South Asia Analysis Group Paper no. 4281 17-Jan-2011
China’s Maritime Ambitions: Implications for Regional Security
Guest Column By Commodore R. S. Vasan
“Imagine six centuries ago, a mighty armada of Zheng He's ships crossing the China Sea, and then venturing west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. The fleet consisting of giant nine-masted junks, escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats. Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean”... As recorded in “Muslim Heritage”.
Many China analysts are aware that the interest of the Chinese in Indian Ocean is not a new phenomenon. One has to only go back to the historical voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) who undertook seven voyages and visited 37 countries while he commanded the Chinese fleet from the middle kingdom. It is noteworthy that the fleet visited countries in Africa, Persia and the Indian Coastal Regions, thereby practicing both forward presence and flag showing. As per recorded history, these voyages pre date those of Vasco-Da-Gama and Columbus clearly illustrating the rich maritime traditions of the Chinese Sea farers centuries ago. As per the reports, it has been brought out that the vessels were large junkets of over 400 feet in length and were able to undertake long arduous ocean voyages carrying merchandise and accompanied by a supporting fleet to far corners of the world. In the light of this recorded history, it is not a surprise that there is resurgence of Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean and in maritime matters driven by a desire to protect their shipping and global interests. The most important aspect of China’s maritime security today is driven by considerations of energy security and concerns on the vulnerability of long winding energy supply chains as they carry these vital products from distant shores.
Present day Compulsions for return to IOR.
It is a matter of great interest to examine the present day compulsions for return to Indian Ocean region after over six centuries in greater detail. These factors are discussed below:-
a. Peaceful development:. China has asserted that it believes in peaceful development. However, most nations remain naturally suspicious of Chinese intent. The concept of peaceful development has been assessed as a ploy for buying peace on its terms, while it prepares for war by spending phenomenal money on military modernisation, infrastructure and capacity building. Economic engagements as part of the peaceful development have reached far corners of the world as is evident by enormous investments in the maritime sector. China would be in a position to extract certain concessions from these countries due to the nature of assistance being provided to developing countries in Asia and Africa. In many cases, the beneficiary countries have been given soft loans and or other incentives to ensure that the long term interests of China are protected. The constant impressive GDP growth and the phenomenal money being spent on military acquisitions and modernizations do not lend any hope about the intentions of China which has surpassed Japan as the second largest economy after USA.
b. Energy dependence. As highlighted above, this factor would be uppermost while planning for energy security to maintain and improve the phenomenal double digit growth in terms of GDP. The figure below as provided by China Daily is indicative of the extent of dependence on energy products. Unfortunately for China, even today a major chunk of these inputs have to come through the sea routes.
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