Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee
Tensions in the Indo-Pacific have been rising as China, a global manufacturing hub and an economic power, is trying to assert itself out of its geographic constraints. The first island chain composed of the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and Borneo limits China’s unrestricted access to the open sea.
China may be competing to replace the US to achieve global hegemony but it also knows the fact that geopolitical dominance of the US comes from the open sea access it has on both east and the west away from any immediate imminent danger.
With industrial giant Japan, and a nuclear power like India in the neighborhood and Taiwan’s strategic value as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” – as described by General Douglas MacArthur, clearly puts China in the category of global power in making – essentially a work in progress but with pitfalls.
With the US and the Quad Alliance limiting the Chinese dominance in the Pacific Ocean, it faces another dilemma in the “land-locked” Indian Ocean. The access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for China is controlled by nine major “choke points.” The most prominent among these choke points are the Straits of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Bab-el-Mandeb between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and the Strait of Malacca.
The shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean are vital for global trade and more importantly for the energy security of a manufacturing giant like China, which imports 80 percent of its oil needs from the Gulf region. Moreover, China has a capacity of 55-60 days of reserve petroleum products, which makes it all the more vulnerable to any mischief in the Indian Ocean.
The Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies such as India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It is part of the Maritime Silk Road that runs from the Chinese coast towards the southern tip of India to Mombasa, from there through the Red Sea via the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean.
Chinese dominated and traded on this route since time immemorial. China repeatedly evokes expeditions of a Muslim eunuch, Admiral Zheng He, in the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century.
The Malacca strait is funnel-shaped with a width of 65Km in the south that broadens northward to around 250Kms between Weh Island and the Isthmus of Kra on the mainland. The straight sees around 94000 thousand of vessels passing through it every year. This amounts to 60 percent of the global trade, 70 percent of the petroleum products, 33 percent of the bulk cargo, and half of the world’s containers. It is the busiest strait in the world with a depth of 25 meters or just 82 feet. The maximum size of a vessel that can pass through the Strait is referred to as the Malaccamax.
Strategically, it is one of the world’s most congested shipping choke points because it is only 2.8km wide at the Phillip Channel, close to the south of Singapore. It means that ships exceeding the Malaccamax must detour a few thousand nautical miles and use the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, Sibutu Passage, and Mindoro Strait instead to reach China.
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao 2003 coined the term ‘Malacca dilemma’, referring to Chinese concerns about the closure of the strait. Moreover, the Indian Navy gets access to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base for logistical support including refueling located near the disputed South China Sea.
Thus, to obviate its Malacca dilemma, China began making deep forays into the Indian Ocean. Under its “String of Pearls” strategy, China gained a strategic foothold by building ports of Kyau Phyu in Myanmar, Chittagong, Sonadia, and Pyara in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar, and Jiwani in Pakistan, and Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden.
In a prolonged stand-off and war-like situation, chocking of the sea lanes by the US, Japan, Australia, or India may force China to run out of steam. China now also understands that submarine patrolling is not enough to gain strategic dominance in the world as the only way goodwill could be generated is through strategic alliance, hence “String of Pearls.” The Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is also part of the strategic plans for China to secure alliances in the Indian Ocean for free access. The China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are force multipliers to contain and roll back Indian influence.
China also eyes opening its route to gas-rich Central Asian countries through the newly established Taliban regime in Afghanistan along with Indian Ocean access through CPEC through Karakoram Range if not through Wakhan Corridor to Xinxiang province. It is as ambitious as all the Chinese plans on the paper but the ground realities of Afghanistan ranging from the struggle for dominance between ISIS Khorasan and the ruling Taliban and double-crossing by Pakistan to meet its own strategic ends tell a different story. So big are the security concerns of China over CPEC that it has now decided to man the CPEC with its own well-equipped private security company – essentially, Chines Black Swans on Pakistani soil.
India has expressed her concerns several times over CPEC as it passes through its territory illegally occupied by both China and Pakistan through the Karakoram pass. India also cannot ignore Chinese forays into the Bay of Bengal through CMEC or China Bangladesh Economic Corridor (CBEC).
Chinese Way of Solving Dilemma
A great plan China is trying to push is a Suez-like canal through Thailand, a 120Km mega canal cutting through the Isthmus of Kra. It is certainly a great idea as it would help Beijing in solving its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ as it will open the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Strait of Malacca. Once completed, the proposed Kra Canal will save about 1200 Km of navigation, and 28 to 40 hours of travel time. But Thailand so far has not fallen for the Chinese bait. Japan, Australia, India, and the US are other suitors for the project, turning it into a difficult choice for Thailand to make.
China’s growing dependence on the world for fuel, and natural resources and its geographical constraints of open sea access essentially make it a “caged tiger.” The Malacca straight is a choke on its neck which it is trying to fight off by employing every available trick in the book. It is also diversifying its sources of energy to reduce its dependency on oil from the Middle East.
But despite heavy patrolling by submarines in the Indian Ocean, China’s Malacca dilemma is here to stay.
(Maj Gen (Rtd.) Sudhakar Jee, VSM is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment. He has commanded troops in varied terrain, climate, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times