The Indian Ocean (IO) region was not India’s backyard and upholding this perception could trigger clashes, the Chinese military cautioned on Wednesday, with analysts seeing it as sabre-rattling by the northern neighbour to gain dominance in the strategically crucial territory.
Beijing, however, did recognise New Delhi’s stabilising influence in the IO and South Asia region, said a senior officer from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the largest defence forces in the world.
He was answering queries on how China planned to allay Indian fears over increasing forays by its ships and submarines into the Indian Ocean region after Beijing last month released its first ever report outlining a new military strategy enhancing its navy’s duties for the first time to “open seas protection”.
“The word backyard is not very appropriate to use for an open sea and international areas of sea,” senior captain Zhao Yi, associate professor of the Institute of Strategy in China’s National Defence University, told a group of Indian journalists. “I admit geographically speaking India has a special role to play in stabilising Indian Ocean and the South Asian region.”
Questions about PLA navy’s maritime strategies were raised in the context of Chinese submarines visiting Sri Lanka and Pakistan recently, but officers played down Indian concerns.
“The Chinese government has been very prudent in handling PLA navy's navigation to the IO. Most of the time when our submarines go to the Indian Ocean, we diplomatically inform our neighbouring countries,” said Zhang Wei, a researcher with the PLA Navy Academic Institute. “We should enhance cooperation in order to enhance mutual trust at the level of military and government.”
Zhao quoted a US scholar who said the IO region was likely to be a focus area and at the epicentre of maritime clashes in the 21st century.
“This scholar indicated that there would be severe clashes in the IO areas. I did not agree with him. But if someone views (the region) as its backyard, I am afraid this possibility (of clashes) cannot be eliminated,” the officer noted.
The Indian Ocean region was very important to China as well as other countries as it was an important channel for international trade and that is why Beijing sought relevant navigational rights through it, Zhao said.