Europe and America can no longer afford to ignore China's increasing influence in the Indian Oceanby Jeffrey Henderson / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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South Asia has been dominated by two military conflicts in past months: Pakistan pounding of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and the obliteration of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Disturbing as these conflicts are, both may be dwarfed by a wider and more significant trend in the region—the rise of a newly assertive China.
At Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chinese companies are building a new port that could serve as a refuelling and docking facility for the Chinese navy as it extends its presence (presently confined to helping police pirate activities off the Horn of Africa) across the Indian Ocean. China has also provided much of the military hardware that underpinned the Sri Lankan victory.
In Pakistan’s ethnically turbulent Balochistan province, the Chinese-built port at Gwadar became fully operational this year, turning an isolated sandy peninsula on the Arabian Sea into what could become the country’s principal commercial port. Run by the Singapore Government’s Port Authority (a favoured Chinese partner), Gwadar has opened up new sea-borne trade routes to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, along with China’s partners in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) and its own, land-locked, north-western provinces.
But with a total investment of around $1.2 billion, China’s interests are more than commercial. Gwadar comes complete with a new naval facility that both the Pentagon and India’s Ministry of Defence expect to house Chinese warships.?
A Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean is nothing new. In the early 15th Century, when China was at the zenith of it economic, political and cultural power, warships under the command of the legendary admiral, Zheng He, reached India, Arabia and East Africa establishing trade routes for Chinese silk and African ivory.
But six centuries later, the main commodity shipped across the Indian Ocean is oil, and at the core of both the Gwadar and Hambantota developments lies China’s search for energy security. Fuelling its double-digit economic growth, China’s demand for oil doubled between 1995 and 2005. By 2020, some projections suggest this demand will rise to 10 million barrels a day, or the equivalent of about 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil output, an increase of two-thirds over 2007.
The current recession is slowing this demand, but China’s plan to wean its economy off export dependence by growing domestic consumption, will quickly re-establish its thirst for oil and…