Guest Column

Myanmar Ports key to China’s Strategy of Controlling Indian Ocean

By Yan Naing 18 May 2022

China is closing in on India after establishing ports at Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka and soon it will have access to the Indian Ocean from ports in Myanmar. In August 2021, China successfully trialled a cargo run from Myanmar’s Yangon Port all the way to China’s Yunnan Province.

China has a long history of supporting the military rulers of Myanmar by circumventing sanctions. The stakes are made even higher by the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a portion of the Belt and Road Initiative that runs from Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean port of Kyaukphyu in western Myanmar.

The concern is that CMEC will enable China’s navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to encroach on India in the Bay of Bengal. It will also allow China’s oil shipments to avoid the Strait of Malacca, which is patrolled by the United States (US) Navy’s Seventh Fleet. While the US and India appear to be at odds over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two have a shared interest in preventing the PLAN from gaining access to the Indian Ocean.

India is caught in a balancing act between its long-term ally Russia and its long-term adversary China. Over the past few years, the United States has intensified its alliance with India through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and other initiatives. Still, the Ukraine crisis is putting this budding friendship to the test.

By 2030, the PLAN will have 67 new major surface ships and 12 new nuclear-powered submarines, enough to control the Indian Ocean, according to US Naval Intelligence. China is growing its navy so that it can control seas by 2030 and displace the US Navy as the world’s most powerful navy by 2049.

There is concern in New Delhi that China’s threats to India’s maritime domain are increasing, and that India should increase its naval capabilities to counter that. At any one time, there can now be as many as 125 foreign vessels in the Indian Ocean, the most since World War II, according to estimates by India’s navy. Speaking during his first press conference in December 2021, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar said that the Indian navy might be tracking up to three PLAN ships at any given moment.

In order to meet the challenge of the PLAN, India needs to build up its naval power. But when it comes to India’s military funding, the Navy always receives only a fraction of the budget it asks for. On average, India spends 15 per cent of its military budget on its navy despite having only three branches of the military, while the US, with six branches, spends 30 per cent on the navy. The amount China spends on the PLAN is not clear. However, China’s total defense spending of US$252 billion is more than three times the US$72.9 billion India spends on its military.

Realizing the need to address that, New Delhi increased the navy budget by 44.53 per cent this year. Currently, the Indian Navy has only 130 vessels, many of which are two decades old. So while the increase in funding is a welcome move in the right direction, the situation is far from resolved.

Preventing China from gaining control of the Indian Ocean may necessitate the US adopting a new Indian Ocean policy and deepening its involvement with India through the QUAD and other initiatives. The US is in a position to coordinate with New Delhi by supporting the development of India’s economic, political, and military power. But Washington will have to evaluate whether India’s ties to Russia outweigh the help that New Delhi can lend the US in countering China. Similarly, India will have to decide if gaining US support against China is worth abandoning its relationship with Russia for.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym for a keen observer of China-Myanmar relations.

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