The 37th Task Group of the PLA Navy comprising of a destroyer and a frigate along with a replenishment tanker departed last week Sanya Naval Base in Hainan Province and are bound for the Indian Ocean. As per Chinese officials, the Task Group would conduct counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, as also escort international shipping. Beijing has deployed the PLA Navy in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 for counter piracy operations and sustained uninterrupted deployments in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), an arm of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) based in UK, and dedicated to the prevention of trade finance, maritime, transport and trade fraud and malpractice, in its annual report for 2020 has noted that there were 195 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships worldwide, in comparison to 162 in 2019. Perhaps what is noteworthy in the IMB report is that for the second consecutive year in 2020 there were no incidents of piracy and armed robbery in Somali waters. Similarly the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region was free of piracy attacks. However the report did warn that “Masters and crew must remain vigilant and cautious when transiting these waters.”
China too acknowledges that piracy in the Somali basin has declined. In 2019, senior colonel Zhou Bo, who was chief coordinator of the PLA counter piracy deployments had noted that “Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin has been basically eradicated,” Thus there is a dichotomy in the Chinese justification for the continued deployment of naval task forces to the Indian Ocean. If that be so, it is fair to conclude that the presence of the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean is for geostrategic purposes.
Similarly, the rationale for setting up of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti merits explanations. During his recent 5-nation tour to Africa earlier this month, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh in Djibouti City and called for “strengthen cooperation in the fields of blue economy, communications and digital economy”. The economic and social development context of China-Djibouti bilateral strategic partnership is well understood and a welcome initiative; however, China must justify its ambitious plans to militarize the Indian Ocean region and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
Since announcement of the MSR by China, it has sought military-logistics arrangements in several countries in the Indian Ocean. Needless to say, these will support the PLA to project and sustain military power in the region. The annual report of the US Department of Defence to the Congress titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020” too notes that beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC is “very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces” Most of the destinations under Chinese consideration are in the Indian Ocean in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, and Tanzania.
There is a general concern about PLA Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Besides deploying warships in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines too have been sighted. There is also near continuous presence of Chinese marine scientific research vessels. For instance the recent discovery of Chinese underwater drone in Indonesian territorial waters and detection of the Chinese survey vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 switching off its Automatic Identification System and ‘running dark’ in the Sunda Strait have raised apprehensions that such vessels are engaged in collecting data for Chinese submarines operations. Earlier, in 2019, Chinese research vessel Shi Yan-1was intercepted by Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal while it was engaged in “acoustic propagation experiments and hydrologic environment measurements” and was forced to move out of India waters.
One of the ways to reduce extra regional naval presence including that of the Chinese in the Gulf of Aden for counter piracy operations is by replacing them with regional Coast Guards and Maritime Law enforcement agencies. There are at least two reasons for such an initiative. First, the Coast Guards are trained for maritime law enforcement and legally equipped to prosecute crimes at sea such as piracy. Second, over the years, the Coast Guards have engaged in cooperative efforts through bilateral engagements and developed institutional mechanisms for controlling and preventing unlawful activities at Sea. A good example is the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agency Meeting (HACGAM), a grouping of 22 Member States and multilateral organizations in the Asian region.
A similar arrangement such as the Indian Ocean Coast Guard Conclave (IOCGC) can be constituted under the IORA to deliberate and share best practices among regional coast guards and marine law enforcement agencies on issues concerning prevention of crimes at sea. The IOCGC agenda could later be expanded to include issues of environmental protection, IUU fishing and the agencies could even develop joint plans for preventing and controlling activities that impact on the health of the oceans and safety of Marine Protected Area.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.