Tuesday, November 15, 2005
China and Pakistan to conduct naval exercises in the Arabian Sea
China, a country which has never been inclined to engage in treaties on an equal basis with other nations, has become rather cozy with Pakistan. Further, it began to seriously woo Pakistan within a few months of the US assault on Afghanistan. Although in the planning stages since May 2001, China and Pakistan have entered into an agreement and neared completion of the construction of a deep-water naval port at Gwadar. Ostensibly a port intended for the Pakistani Navy, the agreement between the Chinese and Pakistanis will allow the Chinese unlimited access when their ships are in the area.
When their ships are in the area? But the Chinese navy has never ventured beyond what could be described as their own regional waters. They have never possessed a blue-water naval capability and have always operated very close to home. A previous exercise with the Pakistanis in 2003 was held for 3 days off the Chinese port of Shanghai. That was before this month.
China, for the first time in modern history, will engage in naval exercises with the Pakistani Navy, not in the South China Sea, but in the Arabian Sea. This should be sending shockwaves through diplomatic circles around the world. China is rapidly developing the ability to project its naval forces, once little more than a regional patrol fleet, on a global scale. It alters the defensive role of the PLA Navy to that of an ocean-going fleet with a presence. China has always had a desire to possess a blue-water navy, but this is a radical acceleration of their traditionally methodical approach to expansion and comes years ahead of what analysts had expected.
China, since the US increased their presence in the south, central and western Asian regions in 2001, has actively sought out bases and facilities to support a continuous naval presence in the Indian Ocean. It has established a listening post in the Myanmar, Cocos Islands and will soon have an operational listening post at Gwadar, Pakistan. She has also come to an agreement with the Maldives to establish a base on the island of Marao, which is intended to support a fleet of nuclear submarines complete with sea launch ballistic missiles.
What is causing this sudden Chinese interest in a strong Indian Ocean naval presence? Well, oil. China relies heavily on the Persian Gulf states for over 60% of their current petroleum supplies and they view the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan as being centered primarily on the controlling of that supply of oil. They see the US enveloping them in the southwest Asia region as a direct military threat and they have become nervous. They also view India as the emerging dominant naval power in the region and a threat to oil-transportation sea routes. The Sino/Pakistani alliance, in which Pakistan becomes a Chinese client, is a strategic boost for Pakistan in that country’s long “on again; off again” war with India.
The Chinese also recognize that, despite the battle-axe posture of the United States, the US is now engaged in global warfare which has all but negated the ability of the US to respond to a building naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The US Navy has 34,000 people deployed on operations or exercises worldwide. Of twelve Carrier Battle Groups, two are on station in the Persian Gulf, five are on pre-deployment training (or proceeding to station) and five are in extended shipyard periods for critical repair and maintenance making them undeployable within 60 days. A full one-third of the US Navy’s combat fleet is currently deployed away from home waters or away from their permanent overseas bases. In naval terms, that leaves nothing to spare. To put it succinctly, the US is in no position to challenge the Chinese navy’s arrival and permanent residence in the Indian Ocean. Add to that the fact that US foreign policy, particularly the adventure in Iraq, has angered most of America’s traditional allies and has weakened the US position in what were once some of the most durable of its alliances. The US decision to ignore the protests of its NATO partners over Iraq, for example, has caused other member nations to view continuing US global naval dominance as a US problem which the US, if it wishes to protect that position, must solve without the help of the alliance. Until the major western alliances see a change in attitude and behaviour from the US, the US stands alone and China is taking full advantage of this rare situation.
Something which should also be taken into consideration is China’s economic position. Unlike the last major US standoff with the Soviet Union, in which significant differences existed in terms of technology, manufacturing, economy and trade, (all in the US favour), China is positioning itself to best the US in all those categories. The American economic condition does not lend itself to out-producing an adversary. The US manufacturing sector is closing down at a rate faster than the Chinese and other not-so-friendly nations can take up the slack.
Another fly in the geopolitical ointment is the Bush administration itself. The Bush administration has proven to be completely inept when faced with a diplomatic challenge. The adventure in Iraq is akin to taking a shotgun to a hornet nest deep in the woods. Given a military standoff which requires continuous monitoring, deep thought and a solid grasp of foreign culture, ambitions and capabilities, the current administration is simply not up to the task. Further, with the departure of Colin Powell, it has lost the counsel of one who might be able to prevent disastrous knee-jerk responses to a Chinese implied threat and has, instead, a Secretary of State who, despite her acclaim for being a Soviet expert, was absolutely wrong in forecasting the position and condition of the Soviets through the 1980s.
How long before China starts to force the hand of the US militarily in the Indian Ocean? How about a week? When the first Chinese warships take their berths at their new base in Pakistan, Cold War II will have commenced.