China's is exporting submarines across the Indo-Pacific in a strategy that it is giving Beijing access to a growing number of port faciltiies. Photo: Handout.

CHIANG MAI – China’s delivery of two promised submarines to Thailand, now being assembled in Wuhan, may never actually reach the kingdom as Germany refuses to sell related engines to China because the boats will be sold on to a third country.

Export restrictions aside, the real reason could be that Germany, as well as Thailand, are becoming increasingly wary of China’s emerging new brand of submarine diplomacy.

In 2017, China established its first and so far only military base abroad — a naval facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa — which sparked widespread speculation Beijing was building a “String of Pearls”, as some researchers have termed it, comprised of military installations in the Indo-Pacific region.

But it is now becoming evident that China has a much more subtle military approach to expanding its regional influence: submarine sales to Indo-Pacific countries which come replete with training of naval personnel from the receiving countries and Chinese maintenance technicians at the actual sites, which will at least officially remain under the control of the sovereign nations in which they are located.

But if tensions escalate between China and regional rivals such as the United States and India, Beijing could conceivably gain access to foreign bases where they are already resident without having to establish any of their own.

Such developments are underway in varying degrees in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand, among others.

In the case of Thailand, eyebrows were raised when the submarine deal with China was concluded in 2015 with a coup-installed government. From the Thai navy’s point of view, Chinese subs will help it keep pace with neighbors such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of which already have submarines.

But the Gulf of Thailand has a mean depth of 58 meters and a maximum of just 85, which makes it unsuitable for such underwater vessels. According to one source who follows naval developments in the region: “The Gulf of Thailand is too shallow, a submarine there can be easily detected by a spotter plane.”  

But when – or if – the submarines are actually delivered, the Chinese would be able to send personnel to Sattahip southeast of Bangkok, the largest base of the Royal Thai Navy, to train their Thai counterparts and provide repairs and upgrades.

Some training is already taking place, but as for now in China. According to the naval observer: “China is training Royal Thai Navy units in the use of submarines and a vastly increasing number of junior officers are learning Mandarin while in China. And it appears that the Chinese are planning to help the Thais build more berthing and maintenance facilities than what at present are needed.”

In October 2017, Chinese naval fleet commander Rear Admiral Shen Hao visited Thailand and oversaw a joint exercise of four ships with more than 800 officers and soldiers.

A Cambodian naval officer salutes at the Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Image: Twitter

In Cambodia, China is funding and helping with upgrades to the Ream Naval Base near the port of Sihanoukville. In July 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a secret agreement giving China access to Ream in return for the construction of new infrastructure at the base.

The report cited unnamed US officials who claimed to have seen an early draft of the agreement that would reportedly allow access for Chinese troops, weapons and ships for 30 years with an automatic renewal every ten years thereafter. The report was vehemently denied by Cambodian officials, who said that the hosting of foreign armed forces would violate the country’s constitution.

Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh did however admit that China was helping to build infrastructure in and around the base but that the assistance came “with no strings attached.” The United States had earlier helped build structures on the base, some of which were recently demolished.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project under the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, reported on January 21 that Chinese dredgers had been spotted via satellite imagery at Ream.

The report noted such dredging would be necessary to create a deep water port for the docking of larger military ships than the base can currently accommodate. Three new buildings have recently been constructed at the base, several areas had been cleared of foliage and a new access road was under development, the report said.

Cambodia has not yet been offered any Chinese submarines, but in December Myanmar took delivery of a 2,100 tonne Type-035 Ming Class submarine from China. The event went viral on social media with videos showing the submarine moving up the Yangon River escorted by a Myanmar Navy Type 5 fast attack craft.

It is unclear where the submarine was headed but it could have been docked at the old naval base at Money Point for maintenance. It is unlikely that it will remain there and will most probably later be transferred to one of Myanmar’s main naval bases.

Kyaukphyu on Ramree Island in Rakhine state would be a place to watch because of its dual civilian-military use. Kyaukphyu is the maritime endpoint of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which runs from China’s southern Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal and is a strategic component of China’s wider multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure-building project.

China has been a part of a joint venture for the construction of a deep-sea port and a nearby Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu since the beginning in 2007. Under the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the project was delayed because a shareholder agreement negotiated by the previous government of ex-General Thein Sein gave the Chinese developer, state-owned CITIC, an 85% stake.

