Rangoon (Yangon) in the north, and command the two major approaches (or exits) to the Strait of Malacca.”
“After its defeat by China in the 1962 border war, India examined its security vulnerabilities at sea in its eastern territories. The result was the construction of a naval base and an army brigade at Port Blair and an air force base at Car Nicobar. Due in part to India’s worries about Chinese bases in Burma and Burma’s strategic location, the tri-service A&N Command was created in October 2001 and is headquartered at Port Blair. After the Tsunami, the airstrips have been upgraded to support Su-30MKI operations, including night landings.”
“A number of fighter aircraft operate from the A&N Command, which is slated to become the home of an amphibious warfare training facility. To improve its surveillance of the Strait of Malacca, India opened its newest and southernmost naval base in July 2012 in Campbell Bay, Nicobar.”
Another factor in the creation of the A&N Command was the Indian military’s desire to improve cooperation among the services, the reseacher notes. “The A&N Command emerged as a recommendation from the Kargil War Review Committee, which was tasked with identifying causes for the failure to foresee the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan. As India’s first tri-service command, the A&N Command was intended to act as the flagship of (services) integration.”
In conclusion, Samaranayake says: “If India’s plans are realized, the A&N Command will become India’s principal long-range operating base and position it to be able to exercise a degree of control over the western extremity of the Strait of Malacca.”
As for China’s response, Samaranayake says: “China, of course, has been observing these improvements. American naval analysts have documented the emergence of a dynamic in which Chinese strategic thinkers express concern over the potential for the Indian Navy to interdict China’s maritime oil lifeline.”