An influential US think-tank expert has warned that the increasing Chinese economics of “debt trap” will likely result in Beijing gaining greater access to several key countries around India. Richard D Fisher, Senior fellow at International Assessment and Strategy Centre, told members of the House Select Intelligence Committee during a hearing on ‘China’s Worldwide Military Expansion’ that the Chinese economic and ‘debt trap’ pressures will likely result in China gaining greater access to bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and perhaps the Maldives.
“Bangladesh carries about USD 8 billion in Chinese debt but has a close military relationship, purchasing many of its latest weapons systems from China,” he said in his testimony yesterday. He also said India assumes that in case of a major conflict with China, there could be a coordinated military action from Pakistan. Recently, India has decided to upgrade its military facilities on the Nicobar Islands, which could restrict Chinese Navy access to the Indian Ocean, he said. “Indian planning already assumes that a major conflict with China could see coordinated military action from Pakistan,” Fisher said. During the 2017 Dokalam confrontation with China, India was ready for conflict with Pakistan as well, he claimed.
In February-March 2018, a government crisis in the Maldives, 400 km South of India, combined with simmering Indian concern over growing Chinese influence, saw both India and China deploy forces for signalling, Fisher said. India deployed air assault forces to bases closer to the Maldives, while China sent into the Eastern Indian Ocean a PLA Navy group centred around a Type 071 amphibious assault ship to assure its friends in the Maldives government, he said. “It is instructive that even though its amphibious projection forces are small, China was bold enough to employ them to deter India. China will likely show greater activism in support of its friends when it has aircraft carrier battle groups to deploy and obtains greater military access to Indian Ocean bases,” Fisher said.
China is critical of the Japanese proposal, more recently boosted by the Trump administration, for Australia, Japan, India and the US to form a “Quad” for the purpose of increasing coordination and eventual strategic cooperation, he said. Dan Blumenthal Director and Resident Fellow Asian Studies American Enterprise Institute said China has mass investment and construction projects in countries that offer potential access to the Indian Ocean, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition to infrastructure and capital investment, China has bought up many global ports around key trade routes and maritime choke-points, usually first for commercial purposes and then sometimes transitioning their use for military assets as well.
“An example of this is the Gwadar port in Pakistan, where first Beijing invested heavily to secure ownership over a strategic trading base and eventually the PLA Navy began conducting port visits. “In Sri Lanka, Greece and Djibouti, Chinese investment in civilian ports have likewise been followed by deployments or visits of PLAN vessels,” Blumenthal said. Djibouti has become China’s first overseas military base, he added.