Wednesday, January 19, 2011



coral islands grouped into atolls that comprise Maldives and lies 40 km south of Male, the capital.

Coral islands make fine submarine pens. The Peoples' Liberation Army Navy or PLAN proposes to deploy nuclear submarines fitted with sea-launched Dong Feng-44 missiles and ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in Marao.

Scientists warn that global warming is pushing up ocean and sea levels. They fear that most of Maldives will be submerged by year 2040. Marao may be one of the few large islands that may survive. "And even if it goes under water," said a naval official, "it will be ideal for submarines."

The base deal was finalised after two years of negotiations when Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji visited Male on 17 May 2001 on his four-nation South Asian tour. It marks a high point in China's ambitious - and audacious - plan to encircle India and choke its emergent blue-water navy in the Indian Ocean itself.

And it indicates schisms with Maldives, a friendly country saved from a coup by Indian special forces in November 1988.

Gayoom & India

Maldives president Gayoom visited India in August 2000 and held consultations with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on issues of mutual interest including "cross-border terrorism" and regional security. Maldives favours "direct talks" between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country that gained independence from Britain and has fair relations with Pakistan.

After the talks in New Delhi, Gayoom met reporters and disclosed that Maldives was "not considering any proposal to set up a permanent Indian naval base" in that country. He added that there was no such proposal from the Indian side, and that the issue did not figure in the talks. He concluded with a tantalising half-observation that Maldives had "excellent levels of cooperation in defence" with India.

That statement hid some things. It hid, for example, the fact that both India and China were actively wooing Maldives or, at any rate, spoiling it for each other.

Five months before Gayoom's visit, Indian naval chief Sushil Kumar had been to Male. In November 2000, Maldives' junior minister for defence and national security, Major General Abdul Sattar Anbaree, came to India. From 9-12 January 2001, (then) defence minister George Fernandes toured Maldives and held extensive discussions with Major-General Anbaree.

"Naval chief Sushil Kumar and Fernandes' visits got the Chinese suspicious," said a naval official. The Chinese had themselves taken off five times to Maldives before the Rongji visit "under the pretext of boosting bilateral trade and Chinese assistance for infrastructural development and boosting tourism". But Fernandes' visit was the turning point for them, not least because Fernandes, a Lohia-ite, lead the anti-Chinese lobby in the Indian government and had once labeled China India's "no 1 threat".

In February 2001, a small delegation from Pakistan visited Maldives to boost cultural ties. "The Pakistanis put pressure on Male to facilitate Chinese plans for a naval base," said an official. "China used Pakistan to play the Islamic card with Maldives."

China is close to striking a formal deal with Maldives for Marao. It will use Marao islands for 25 years on lease and pay back Maldives in foreign currency and create jobs for the locals dependent entirely on tourism and fishing.

Superpower ambitions

The Marao base's principal aim would be to contain the Indian navy. "China," said a naval official, "is worried that the Indian Navy is getting more natural islets in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal to establish bases that can impose a sea denial on China in case of a conflict in the South China Sea and harm Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region."

But the Marao base is not expected to be operational until 2010. In the interim, according to a November 2000 white paper on China's national defence, PLAN and PLA's naval air force could deploy a minimum of two aircraft carrier battle groups and five submarine groups in the Indian Ocean. Oilers, AWACS and refueling aircraft will support these groups.

But once Marao comes up, China's power projection in the Indian Ocean will stabilise. It will also set China on the course followed in the earlier superpower, Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Both states built a series of naval bases throughout the world for emergency counter-offensive measures. China is embarked on doing the same.

More bases signify a bigger navy. This is also on the cards. According to the November 2000 white paper, China is moving away from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai's "People's War" doctrine biased toward land-based wars and land-based forces to a greater thrust on sea-based forces. The 2001-2002 defence budget gave PLAN a higher share of 35 per cent but cut the army allocation to 29 per cent.

American worry

These developments have worried the US that has proposed to its ASEAN allies and friendly countries to create a joint command to contain China and prevent its expansion in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The US is keen for India to hasten construction of the Far Eastern Naval Command in the Andaman Islands, and this was repeated by the chairman of the US joint chiefs, General Henry H. Shelton, who visited India recently.

Specific to the Marao base, the US sent navy chief Dennis Blair to Maldives a month after Rongji's visit to take stock of China's military diplomacy. While the US base in Diego Garcia can launch surprise offensives, the US wants to restrict Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean because of its strategic value.

According to one survey, some $260 billion worth of oil and gas will be shipped through the Indian Ocean by year 2004. The oil route stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz will be at the mercy of any power that dominates the sealanes. A Chinese base in Marao islands puts it in a direct position to influence oil commerce. It is a prospect that daunts India, scares Southeast Asia, and alarms the US.

On Wednesday, 25 July 2001, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the US needed to keep a strong military presence in Asia to deter any future threats from China. "I've always felt," he said, "that weakness is provocative, that it kind of invites people to do things that they otherwise wouldn't think about doing." He disclosed that the Pentagon was evolving a new strategy for Asia that would focus on military operations.

Chinese checkers

But China is pressing ahead with its military plans with equal vigour - and stealth. It is most noticeable in the Marao affair. Indian officials say that China engaged two American and three European companies in the past two years to conduct aerial and deep-sea surveys to assess Maldives' suitability for a base. But the agreement with the companies was for monitoring the weather and magnetic response of the seabed in and around Male.

And yet, such environment-protection surveys may be more than a cover for a base. Environmental protection could also carry a political thrust. Maldives told the UN in 1987 that a 6.6 feet rise in sea level could submerge all of the country. Sea level is rising because of global warming. Global warming is a matter of paranoia for Maldives.

Maldives has criticised the decision of US president George Bush to reject the Kyoto pact on global warming. China calls the US decision "irresponsible", though it is one of the largest emitters of the global-warming carbon dioxide gas, and Zhu Rongji said in Male that China would work with Maldives on environmental issues.

"It will," said an official, "take China next to nothing to convert an honourable campaign against global warming into an anti-American campaign in Maldives."