Monday, July 12, 2010

Chinese Warships Fill Indian Ocean Ports


July 9, 2010: Chinese warships participating in anti-piracy operations off Somalia have been giving their ships five day breaks at three ports (in Oman, Djibouti and Yemen). The ships take on fuel and provisions, and the crews get some time ashore. Other foreign warships off Somalia are also doing this, even though some of them have support ships that can reprovision and refuel warships while underway. The Chinese government is content with these arrangements, but many Chinese admirals are not.

For nearly a year now, Chinese admirals have been pushing their government to help them establish a support base near the Persian Gulf. The immediate need is for an easier way to supply the Chinese warships working with the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. This could be done by negotiating basing rights, where some Chinese naval personnel would set up shop at a port in the area, and make arrangements for resupplying and repairing any Chinese warships operating in the area, as well as allowing the Chinese warships to tie up in the local port for extended periods of time. Such arrangements are basically a commercial undertaking, but must be negotiated government-to-government because military forces are involved. Many nations have such arrangements in the region, particularly the Persian Gulf. Chinese sailors coming ashore would basically be treated like tourists, and subject to local law. This can get sticky if sailors misbehave, as sailors sometimes do, and get arrested. Many sailors on Chinese warships have access to classified information, and no navy likes having their sailors under the control of foreign police. It's feared that the police investigation will include agents from a local, or foreign, intelligence, agency.

Some Chinese admirals are content with the current arrangements which, they note, works fine with other foreign warships that have been doing these types of distant operations far longer than the Chinese. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats have been negotiating other commercial deals with the nations hosting the Chinese warships,

There is a tendency for the basing rights to evolve into a naval base, complete with a "status of forces" agreement which allows the Chinese navy to discipline misbehaving sailors, in cooperation with local authorities (so the sailors don't get away with anything, especially in the eyes of the locals.) Allowing a foreign navy to establish themselves on your territory is a touchy subject, and must be handled carefully. The Chinese would be expected to be generous and useful guests. But, at the same time, the full time presence of the Chinese navy would mean a military relationship with the local host, and a willingness to help the host out in the event of any diplomatic trouble or military threat. This works both ways, as a major rationale for a Chinese naval base in the region is to protect the growing traffic in sea traffic of raw materials headed for China, and manufactured goods coming in from China. Everyone has an interest in insuring that this sea traffic moves unhindered by pirates, or any other manmade threat. Well, almost everyone.

India is not enthusiastic about a Chinese naval base in the region. India sees China as a military, diplomatic and economic competitor. India sees itself as the master of the Indian Ocean, and China as an unwelcome interloper. Thus any Chinese effort to establish a naval base in the Western Indian Ocean would be opposed by India, and many existing Indian allies in the area. Because of the Indian hostility, nations in the area are not keen to allow the establishment of Chinese naval bases. India has been a major trading partner in the region for thousands of years, and is seen as a more natural fit than distant China. But money talks, and China has more of that. Chinese diplomats in the region advise the admirals to be patient.