|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
An article in the China Daily during 2014 stated China plans to build 18 "Strategic Support Bases" in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), outlining a blueprint for the establishment of 18 Chinese "Overseas Strategic Support Bases" like in Djibouti, Aden, Salalah, Seychelles, Gwadar in Pakistan etc. China immediately denied such plans and the article was taken off. A second article in the China Daily Mail on November 22, 2014 quoting Sri Lankan sources reiterated Chinese plans to build 18 "naval bases" in the IOR in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), in Pakistan and Myanmar, Walvis Bay (Namibia), in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Madagascar and other parts of Indian Ocean. China denied all such reports. According to US media, China is constructing its second overseas military base in Pakistan at Jiwani in the Gulf of Oman, for which a joint China-Pakistan neeting between Pakistani military and PLA was held at Jiwani on December 16, 2017. The large naval and air base requires Pakistan to relocate scores of residents living in the area. But China denies such plans. The PLA has established a military base in Skardu in POK, some 23 km from Kargil, and plans to establish another military base in North Waziristan but China would deny it.
Now China is funding a Brigade of the Afghan Natioanl Army (ANA) and setting up a base for it in Badakshan region of North Afghanistan close to the Wakhan Corridor. China has already built a road through the Wakhan Corridor, where a railway line is also coming up. But China will deny plans for PLA presence at this new base, first under guise of construction, then joint patrolling, and finally a joint base – akin to the PLA base in Skardu region. China will deny it claims Afghan territory though it is on record that it does. China will deny it has been patrolling deep inside eastern Afghanistan though photographic evidence of it vehicle patrols exist. China denies all intrusions in Indian Territory claiming it is all Chinese territory. China denied intruding Bhutan in Doklam area, also claiming it is Chinese territory. So it can be comfortably concluded that China will deny all her expansionist actions. What perhaps China cannot deny is that Xi Jinping is China's President albeit China will continue to deny that Xi has expansionist plans like Hitler and maniacal tendencies given that under his orders all churches in China have been demolished, the mega church in Hong Kong where 50,000 Christians worshipped was dynamited recently, and all photographs of Jesus Christ have been replaced by that of Xi Jinping. Therefore, it is natural for China to deny it is developing a base in Maldives.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives in September 2014. Xi has secured Maldivian support for China's '21st century maritime silk road'. Chinese development projects are going full speed in Maldives. China has also agreed to build a road bridge between central Male island and nearby Hululle island, where the international airport is located. China and Maldives recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA) that will enable Chinese goods to flood Maldives without any import duty. Maldives President Abdulla Yameen was the first President to make a state visit to China in December 2017. Maldives already owes 70% of its total external debt to China and China will extract strategic mileage in return to huge loans including for refurbishing the international airport of Maldives. According to Zhiyong of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China is promoting Maldives as a maritime pivot; Maldives could become supply base for Chinese military and civil vessels. Both China and Maldives deny plans of any Chinese base in Maldives.
But Ahmed Naseem, former Foreign Minister of Maldives had warned as far back as in April 2016 of indications that Maldives was looking to let the Chinese build a port at Gaadhoo island in the southern atoll. According to him, "people had already been evacuated from the region and that the Chinese were currently (read April 2016) building roads there". He had significantly added, "I believe Yameen has done irreparable damage to India-Maldives relations and his actions will change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. The security issues of the region need to be re assessed and appropriate steps taken to keep the sea lanes safe and secure for the benefit of the regional countries". Naseem was the first Foreign Minister of Maldives to have officially visited Israel in May 2011. Gadhoo Island, 437 km from Male, falls under the administrative atoll of Gaafu Dhaalu. It is an inhabited island with a population of just 2,910. The Island has a length of 1,850 km and width of 0.580 km. If Chinese were developing roads in the Gadhoo Island during April 2016, possibly there would have been a secret deal between Xi and Yameen during Xi's visit to Maldives in September 2014, Xi being the first Chinese head of state to visit China. China will portray the development of Gadhoo Island under pretext of tourism infrastructure initially, followed by supply, berthing and maintenance base for China, Maldives and friendly countries (on lines of MoU China signed with Seychelles years back) and eventually a Chinese naval base co-opting Maldivian Coast Guards. No doubt China will keep denying such plans but gradual strangulation has been the Chinese way and in this case a certainty having caught Maldives by its financial jugular. Post reclaiming all the land it could in South China Sea (SCS), China commissioned the 'Tian Kun Hao' in July 2017; a ship capable of digging 6,000 cubic m per hour, equivalent of three standard swimming pools. China may deny but for certain this vessel will be used to deepen the shallow waters of Gwadar port and developing Chinese military bases at Jiwani and Gadhoo Island to accommodate nuclear submarines underwater. In January this year, China's indigenous underwater glider 'Haiyi', capable of reaching a depth of 6,329m successfully fulfilled a scientific observation in the Indian Ocean. Recently, Pentagon has reported existence of Russian underwater drones. It may be assumed that China too would be developing these, if not already deployed. Given the location of Gadhoo Island in the Indian Ocean, this Chinese military base will severely impinge on the security of India and that of the region.