An aerial view of Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu port facility. Image: Twitter

The NLD managed to increase Myanmar’s share to 30% and also reduce the size and cost of the project amid fears that Myanmar could eventually be caught in a Chinese “debt trap.” Initially valued at US$9-10 billion, the first phase of the port development was narrowed to around $1.5 billion.

Since last year’s February 1 coup, the military regime has tried to move Kyaukphyu and other Chinese-funded projects forward. In June last year, Vice Senior General Soe Win, deputy chairman of the new junta, stated that the successful implementation of the Kyaukphyu project would “enhance China-Myanmar cooperation and so create jobs and help Rakhine State develop.”

Even if the Chinese submarine may not be based there, the delivery has certainly contributed to the “enhancement” of post-coup relations between Beijing and Naypyitaw.

Like Myanmar, Bangladesh has joined China’s BRI but has to tread cautiously because of pressure from neighboring India. In one BRI project, the China Harbor Engineering Company has been instrumental in upgrading the port in Chittagong, a commercial facility proximal to the country’s main BNS Issa Khan naval base.

In 2015, Reuters quoted a Bangladeshi official as saying that his country “has never hosted a naval ship from China and has no plans to.” But then, in January 2016, three Chinese vessels – the guided-missile frigates Liuzhou and Sanya and the supply ship Qinghaihu – docked at Chittagong.

The five-day visit was the first of its kind in Bangladesh and came a few months after China had launched a frigate specially built for the Bangladesh Navy, which in 2015 had purchased another two Chinese guided-missile frigates. Then, in 2017, two Type-035 Ming Class Chinese submarines were delivered to Bangladesh, which require training and regular maintenance from Chinese technicians.

In Sri Lanka, the port at Hambantota is another strategic link in China’s BRI. The first phase of the port was inaugurated in November 2010 and the Exim Bank of China lent $306.7 million, or 85% of the project’s total cost. As costs rose, so did China’s involvement.

Under a 2017 agreement, China was given a 99-year lease for the port in a $1.1 billion debt-for-equity swap that is often held up as the chief example of China’s so-called “debt trap” diplomacy. The agreement also stipulated the creation of a 15,000-acre special economic zone around the port.

Then, in July 2018, the Sri Lankan government announced it would relocate its naval base at Galle to Hambantota. India and the UN have raised concerns about China’s control of the port, which New Delhi believes is part of a wider strategy aimed at extending Beijing’s influence across the Indian Ocean region.

There have been no reports of Chinese submarines visiting Sri Lanka since two docked there in 2014. But the Sri Lankan navy has taken delivery of Shanghai and Lushan class gunboats and, in 2019, a Type 053H2G, or Jiangwei I, Chinese-made frigate.

The crown jewel in China’s so-called “String of Pearls” is undoubtedly the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. It sits on the coast of the Arabian Sea, close to trade routes between China and Africa, the Middle East and on to Djibouti, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port. Photo: AFP / Aamir Quereshi

Gwadar is under the administrative control of the Maritime Secretary of Pakistan and operational control of the China Overseas Port Holding Company. The port is a key component of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key link in the BRI.

In late 2015, around 2,000 acres of land were leased to the state-owned China Overseas Port Holdings Limited for 43 years for the development of what is now known as the Gwadar Special Economic Zone.

In June 2020, satellite images showed that several new complexes had been built in Gwadar.

The images and the extremely tight security around the structures hinted at the early phase construction of a naval base. Last December, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf denied claims that his country has allowed China a military base at Gwadar.

On the other hand, a base wouldn’t have to be officially run by Beijing but rather fit the pattern of its submarine diplomacy. Last February, Pakistan announced it will acquire four modern frigates and eight Hangor-class submarines from China.

“Of these, four submarines will be constructed in China while the other four will be built in Pakistan. These submarines, once inducted, would substantially add to the offensive capability of the Pakistan Navy fleet,” Admiral M Amjad Khan Niazi told China’s Communist Party-run Global Times in an interview on February 4.

The Hangor is a subclass of the 3,600-ton, Type 039 Song Class submarine, which is more advanced than those delivered to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

China’s submarine deals give it a new pretext for access to a string of bases across the Indian Ocean. It may be fairly smooth sailing elsewhere, but the snag in Thailand could be seen as rising concerns over China’s perceived long-term military intentions of its submarine sales.

China is not pursuing permanent bases but rather a logistics network that would support its fleet in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Thus China’s seemingly generous offers of submarines, training and maintenance come at a significant price. As one strategic analyst in Thailand put it: “it would affect our ability to act independently as a sovereign nation.”