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Beijing Takes the Buccaneers’ Place
By Nayan Chanda

In the early 1980s, people in Burma’s Kachin state witnessed a strange sight. A blond young man riding through the jungle on an elephant with a “press” sign merrily swinging from the howdah. That was Bertil Lintner, the intrepid Swedish journalist on his way to interview insurgent leaders. (Full disclosure: he is a former colleague of mine from the Far Eastern Economic Review) Since then, Lintner has emerged as one of the most insightful chroniclers of Asia. His latest book (his 20th) on the Chinese advance in the Indian Ocean in some ways shadows his personal journey. His narrative begins in North Burma, where China opened its gates to the south, and ends in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, where China set up its first overseas base. In a sweeping narrative, Lintner takes the readers across the Indian Ocean from the Andaman Islands to Seychelles and Comoros — the islands where China is setting up mileposts of its oceanic ambition.


In Lintner’s narrative, China’s southward push began with a desire to directly connect landlocked Yunnan province with the Indian Ocean. What started with the opening of a small bridge across the Ruili river into Myanmar in 1993 later connected Chinese roads and oil pipelines to a port on the Bay of Bengal. This modest commercial venture has since grown into a gargantuan project. The plan for acquiring a number of ports around the Indian Ocean, “a string of pearls” in the words of an American analyst, has grown into a geostrategic design in which the vast Indian Ocean itself has become the costliest pearl that China desires. In Lintner’s view, it is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to “replace the United States as the world’s leading economic, political, and military power.” While an alarmed India talks of its “Act East” policy, the US is working to offer resistance by mobilizing democratic nations of newly christened “Indo-Pacific” — the region that extends from “From Bollywood to Hollywood.”


Lintner’s book offers more than an account of Chinese efforts to extend its economic, diplomatic and military presence to the far-flung islands of the Indian Ocean. It is a primer on the history and politics of the Indian Ocean rim largely ignored by the mainstream media. In order to set the stage for China’s drive towards the Indian Ocean, Lintner devotes considerable space to describing China’s political maneuvers in Myanmar, the gateway to the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. Faced with the military junta’s attempt to reduce its China connection and win American friendship, Beijing adopted hardball tactics. It began supplying lethal weapons to Yangon’s ethnic minority rivals while offering valuable trade and investment. The junta’s brutal suppression of its Muslim Rohingya population, and the US and Western condemnation that this incurred, ultimately gave China an opening. Happy with Chinese support, Yangon allowed China to expand the Kyaukpyu port and build a railway line connecting it to Yunnan. A win for China’s Indian Ocean policy.


Lintner’s analysis of the diverse population spread over islands that have long been the playground for fortune-seekers, spies, pirates and buccaneers reveals how a methodical China has gone about laying the foundations of its influence. Long before China acquired its first overseas base in Djibouti, located at the entrance of the Red Sea, it has literally cemented its reputation by building stadiums, hospitals, foreign ministry buildings and a “People’s Palace.” A similar approach has been applied in other islands where long before the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, China won the hearts and minds of the local population by constructing various buildings and even a planned smart city near Port Louis in Mauritius.


Djibouti city reminds Lintner of Casablanca of the 1940s in colonial Tunis where everybody spied on everybody. But while Chinese and Americans diligently photographed each other’s equipment, other foreigners stationed there vied for the attention of the ladies of the night. “China,” Djibouti’s ruler Guelleh says, “is our friend, ... They believe in our future, our emergence.” Indeed, China has pledged support to build a port, airport, railway line and an oil terminal worth close to US$1.4 billion, equivalent to 75 percent of Djibouti’s total GDP.


Djibouti is only the first in a network of port facilities and potential military bases that China intends to build. Next in line is Pakistan’s deep water port Gwadar, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which the country was forced to hand over to China on a 99 year lease because of debt problems, and an island in the Maldives. While Myanmar’s prickly military rulers may not allow China to use the Chinese-developed Kyaukpyu port that connects Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal as a military base , it could have other uses. Chinese naval vessels could berth there for resupply and Myanmar’s signal intelligence facilities in the Coco Islands could provide valuable information to China. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean littoral and islands has brought it to places where it has never been.


But what do all these dispersed facilities add up to? While the US is concerned by the rising challenge to its Indian Ocean presence, from Diego Garcia to Djibouti, it is the newcomer China’s growing profile that spurs other powers, France and Australia, to linger on in their old possession and Japan to set up a military base in Djibouti. In addition to major US bases in Diego Garcia, France has Kerguelen, the Crozet Archipelago, and the Amsterdam and St Paul Islands; Australia owns the Cocos Islands and Christmas Island. India’s military installations on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also growing.


Still, from what Lintner describes, the Indian Ocean is not yet a powder keg. But China’s steady push and growing militarization of the area does create occasions for accidental clashes. Already the US forces in Djibouti who live cheek-by-jowl next to the Chinese have protested against Chinese shining a blinding laser at American pilots. Lintner speculates that Djibouti, with all its foreign bases close to each other, could be the place where a spark could ignite a global conflict.


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