India wary of China’s naval bases in Africa

India looked with suspicion at China’s establishment of Naval bases along the African coast in the name of fighting pirates, and felt the US climbdown over the USS ‘Impeccable’ incident of 2008 was unhelpful.

The USS Impeccable, an unarmed surveillance ship of the US Navy, was repeatedly harassed by Chinese naval and other ships and forced to leave China’s exclusive marine economic zone in 2008-09.

While the US maintained that all ships, including Naval ones, had the right to pass through the exclusive fishing zones of other countries, China maintained that safe passage was applicable only to passenger and other civilian ships.

A US diplmatic cable from New Delh dated April 2009, brought out the concerns of the Joint Secretary for East Asia in India’s ministry of external affairs, Vijay K Gokhale, at China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean and Africa.

“‘It looks like the U.S. is adjusting to a new reality,’ said Gokhale, adding that the U.S. response to the Impeccable fed into China’s efforts to create an impression of power that might be used to coerce other nations,” the cable said, describing Gokhale’s meeting with US embassy officials in New Delhi.

The cable forms part of the Wikileaks release.

India, as mirrored in Gokhale’s views, considered it inevitable that China would become more and more powerful in its Navy, but was more concerned about the intentions behind its specific moves rather than its overall strength.

“Gokhale noted that force accretion is inevitable for a rising power.. China is seeking to establish an increasing number of bases in Africa, he noted, and the reasons for this are not clearly stated by Beijing,” the cable noted.

The Indian official seemed to differ with the US officials when it came to seeing China’s military growth as the primary point of concern.

“Capacity is a critical issue, but he suggested that the urgent question for India is, what are China’s intentions… India’s focus is on how China uses its equipment rather than how it spends,” the cable said.