To holidaymakers, the Indian Ocean usually appears a balmy body of sea. But, over the horizon, out of sight, great political forces are moving across the ocean and its subsidiary seas and gulfs, creating rougher waters.
Up in the north-east corner of the ocean, China is now activating its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. The agreement between the two countries allowing the establishment of this base, officially termed a “support base” by Beijing, was signed in 2015 and construction started in 2016. (Djibouti has made quite a business out of foreign military bases – it already hosts French, US and Japanese bases; each is worth millions of dollars in direct payments to the country.) On July 12, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the first contingent of personnel to staff the new base had set sail (on two Chinese Navy amphibious ships) for the small African state. It is expected that the base will have a complement of about 1 000. Satellite photos indicate it will have aviation facilities able to support sustained operations by helicopters and medium altitude long endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs – China’s Wing Loong II UAV has, according to Chinese media, an endurance of 20 hours and can carry up to 480 kg of weapons; its operational radius could be as much as 1 500 km).
“The support base will better serve Chinese troops when they escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, perform humanitarian rescue, and carry out other international obligations,” stated Xinhua. (China is one of those cultures which classify naval personnel as soldiers, unlike in the English speaking world.) “Moreover, the base will be conducive to driving Djibouti’s economic and social development, and assist China’s contribution to peace and stability both in Africa and worldwide.” (As American sources have pointed out, the base in Djibouti can support Chinese naval operations in the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, and even in parts of the Atlantic, as well as in the Indian Ocean.) China has maintained a small surface squadron (of two warships and an auxiliary vessel) in the Indian Ocean (mainly the Gulf of Aden) since 2008. But the numbers have increased more recently. Indian sources claim that 14 Chinese Navy ships were active in the Indian Ocean around June. Since 2013, Chinese submarines have also been increasingly active in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the ocean, in the Bay of Bengal, the period July 10 to July 17 saw Exercise Malabar 2017, hosted by the Indian Navy (IN). The other two participants were the US Navy (USN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF – the official name for Japan’s post-Second World War navy). It can be described as an impressive affair, involving 16 ships, two submarines and 95 aircraft. Strikingly, each of the three naval contingents was led by the biggest operational warship (or, in the case of the USN, one of the biggest) in their respective fleets. For India, this was the 45 400 t aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, while the USN contingent was headed by the 91 450 t nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, and the JMSDF detachment was led by the 24 000 t helicopter carrier JS Izumo. (The Izumo is a “flat-top” ship and so, to the uninitiated, looks like an aircraft carrier, but it cannot operate fixed wing aircraft.)
The Malabar exercises started in 1994 and were initially bilateral IN/USN affairs, although other countries were invited on an ad hoc basis. The JMSDF became a regular participant in 2015. Speaking to the media, IN Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta said that “[Malabar 2017] is one of the largest exercises in recent times. We have conducted exercises in all dimensions of warfare – from anti-submarine to anti-surface air operations. The level of complexity has been higher. Our procedures have been streamlined. We are a bit more comfortable and confident working with each other across the spectrum.”
The naval commanders denied that the exercises were meant as a signal to China. At least one Chinese academic did not buy that. Beijing University Ocean Strategy Research Centre researcher Hu Bo was quoted by Chinese media as saying that Malabar 2017 took China as “the imaginary enemy” and that this showed a “Cold War mentality”.
There are also other strategic developments in the wider Indian Ocean region, involving other powers. But the China/India fault line is the big emerging issue for the region. It is often forgotten (by outsiders) that India shares a border with China (or Chinese occupied Tibet, depending on your point of view) and that China claims Indian territory. And the two countries have been in a military standoff in a remote area called the Doklam Plateau, which is part of the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. In June, Chinese troops, it is reported, moved into and remain in what is internationally recognised to be Bhutanese territory; Bhutan appealed to its ally, India, for military help and New Delhi rapidly despatched troops to the area to prevent further Chinese encroachment. The problem is expected to be solved diplomatically, but has clearly caused alarm in India.
An Indian MP, Mulayam Singh Yadav (of the Samajwadi Party), publicly stated in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) on July 19 that “[t]oday, India has [sic] immense threat from China. China is conspiring against India, taking Pakistan under its fold . . . China has prepared fully to attack India . . . Protecting Bhutan and Sikkim is our responsibility. China is our enemy, not Pakistan.” The day before, The Indian Express reported, Indian Foreign Secretary Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had told a Parliamentary committee that China was now behaving more aggressively than in the past, that it was trying to spread its influence but that India would do everything it could to protect its interests.
Yet, in South Africa, which is an Indian Ocean country, these stresses and strains are pretty much ignored, not only by government but by most academics and journalists. But what happens if, or when, one or other of these Asian giants demands that South Africa expresses support for their position against that of the other one on some issue or other? One thing is clear: the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alignment, so beloved by Pretoria, is nothing but a frail fig leaf, little more than an illusion, which could vanish overnight.