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China sees ‘encircle’ ploy in India ties

- Big boys, big guns
Commander Zhang Zaige shows an anti-ship and anti-torpedo missile launcher on board the Weifang. Picture by Charu Sudan Kasturi

Qingdao: Commander Zhang Zaige flashed the smile of a proud parent as he showed off the weapon systems on board the Weifang, the warship he captains that is one of the latest additions to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s growing fleet.

The 76mm anti-aircraft gun on the frigate’s deck and the missiles aimed at intercepting enemy torpedoes and targeting ships are standard. The Indian Brahmos missile has a longer range. What has changed is China’s threat perception.

As China hardens its position on disputes with neighbours over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, the American move to pivot strategically towards the Asia-Pacific region has pushed India’s growing alliance with Japan and the US into sharp focus for Beijing and its military.

“I believe Japan and the US are trying to contain and encircle China,” said Rear Admiral Wang Ling, Zhang’s boss and the second in command of the North Sea Fleet that includes the Weifang, commissioned just this June.

One of China’s three navy fleets, the North Sea Fleet is based out of this port town 800km south-east of Beijing that is popular among Chinese tourists looking for a summer getaway and is the home of two of China’s best known global exports — Haier home appliances and Tsingtao beer.

Wang was responding to a question by The Telegraph on whether he thought Japan and the US, through their alliances with India, were trying to check China’s maritime growth.

What Wang said points to China’s growing tensions with two of its historical rivals in an ocean named after peace. What he did not mention —India — reflects Beijing’s concern: that New Delhi may get pulled into an alliance that China is convinced is ultimately aimed at containing it. It’s a concern betrayed repeatedly by Chinese officers, military officers and researchers — some subtly, others more explicitly.

China is lodged in a tussle with many of its neighbours — the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan — over islands in the seas that connect these nations. The intensification of these tussles has coincided with the US stating its intention to pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region as a focus of its naval activities. Added to the mix is the trilateral dialogue that India, Japan and the US have held four times since 2011.

“These are not innocent activities,” said Colonel Li Xiaolu, a PLA officer who researches on China’s strategic affairs at Beijing’s National Defense University. “The alliance between Japan, India and the US is definitely aimed at restricting China.”

Most countries in the Asia-Pacific Rim region point to China’s increasing maritime assertiveness as the trigger for the new scramble for the seas. China’s Navy, traditionally content to focus on its territorial waters, earned itself the mandate to evolve into a bluewater force for the first time under a key decision taken at the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 that saw the public anointment of Xi Jinping as the country’s new leader after a once-in-decade leadership change. This new mandate means the navy can operate in the open seas.

China has demanded that Japan give up the Diaoyu Islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japanese — in the East China Sea, and that Vietnam and the Philippines “return” to China islands and reefs they hold but that China insists were historically its.

And earlier this month, Wang’s North Sea Fleet participated in joint exercises with the Russian Navy in the Japan Sea, where the ships were seen from Japanese land by locals of the northern tip of the island of Hokkaido. This was uncharted territory for the PLA Navy.

But China is adamant that its actions are motivated purely by self-defence and a desire to protect its sovereign territories, ideally diplomatically. Listing out the key security threats faced by the country, the PLA’s latest white paper published this April says “some neighbouring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation” regarding China’s maritime security and sovereignty. “And Japan is making trouble over the Diaoyu Islands.”

The white paper then goes on to talk about Japan’s definite push towards forging stronger alliances with other Asian nations, including India. “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”

The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs strategic research journal — China International Studies — was even more direct in its June edition, accessed by this newspaper. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who triggered an uproar in China by challenging the historically documented widespread sexual abuse of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers during their occupation, is seeking Indian cooperation in encircling China, researcher Zhang Yaohua has asserted in the journal. This “cooperation” includes the first senior-level joint maritime affair dialogue between India and Japan this past January.

“Later, Japan approved the export of ‘US-2’ seaplanes to India in order to strengthen communications with India and contain China,” the journal said, referring to amphibious planes Tokyo agreed to sell during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in May.

Skipping niftily up and down steep ladders inside the Weifang, a Type 54A frigate, ship captain Zhang eventually reached some of his choicest charges: missiles sheltered inside the hull, unseen from outside. At Zhang’s command, the hull will open up, and the missiles will swivel on their axis to point seawards. They will most likely point eastwards, away from India and its ships.

But the increasing tensions in the seas around China have also injected uncertainty over the kind of missions the Weifang and its sister ships may need to embark on, and who their targets may be. Zhang is still waiting for orders. “I don’t know what mission I’ll be assigned,” he said.

(The reporter visited China last week at the invitation of the All China Journalists’ Association)