China signals desire for talks on Indian Ocean
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China signals desire for talks on Indian Ocean

Beijing signaled it would like India to initiate a dialogue on cooperation on securing sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2011 21:05 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

Beijing signaled it would like India to initiate a dialogue on cooperation on securing sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. This comes at a time when New Delhi is increasingly concerned at an expanding military, economic and political presence by China in India’s surrounding waters.

“The Indian government should take the initiative to propose a cooperation mechanism on sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean,’’ an official of the Development Research Centre under the State Council, the Chinese equivalent of a cabinet, told HT.

The official, speaking anonymously, indicated that the lack of such a mechanism would not stop China from moving ahead with plans to guard sea-lanes for trade in the Indian Ocean.

“China cannot initiate such a proposal,’’ he noted, explaining why Beijing wanted New Delhi to take the first step. “The US and Japan will not support China’s move.” Indian diplomats familiar with East Asia say Chinese concerns about a loss of face if formal overtures are spurned by India may have also play a role.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer and second-largest oil consumer, receives over 70 per cent of its petroleum imports via the Indian Ocean. “China has to protect its ships on its own. The US is not an ally. India is not an ally,’’ said the official, citing the need for ports that China is operating or seeking to build in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The official portrayed his views as personal and avoided any formal identification. China watchers say this is not unusual when Beijing is sending out an indirect feeler.

New Delhi may not be averse to such a discussion, Indian officials indicated. Speaking about the security of energy flows across the Indian Ocean, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in September 2009 had said, “Is it not time that we began a discussion among concerned states of a maritime system minimizing the risks of interstate conflict and neutralizing threats from pirates, smugglers, terrorists?” He called for structured discussion among “Asian states” and other great powers on this issue.

“China has not announced its Indian Ocean policy. It will take time. China’s rising so fast,’’ said Li Li, a strategist in the South and South East Asian and Oceanian Studies institute of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. “It is, more and more, in China’s interests to protect our sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean,’’ she said.

In a further supplement to China’s economic stake in the maritime region, China in July secured United Nations approval to explore and mine parts of the Indian Ocean seabed, raising concerns in India of the prospect of Chinese warships in its maritime backyard.

China secured approval from the International Seabed Authority to explore and mine deposits of polymetallic sulphide ore — a source of zinc, lead, iron, copper, silver and gold --- in 10,000 square kilometers of seabed of the southwest Indian Ocean. A recent statement from the foreign ministry saying that Chinese exploration of the seabed would ‘serve the common interests of mankind’.

Sea trials for carrier

Beijing: China’s aircraft carrier sailed out of northeast Dalian for sea trials on Wednesday morning, the first of more warships in the planning.

“China, with long and busy sea lanes to secure for the flow of materials and manufactured goods in and out of the country, is entitled to a modernised fleet,’’ said Xinhua. The PLA navy's current defense capability is still disproportionate to the requirements of its missions, it said.

According to a recent estimate by General Luo Yuan of the Academy of Military Sciences, China needs at least three aircraft carriers to catch up and overtake India.

First Published: Aug 11, 2011 00:38 IST