China takes the Africa route to ringfence India: 6 reasons why New Delhi should be worried

In an attempt to reinforce its military clout at strategic points, China dispatched members of its People’s Liberation Army to the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti to man the rising Asian giant’s first overseas military base, a key part of a wide-ranging expansion of the role of China’s armed forces.

China’s state news agency Xinhua said the ships had departed from Zhanjiang in southern China “to set up a support base in Djibouti”.

Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worry in India. The tiny, barren nation sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also hosts the US, Japanese and French bases. Djibouti, which is about the size of Wales, is at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.

Though Beijing officially described it as a logistic facility, this move is viewed differently in India. The narrative of a tiny country with almost no natural resources, high unemployment rate and vast stretches of semi-arid desert doesn’t quite explain why global military powers are making a beeline for the Horn of Africa.

The latest manifestation of China’s intention to expand its global reach has India worried. Below are a few genuine concerns raised by the Indian defence community:

1. The location of Djibouti is of prime importance as its proximity to edgy regions in the Middle East and Africa makes it strategically important for military superpowers to set up their bases there. It could potentially become another part in China’s ‘string of pearls’ of numerous military alliances surrounding India, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. String of pearls refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities developed by China in countries falling on the Indian Ocean between the Chinese mainland and Port Sudan. The Indian defence establishment is extremely cautious as the string of pearls has the potential to encircle India. India’s ‘Look East Policy’ was always seen as an answer to Chinese string of pearls.

2. Indian Navy has sighted more than a dozen Chinese warships, including submarines, destroyers and intelligence-gathering vessels, in the Indian Ocean during the last two months. The sightings assume significance as the two militaries are in a three-week-long standoff at an India-China-Bhutan trijunction close to the Sikkim border.

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3. Defence analysts have also pointed out that Chinese attempts to establish its military bases at far-flung strategic locations can also been seen as a response to the deepening Malabar military exercise. Conducted annually since 1992, Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise involving the US, Japan and India as permanent partners.The joint maritime excercise has grown over the years to reieterate the idea of global maritime community.

4. The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are considered among the most strategically important in the world. According to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through Indian Ocean choke points, with 40 per cent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 per cent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait. A major concern of India in the Indian Ocean is energy. India is fourth-largest economy in the world, which is almost 70 per cent dependent on oil import, major part of which comes from the gulf region.

5. Chinese state news agency Xinhua said the establishment of the base was a decision made by the two countries after “friendly negotiations and accords with the common interest of the people from both sides”. Though Beijing indicated that China was not moving away from its defensive military policy, there are no doubts that is an attempt to expand the reach of its military.

6. Setting up of military base in Djibouti comes in the backdrop of a series of such exercises, starting from OBOR to building ports and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. India’s concerns surround sovereignty as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which forms a part of OBOR, runs through Indian sovereign territory of Kashmir.