Two warships from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) docked on Sunday 29th August at Thilawa Port near Rangoon, Burma. It was the first time Chinese naval warships have visited Burma in their 60-year relationship, and is being viewed as a statement of intent to exert control over the Indian Ocean.
Chinese media has reported that the warships were sent with the aim of promoting friendly relations with the Burmese navy. While Burma has long been a rogue state in the eyes of the West, China is the junta's key ally, investor and trading partner. In November 2009, China began construction of a pipeline across Burma and has been involved in the development of hydro power. China has also sold Burma arms and has been able to shield it from UN sanctions as a result of its permanent member status on the UN Security Council. In return, China has secured access to raw materials from Burma, such as teak and gems.
A key factor of their relationship, however, is China's desire for access to the Indian Ocean. A 2009 report by Chinese scholars Li Chenyang and Ley Liang Fook said:
“China wants to shift from a one-ocean state to a safer and more stable two-ocean state to enhance its security. Hence, a core objective of China's policy towards Myanmar [Burma] is to establish a strategic network of road, rail and air transport from Yunnan Province in the southwest through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean and also to construct water, oil and gas pipelines.”
While Indian and China have a 3,500km-long disputed Himalayan border, it is possible that in the future the flashpoint for disputes between the two Asian heavyweights will be the Indian Ocean. Both countries have been raising the international profile of their navies, for example, in fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia. But China has been the more aggressive country in using its navy for diplomatic purposes, such as last week's visit to Burma. According to US Navy Commander Steven L. Horrell, the US Navy, India and China are all competing for influence in the Indian Ocean, to protect their strategic interests. He insists, however that China's moves are "not incompatible with a peaceful rise."
In recent years, China has expanded its port facilities in countries that border India, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, but while it should be noted that the ports are commercial structures, not naval bases, Indian strategists have nonetheless refered to the projects as a 'string of pearls' encircling India in its strategic back yard. The Indian Ocean has been described as the 'Silk Road of the 21st century', moving Gulf oil and African minerals to the world's two most populous nations.
The visit of the Chinese navy to Burma comes a time of already heightened tension between China and India; Beijing recently denied a visa to Indian Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal because he oversaw Army operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and an Indian newspaper reported on Saturday 28th August that India had responded by suspending military exchanges. Chinese media sources have said they are unaware of any change in relations, and the Indian government has refused to comment.
The Indian Ocean's role as a key shipping route is only going to increase as the Chinese spread their investing power around the world. How India react to China's actions could be of crucial importance to not only the region, but the world.
Sources: Yahoo news, The Irrawaddy, The Bangkok Post