After dramatically increasing its military expenditure over the last several years, China has this year raised it by only 7.5%—the first time in nearly 21 years that the rate of increase has fallen below double digits. There are a number of reasons behind this, but the Chinese government has used this to announce its pacific intent, claiming it has always tried to limit military spending and set it at a reasonable level. China’s foreign policy thinkers and political establishment have long been trying to convince the world that Beijing’s rise is meant to be a peaceful one, that it has no expansionist intentions, that it will be a different kind of great power.
The very nature of power makes this largely a charade, but it is surprising that Western liberals have tended to take these assertions at face value. There is an entire industry in the West which would have us believe that China is actually a different kind of great power, and that if the West could simply give China a stake in the established order, Beijing’s rise would not create any complications.
Illustration: Guang Niu / AFP
Now, one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in China is advocating the creation of overseas bases. Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, asserts: “It is wrong for us (China) to believe that we have no rights to set up bases abroad.” He argues that it is not terrorism or piracy that’s the real threat to China, but the ability of other states to block its trade routes. To prevent this, Dingli says, China needs not only a blue-water navy, but also “overseas military bases to cut the supply costs”.
Dingli asserts that such military bases overseas would promote regional and global stability. It is a familiar diplomatic wrapping that other countries should easily recognize.
Such expansionist behaviour has long been evident. China has been acquiring naval bases along crucial choke points in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests, but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region. It realizes that maritime strength will give it the strategic leverage it needs to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower.
Its reliance on these bases is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistical constraints it faces due to the distance of the Indian Ocean waters from its own area of operation.
This growing Chinese presence in and around the Indian Ocean region is troubling for India as it restricts India’s freedom to manoeuvre.
Of particular note is what has been termed as China’s “string of pearls” strategy that has significantly expanded its strategic depth in India’s backyard. The Gwadar port in Pakistan and electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal are part of this. China’s involvement in the Gwadar port has attracted a lot of attention due to its strategic location, about 70km from the Iranian border and 400km east of the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil supply route. It can be used to keep an eye on Indian and US activities in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
However, some of the claims about China’s expansionism are exaggerated. The Indian government, for example, had to concede in 2005 that reports of China turning the Coco Islands in Myanmar into a naval base were incorrect.
Still, the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is gradually becoming more pronounced. The Chinese may not have a naval base in Myanmar, but they are involved in upgrading the infrastructure in the Coco Islands and may be providing some technical assistance to Myanmar.
Given that almost 80% of China’s oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, it is reluctant to rely on US naval power for unhindered access to energy.
China is also courting other states in South Asia by building container ports at Chittagong in Bangladesh and at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Consolidating its access to the Indian Ocean, China has signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to finance the development of the Hambantota Development Zone, which includes a container port, a bunker system and an oil refinery.
The construction of these ports and facilities by China can be explained away on purely economic and commercial grounds, but for the US, Japan and India, these activities seem to be aimed at them. China’s diplomatic and military efforts in the Indian Ocean seem to exhibit a desire to project itself vis-à-vis competing powers in the region.
To be sure, China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers that have established military bases abroad to secure their interests. There is only one kind of great power, and one kind of great power tradition. China is not going to be any different.
It is time to shed the sophomoric naivety that has upheld the belief that China’s ascent to power will be any different; power is necessarily expansionist. The sooner Indian policymakers also acknowledge this, the better it will be for Indian interests.
Harsh Pant teaches at King’s College, London, and is currently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Comment at email@example.com