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China's navy mulls push into Arabian Sea

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- A Chinese admiral's proposal to build a naval base in the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to supports Beijing's anti-piracy flotilla off Somalia, has alarm bells ringing in the region.

China's growing naval encroachment in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to protect its Middle Eastern oil supplies threatens eventual conflict with India, its longtime rival and Asia's other economic titan that is also flexing its muscles in its regional quest for oil.

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The Chinese navy joined the international operation against the Somali pirates a year ago with a couple of warships and a supply ship.

It was the first long-range projection of Chinese naval power in the region in 600 years and a clear part of Beijing's strategy of restoring naval supremacy there.

But the Chinese navy has encountered difficulties in sustaining such operations, involving complex logistics, so far from home. One escort flotilla spent 124 days at sea without docking. Chinese warships have been using a French naval base at Djibouti for resupply.

On Tuesday Rear Adm. Yin Zhou, a senior official at the navy's Equipment Research Center, proposed on the Defense Ministry's Web site that Beijing establish its own base in the region "to strengthen our supply capacity."

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He did not specify any country where such a base might be set up. But Beijing has been setting up bases across the Indian Ocean in competition with India for some time.

As the world's largest importer of crude oil, China is reportedly interested in establishing naval bases in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand to protect its increasingly important maritime supply routes from the Middle East and Africa.

The Chinese have been steadily building a chain of naval installations -- dubbed a "string of pearls" strategy -- across the Indian Ocean for some time.

Indian strategists have watched with dismay as the Chinese established a maritime reconnaissance and intelligence station on the Coco Islands, leased from Myanmar in the early 1990s.

The islands are an ideal location from which to monitor Indian naval and missile launch facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal as well as the Indian navy's maneuvers across the eastern Indian Ocean.

"Beijing is pursuing a two-pronged strategy to secure its energy, using the navy to protect maritime supply and building new pipelines," according to Jane's Intelligence Review.

China is building a major deepwater port on the Arabian Sea at Gwadar in Pakistan that could become a key naval base for China's expanding submarine fleet.

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Beijing also plans to run oil and gas pipelines into western China to reduce its dependence on the more vulnerable maritime routes.

China has been building another deepwater port that could be used by its naval forces at Hambantota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

On March 27 China and Myanmar signed an agreement to build twin pipelines to carry oil and gas from the Middle East and Africa 1,250 miles from the Arakan coast to China's southwestern Yunnan province, shortcutting the long sea voyage via Singapore.

The $2.6 billion project, expected to be operational by 2013, will further lessen China's dependence on the 560-mile Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia.

An estimated 80 percent of China's oil imports currently flow through the strait. The chokepoint seaway, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans, is considered highly vulnerable to interdiction.

China is now mulling the acquisition of aircraft carriers to bolster power projection in the Arabian Sea. It recently unveiled its first nuclear submarines capable of long-distance operations.

India already has one carrier and is expected to take delivery of another from Russia in the next couple of years. It launched its first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine in August.

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India has established a chain of naval facilities across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. These include a chain of radar stations across the Maldives, an archipelago of some 1,000 tiny islands and atolls running south from the Indian coast, to monitor Chinese movements.

New Delhi wants to establish an intelligence base in the Maldives as well.

India has also established a new listening post in northern Madagascar, a large island of East Africa, that is linked to similar facilities in Mumbai and Kochi on India's west coast that are the headquarters of its western and southern naval commands.

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