China builds navy to protect Mideast oil lifeline
Beirut - The unexpected, and unprecedented, appearance of five Chinese warships in the Bering Sea off Alaska on September 2nd as US President Barack Obama was visiting the Arctic, the oil industry’s last frontier, was a bold display of China’s growing naval power and its global reach.
The astonishing Chinese demonstration took place ahead of a visit to Washington by Chinese President Xi Jinping and underlined China’s interest in joining the international drive to tap the Arctic’s vast oil and gas reserves.
The combination of China’s quest for energy resources and its swelling naval power, however, are currently focused on the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, where Beijing is going all-out to dominate the strategic shipping lanes that carry the oil and raw materials from the Gulf region and Africa to fuel China’s expanding economy.
Some 85% of China’s oil supplies pass through the Indian Ocean, an area for naval rivalries since ancient times, which makes it a vital energy artery for Beijing.
Apart from Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, Beijing also claims the South China Sea and the vast reservoirs of oil and gas it is believed to hold. Naval power will be needed to enforce that claim, contested to one degree or another by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei. India, another major Asian consumer of Middle Eastern energy, is also building up its naval forces in the region that one day, probably supported by the Americans, may have to contest China’s plans to secure Beijing’s all-important energy routes at a time of shrinking resources.
India and China have been locked in a long-simmering dispute over their 4,000-kilometre border since India’s defeat in a 1962 war.
Both navies are building up their submarine forces and racing to build or buy aircraft carriers to project their growing sea power.
In recent months, US defence and intelligence officials have said that China plans to significantly upgrade its nuclear-powered missile submarines — adding up to five boats to the three Jin-class submarines already in service.
China launched its first carrier on August 10, 2011. It is hardly an awesome, state-of-the-art weapons platform that will instill fear in Beijing’s rivals. It’s a revamped 900- foot ex-Soviet warship purchased from Ukraine in 1998.
Its military clout is questionable and its actual operational deployment may be years away, longer still before the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) will be capable of deploying US-style carrier battle groups.
But it’s a symbol of China’s aspirations to become a global maritime power. Protecting its economic lifelines will be one of the PLAN’s main missions.
India launched its first domestically built carrier, the 37,500-ton INS Vikrant, on August 12, 2013. It is small compared to US Nimitz-class carriers, which are two-and-a-half times heavier and carry many more aircraft, but it marked a major milestone for Indian’s military capabilities. The Indians are concerned about a chain of ports and intelligence-gathering stations the Chinese have built on islands across the vast ocean as well as along the coasts of Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — the so-called string of pearls. These are expected to extend “along the coast of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf” says military analyst Vivian Yang. “Beijing’s been trying to find other sources of energy from around the world, but it remains dependent on Middle Eastern oil.”
Small flotillas of Chinese destroyers and corvettes are a fixture in the Gulf of Aden with international anti-piracy task forces. But the Chinese are using these operations to learn how to conduct the kind of long-range, long-endurance deployments that would be required for PLAN operations in the Indian Ocean.
A Chinese admiral’s recent suggestion Beijing build a naval base in the Gulf of Aden raised fears in the Middle East that a confrontation between China and India is looming along the vital energy export routes.
That could hit Middle Eastern producers hard. According to some estimates, 60% of the oil exported by the Gulf producers goes to Asia.
The construction of a $1 billion container port at Hambantota, until recently a fishing hamlet, on Sri Lanka’s south-eastern coast illustrates how the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is becoming more pronounced.
The deep-water port will include a development zone and an oil refinery. The Chinese have built a similar port at Gwadar on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. The $200 million facility will eventually be the terminal for pipelines pumping Gulf crude and natural gas to western China.
Another is planned at Chittagong in Bangladesh. Beijing denies trying to encircle India but New Delhi sees a dire threat. “The Indian Ocean has become a crucial area for China advancing its long-term strategic interests,” cautioned Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think-tank. “You’ll see much more of that in the coming years. India has to respond.”