China has signed a 10-year agreement that will allow it to set up and use a naval logistics base in Djibouti, an enclave-sized African nation near the strategic maritime chokepoint connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. With this, Beijing has overturned its long proclaimed policy that China would never set up overseas military bases.
Chinese military bases are sprouting all over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its own. The Djibouti base will be overseas even by China’s own definition. China has drawn a thin veil over its Indian Ocean base by claiming it is designed to support anti-piracy activities. But no one should take that claim seriously. The Somali pirates’ problem has almost disappeared.
New Delhi has accepted Beijing has legitimate security concerns and interests regarding the Indian Ocean. India has also urged a multilateral dialogue on China’s other concerns about the Indian Ocean.
China, however, has declined to discuss the issue and preferred to woo littoral countries, while developing maritime capacities in and around the ocean. India can only presume that China sees their respective military and political influence in this region as a zero sum game.
Beijing’s strategists argue that the slow but steady withdrawal of US naval power from the Indian Ocean means that China must take up some of these policing activities. They also argue India is not up to the task. The sorry record of India’s investment in naval power makes it difficult for New Delhi to argue otherwise.
Ultimately, however, India must do a lot more to expand its influence in the ocean that bears its name. This is not merely about warships. It is also about cementing political and economic ties with strategically important littoral countries.
China had claimed it would not be a great power in the Western imperial tradition. With each passing year this is being shown to be untrue. If anything, Beijing is an imperial nation on steroids. Even though the Indian Ocean is a tertiary theatre for Beijing, the Djibouti agreement is a reminder that New Delhi should not presume that will last much longer.