Two J-15 fighter jets of the PLA Navy prepare to take off from China's aircraft carrier, The Liaoning,  during an exercise. Photo: AFP
Two J-15 fighter jets of the PLA Navy prepare to take off from China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during an exercise. Photo: AFP

The US Defense Department report titled “China’s Global Expansion by Military and Non-Military Means” issued last week has once again triggered alarm bells about China’s increasingly assertive presence across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

It talks of China being world’s fifth-largest exporter of defense equipment; that, during the 2012-2016 period, China “completed” defense supplies worth US$20 billion worldwide, of which supplies worth $8 billion were made to the Indo-Pacific nations.

What would concerns policymakers in India especially is that the primary recipients of China’s weapon exports remain its traditional client states in South Asia that have also witnessed high-speed delivery of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

What is absent from this report is the fact that the US itself is a major trigger for China’s enduring and expanding defense cooperation with developing nations. Complex procedures, high-procurement secrecy and standards, and the high prices charged by all top US defense suppliers often push these nations to buy from China. China, on the other hand, not only assures them of being the most reliable supplier but promises 70% capability of advanced nations’ technology at 50% of the cost.

China’s most important client state, Pakistan, has been the biggest beneficiary of China’s indulgence and is now being seen as its bulwark for the Indo-Pacific region. According to reports, China will be supplying Pakistan with as many as eight Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, two Type-054A multi-role frigates and several other weapons and platforms.

As well, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been making piecemeal progress and China’s total investment in Pakistan is expected to rise from the currently agreed $62 billion to about $90 billion – that is, one-third of the size of Pakistan’s entire economy.

Already, Pakistan’s Gwadar is one of the two biggest ports in South Asia (the other being Hambantota, Sri Lanka) that are not just built by Chinese firms but are also now owned and maintained by them. Chinese companies also own and operate much of Colombo Port as well as container facilities in Chittagong, Bangladesh, while it has just begun work on an equally ambitious project at Kyaukpyu deep sea port in Myanmar.

The second-largest recipient region for China’s weapons exports, according to this Pentagon report, is MENA (the Middle East and North Africa), which also has direct implications for New Delhi.

In 2015, Beijing began work on its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, claiming that it would support China’s participation in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance as well as anti-piracy operations. By August 2017 China had formally operationalized its Djibouti naval base, deploying marines, infantry combat vehicles and helicopters, giving it a very different projection than what was promised.

China’s official line of course has been contested by experts who remain suspicious about China’s geopolitical ambitions. At the Djibouti naval base, China expects to complete construction of its 450-meter pier by June that will be able to berth four warships at the same time.

The Pentagon report also talks about possible “follow-on bases at other locations” such as Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vanuatu, which along with its extant port facilities marks “a turning point” in China’s forays into the Indo-Pacific region.

Most interesting, according to the Pentagon report, “China’s military strategy remains focused on developing the capability to dissuade, deter and, if ordered, defeat a potential third-party intervention in regional conflicts,” which has direct implications to friends and allies of the United States, which seems ordained to lose its regional supremacy to China.

Indeed, since China’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping has repeatedly talked of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army into a military that can not only fight by also win wars. This has to be seen with China’s trillions of dollars’ worth of bilateral trade with these Indo-Pacific nations where its BRI has been pouring additional billions of dollars primarily into building their urban centers and other infrastructure, building enormous political influence.

“These bases and other improvements to the PLA’s ability to project power during the next decade,” according to the Pentagon report, “will increase China’s ability to deter the use of conventional military force, sustain operations abroad, and hold strategic economic corridors at risk.” Implications will be especially severe for those friends and allies of the US that continue to have complicated equations with Beijing.

These projections only reinforce India’s own assessments and perhaps best explain its increasing recalibration of its China policy, which recognizes the increasingly stark asymmetry in the two countries’ bilateral equations. But surely, an asymmetric relationship does not imply any simplistic weak-strong binary; it only means opting for more innovative policy tools and tenor.

This, for instance, has seen India’s vigorous engagement of China’s leaders, which has been especially visible in meetings between Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the Doklam standoff of June-August 2017. But at the same time, India has also been busy promoting military procurements and military exercises.

In parallel to China’s BRI, India has launched several connectivity initiatives of its own. For instance, it has been engaged in building or upgrading port facilities across the littoral: Duqm in Oman, Changi in Singapore, Assumption Island in the Seychelles, Sabang in Indonesia, and Sittwe in Myanmar, besides other facilitates in Madagascar and Mauritania.

Multi-alignment continues to guide India’s foreign policy, where New Delhi has sought to build partnerships in as many sectors with as many countries as possible without becoming prisoner to making either/or choices.

In the Indo-Pacific region, this has seen India join the reactivated Quad but also quickly stitch together two foundational agreements with the US that, put together, will provide Indian ships access to US bases in Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Guam, and Subic Bay in the Philippines.

India has also established close naval cooperation with the French government for joint patrols that gains its ships access to French naval bases at Djibouti and Réunion Island.

But at same time, India has shown it is awake to China’s sensitivities. This has seen India oppose inclusion of Australia in the trilateral Malabar naval exercises, oppose any militarization of the Quad (the US, Japan, Australia and India), and indeed carry on with a sustained campaign to make Indo-Pacific debates “inclusive” by inviting China into such deliberations and by putting the region on the agenda of its annual India-China Maritime Dialogue.

In view of continuing contentious shadow-boxing between the US and China shrinking any space for neutrality, this search for equilibrium perhaps defines India’s proactive policy for ensuring an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.

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