India Today - - UPFRONT - By Shyam Saran

Ber­til Lint­ner has been a keen ob­server of the South­east Asian po­lit­i­cal land­scape for many years. His deep un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex re­la­tion­ships that an­i­mate the re­gion’s con­tin­u­ing trans­for­ma­tion are ev­i­dent in his books. He had ex­plored the In­dia-China re­la­tion­ship and the role of Ti­bet in his book China’s In­dia War: Col­li­sion Course on the Roof of the World. Lint­ner re­turns to this re­la­tion­ship in his lat­est of­fer­ing, The Costli­est Pearl: China’s Strug­gle for In­dia’s Ocean. While the ear­lier vol­ume fo­cused on the land frontiers of the two coun­tries, the cur­rent vol­ume looks at their mar­itime con­tes­ta­tion. The ‘Costli­est Pearl’ in the ti­tle takes us back to the year 2005 when, for the first time in Wash­ing­ton, the con­cept of a ‘String of Pearls’ was coined to de­scribe Chi­nese in­tent to es­tab­lish an arc of mar­itime bases, or naval fa­cil­i­ties, stretch­ing from the South China Sea is­lands, cov­er­ing Myan­mar, Sri Lanka and the Mal­dives and then mov­ing west to Pak­istan, the Gulf and the east coast of Africa. In­dia was not orig­i­nally de­scribed as the tar­get. The ar­gu­ment was used as a plea to main­tain US naval pres­ence in the ocean space to check Chi­nese am­bi­tions. In­dia is con­cerned be­cause the ‘string’ also appears as a noose around the In­dian penin­sula. Lint­ner’s use of the phrase ‘In­dia’s Ocean’ recog­nises the pri­mary role of In­dia in the mar­itime space around its penin­sula. But a Chi­nese ad­mi­ral not

long ago as­serted that the In­dian Ocean is not In­dia’s ocean.

Lint­ner pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive on China dra­mat­i­cally rais­ing its pres­ence on the In­dian Ocean lit­toral and is­land ter­ri­to­ries. This is par­al­leled by a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in China’s naval as­sets, in par­tic­u­lar its nu­clear sub­marines. The first chap­ter, ti­tled ‘The New Casablanca’, is about China’s first ac­knowl­edged mil­i­tary base in Dji­bouti on the strate­gic Horn of Africa. In­ter­est­ingly, the Chi­nese fa­cil­ity is cheek by jowl with an older Amer­i­can base and a later Ja­panese one, also that na­tion’s first over­seas mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity. Just as the old Casablanca, Dji­bouti has emerged as a lat­ter-day nest of spies and cloak and dag­ger ac­tiv­i­ties, but the com­mon in­tent is to keep an eye on what each power is up to in the In­dian Ocean.

The next chap­ter, on Myan­mar, is prob­a­bly the best in the book. It re­flects the au­thor’s fa­mil­iar­ity with the coun­try. Myan­mar has emerged as a most crit­i­cal coun­try for the re­al­i­sa­tion of China’s long-term am­bi­tions in the re­gion and rep­re­sents a case study of the mul­ti­ple levers China uses to ad­vance its in­flu­ence. In the days of the Maoist rev­o­lu­tion, the numer­ous eth­nic groups along Myan­mar’s north­ern bor­der with China were grouped to­gether un­der the Chi­ne­sespon­sored Com­mu­nist Party of Burma (CPB), which acted as a con­stant pres­sure point on the regime in Yan­gon. China it­self dis­banded the CPB in the 1990s and helped the mil­i­tary junta in Myan­mar con­clude cease­fire and arms for peace agree­ments with the var­i­ous eth­nic groups. How­ever, China’s links with these groups have re­mained strong, en­abling it to ratchet up the pres­sure against Yan­gon when­ever its in­ter­ests are threat­ened. China took ad­van­tage of the rel­a­tive iso­la­tion of

Myan­mar af­ter the mil­i­tary coup of 1990 to put in place trade and eco­nomic cor­ri­dors across the coun­try. The eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion of Myan­mar with south­ern China is now so dense that it will be dif­fi­cult to wind down for any govern­ment in Yan­gon re­gard­less of its po­lit­i­cal colour. The ex­ist­ing and planned road, rail­way and oil and gas pipe­lines that link the two coun­tries to­gether have made Myan­mar one of the most im­por­tant com­po­nents of Xi Jin­ping’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive. The lat­est Chi­nese project is to de­velop Myan­mar’s deep wa­ter port at Kyauk­phyu on the Bay of Ben­gal coast fac­ing the In­dian eastern se­aboard, which will not only give China a rel­a­tively short ac­cess to the Bay of Ben­gal, by­pass­ing the Malacca Straits, but also serve as a po­ten­tial naval fa­cil­ity threat­en­ing In­dia. The Myan­mar Cor­ri­dor is more im­por­tant than the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic cor­ri­dor link­ing Kash­gar in Xin­jiang with Gwadar port on Pak­istan’s Baluch coast which has to tra­verse moun­tains and dif­fi­cult ter­rain over which bulk transport is un­eco­nom­i­cal.

The third chap­ter deals with In­dia’s re­sponse to China’s grow­ing pres­ence in the In­dian Ocean. Apart from ex­pand­ing its own naval as­sets, In­dia has fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing the An­daman and Ni­co­bar is­lands as mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties pro­vid­ing longer power pro­jec­tion and sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Se­cu­rity ar­range­ments with the US, Ja­pan and Aus­tralia have been strength­ened and there is a quiet but sig­nif­i­cant co­or­di­na­tion with Indonesia, our mar­itime neigh­bour to the east. In­dia is re­port­edly build­ing a naval fa­cil­ity on the is­land of Sa­bang off the coast of Su­ma­tra.

In­dia’s In­dian Ocean Is­lands’ strat­egy has fo­cused on the is­lands of Sri Lanka and the Mal­dives off its south­ern coast and Mauritius and Sey­chelles in the western In­dian Ocean. In his chap­ters on Mauritius, the Sey­chelles and the Mal­dives, Lint­ner pro­vides a ring­side ac­count of the sharp con­tes­ta­tion un­der way be­tween In­dia and China over these is­lands. China has an edge be­cause of its deep pock­ets, but In­dia has been suc­cess­ful in some of its coun­ter­vail­ing moves. In­dia alone can­not blunt the Chi­nese chal­lenge. Lint­ner also writes about the sig­nif­i­cant role of France and Aus­tralia as key play­ers and Amer­i­can al­lies in the vast ocean space. What is clear is China’s abid­ing in­tent to emerge as the dom­i­nant mil­i­tary power in the In­dian Ocean on its way to global pre-em­i­nence. As Lint­ner ob­serves in his fi­nal chap­ter, it is in the In­dian Ocean ‘where China’s am­bi­tions for re­gional supremacy are the strong­est’. And ‘For Xi, the In­dian Ocean is the pearl he wishes to se­cure for his grow­ing Chi­nese em­pire-ir­re­spec­tive of the cost.’

Lint­ner’s book is a wor­thy read for any­one in­ter­ested in the great game of the In­dian Ocean.


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