China's Sri Lanka port raises concern

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- China's construction of a port in Sri Lanka and a Chinese admiral's suggestion Beijing build a naval base in the Gulf of Aden has raised fears in the Middle East that a confrontation between China and India is looming along vital energy export routes.

Both the Asian titans, whose economies continue to expand despite the global financial meltdown, are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and will become more so as supplies dwindle.


The Indians are building their naval forces across these vital shipping lanes through which some 85 percent of China's oil supplies pass along with raw materials from Africa.

Inevitably, these will increasingly encroach on Middle Eastern and African waters as Beijing seeks to protect the economic arteries on which it is becoming increasingly dependent all the way from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.


This is causing grave concern in India, which is vying for the same energy and mineral resources as China.

This raises the prospect, distant though it may be, of a confrontation between the two. The region is vital too for the Gulf states as an energy export and trading route as they increasingly look eastward.

There is also the possibility that one day China and the United States, which has long been the dominant naval force in the Indian Ocean, may also clash.

New Delhi views China's efforts to expand its regional clout through its "string of pearls" strategy -- ringing India with naval bases and electronic listening posts -- as an attempt to muscle into waters India has long considered its own.

Indeed, the Chinese are seeking to protect their maritime trade further east as well in the Strait of Malacca, a major shipping choke point between Malaysia and Indonesia that links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Beijing wants to ensure unhindered access to the narrow waterway for its energy shipments.

The construction of the $1 billion container port at Hambantota, until recently a fishing hamlet on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast, illustrates how the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is becoming more pronounced.


The deep-water port will include a development zone and an oil refinery.

Over the last few years, the Chinese have built a similar port at Gwadar on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, which will eventually be the terminal for pipelines carrying Gulf crude and natural gas to western China.

Another is planned at Chittagong in Bangladesh, an oil refinery terminal in the northern Bay of Bengal east of India.

These could become bases for China's growing submarine fleet, a potential threat to the arterial shipping lanes running east from the Persian Gulf.

The Chinese are reported to have established a naval base in Myanmar and intelligence surveillance bases on islands across the Bay of Bengal.

Another is reportedly being built on Marao Island in the Maldives chain that runs south toward the British base of Diego Garcia, currently manned by U.S. forces.

Beijing says it has no interest in establishing major foreign bases so far from home. But as its economy mushrooms and its naval forces swell, it will inevitably require bases to project its growing power.

China is reported to be interested in establishing facilities in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand.

In December, Rear Adm. Yin Zhou, a senior officer at the Chinese navy's Equipment Research Center, proposed a naval base be established in the Gulf of Aden, which would take Chinese expansion even further west than it is now.


Ostensibly, Yin's idea was to support China's naval flotilla attached to the international anti-piracy task force deployed off Somalia.

There is no question that piracy is a growing problem, not only in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, but in the Strait of Malacca and elsewhere.

The International Maritime Bureau, which monitors global piracy, said there were 42 attacks on oil tankers around the world in 2009, a 40 percent increase over 2008. And most took place off Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.

But given China's naval expansion, it would make sense for Beijing to seek a military foothold in the Gulf of Aden, adding another strategic dimension and threat of conflict to a region already riddled with risk.

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