Balance of power
Chinese naval presence in the South Pacific is causing concern to countries with interests in the region
Diplomatic Enclave

The Chinese navy has been spreading its sails in distant seas, causing unease in new places. It has a regular presence in the Indian Ocean and its military movement has fuelled concerns about its intentions in the region, as Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanbah said recently. Similarly, Chinese naval presence in the southern Pacific Ocean is causing concern to countries with interests in the region.

The rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and its increasing forays into the new areas has disrupted the traditional strategic balance, leading to new alignments in these regions. During a recent visit to Australia, French president Immanuel Macron proposed a strategic alliance of Australia, France and India to ensure balance in the Indo-Pacific region. While welcoming the economic and geopolitical rise of China, Macron advocated a ‘Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis’ as key for the region and their joint objectives of peace, stability and a rules-based order for the Indo-Pacific.

The proposal has some salience as all three nations are large maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region. France has substantial naval assets in the region as its territories span the Indo-Pacific region from Reunion Island and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean to Noumea, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia in the South Pacific. With the uncertainties in the global geopolitical landscape and new emerging realities, France is looking beyond its immediate region for alliances, and is consolidating its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Chinese navy has been flexing its muscles, not just in the South China Sea but also in the Indian Ocean. It made a self-confident assertion of its presence in the Indian Ocean last year when it deployed troops at its first overseas military base at Djibouti. The Horn of Africa port already hosts naval facilities of several countries including the US, France and Japan for their anti-piracy operations. Tensions erupted last week when the US charged the Chinese troops of using laser beams to harass American aircraft overflying in the region.

In early February, Chinese warships entered eastern Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait and exited through the Lumbok Strait. The Chinese fleet, which included an amphibious transport dock, was widely perceived as sending a message at a time when the constitutional crisis in the Maldives was at a peak. Chinese submarines were deployed in the Indian Ocean during the Doklam face-off.  

India’s ties with France and Australia have grown into strategic partnerships in the past decade. During Macron’s highly successful visit in March, India and France had agreed on a joint strategic vision for cooperation in the Indian Ocean with a military logistics support agreement. New Delhi has increased its engagement with the far away islands of the Pacific through its Act East policy. In 2014, it launched the Forum of India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) for a regular interaction with 14 island nations of the South Pacific. It has held two summits in Suva, Fiji Islands and in Jaipur in August 2015. The next round of Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan are to be held off the American territory, Guam in the western Pacific in June.

Both France and Australia are concerned about China’s increasing influence in the South Pacific especially as there were reports of China building a naval base in the island nation of Vanuatu. Though the media reports have since been denied by both Beijing and Vanuatu, China has built a large new wharf on one of Vanuatu’s islands which is too big for the tiny island nation’s own requirement. It is said to be largest in the South Pacific islands and can handle several large ships at the same time.

China has been expanding its aid and commercial ties with the Pacific island nations, at a time when western donors have been reducing their aid programmes in the region. Australia is the largest aid donor in the South Pacific but China has overtaken other traditional donors, the US and New Zealand in recent times. It has built large, showy infrastructure projects for the islands from stadium, airports to Parliament buildings. Beijing has kept a close eye on the islands as the scene of its contestation with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition.

Despite the revival of the Quadrilateral comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, Australia is not a part of the Malabar exercises even through Canberra had indicated its willingness to participate. China has made evident its unease over the Quad, and New Delhi’s bid to restore ties with China has meant that the naval exercises remained trilateral.

China’s naval capacity, built over the last decade, to operate far from its own shores is posing new challenges. It requires collaborative effort by groups of nations, not just France and Australia but including other regional maritime powers such as Indonesia to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

Shubha Singh