China’s navy may be taking the first steps towards permanent access to the Indian Ocean after a deal was discussed last week to allow it use of Burma’s ports in the Bay of Bengal.
A request was reportedly made to Burmese President Thein Sein during a recent visit to Beijing, where he signed a raft of economic and security deals, but it remains unclear whether any agreement on the port access has been finalised.
Included among the would-be benefits for China, according to Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a South Asia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is Burmese logistical support for Chinese warships. What could make the arrangement significant however is the potential for China to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean. Beijing will then be able to monitor the increasing number of cargo ships laden with oil and destined for Burma’s Bay of Bengal coast, where the strategically important Shwe pipelines begin.
If it goes through, the deal will allow China to “provide protection and security for its energy shipments and regular or periodic basing of ships” in the region, Roy-Chaudhury told DVB. This would “result in, for the first time, permanent access of the Chinese navy into the Indian Ocean”.
India, whose historical rivalry with China has intensified in tandem with Beijing’s growing regional clout, is yet to comment on the plan, but it will do little to placate concerns in Delhi that India has been sidelined by Naypyidaw. The Burmese have been forthcoming in their desire to build closer ties with Beijing, often at the expense of bilateral relations with India, given the unparalleled economic and political support that a relationship with China brings.
China has likewise made the courting of Burma’s leaders a foreign policy priority in recent years, largely due to the access its southern neighbour gives it to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. The trans-Burma Shwe pipeline, which will deliver valuable Burmese gas and Middle Eastern and African oil to Yunnan province, lessens the reliance China currently has on the congested Malacca Straits beneath Singapore.
Roy-Chaudhury said that the move threatens to “reinforce perceptions in Delhi that the Chinese aim is to ‘encircle’ India by building defence and military relationships with its adversaries, including Pakistan, or neighbours”, the former a reference to the Gwadar port in Pakistan that, much to Delhi’s dismay, is set to become another Chinese naval base.
He added that Delhi could take a two-pronged approach to handling the situation, both “boosting its own networks and security relations in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea” and tightening cooperation with US navy fleets in the Indian Ocean, which will also be closely eyeing China’s expansion.
Dr S. Chandrasekharan, head of the South Asia Analysis Group, thinks however that rather than going on the offensive, “Delhi will definitely convey its concerns” but not to the extent that it would affect India’s relationship with Burma.
“Burma has been playing the China card with India and the India card with China,” he continued. “It will continue to do so in order to extract more economic concessions from both.”