Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 00:09 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 00:09 | SYDNEY

String-of-pearls diving


Rory Medcalf


5 February 2009 14:01

Mysterious news reports – and hasty Indian Navy denials – have surfaced about a possible incident between an Indian submarine and the Chinese destroyers on anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden.

What to make of this? It is no surprise that an Indian submarine would be spying on the Chinese warships. First, India sees the Indian Ocean and periphery as its rightful and primary area of strategic interest — and fears Chinese encirclement through an alleged string of pearls strategy. Second, the very rare presence of Chinese naval vessels in these waters would be an intelligence-gathering opportunity too good to miss. Presumably, with such a variety of navies operating in each other’s vicinity on their various piracy-suppression missions, there’s a lot of mutual data collection going on. It’s only natural.  

Yet I doubt the South China Morning Post’s report is true in every particular. It is baffling, for a start, how the Chinese destroyers could have ‘forced’ a submarine to surface – unless they used depth charges as a none-too-subtle signal. But it is also curious that, while the Indian Navy has officially denied an incident took place, unnamed Indian sources are being quoted as differing only in the details of the event ('they didn’t force us to surface'), not whether it occurred.

In hopeful mode, I have written previously about the scope for inter-navy cooperation and communication that the campaign against piracy offers Asia’s maritime powers. This potential still exists. But the realist in me has no illusions about how small is the likelihood of China and India seizing the opportunity to start crafting some maritime security rules for their century.

I still like to believe we can thank the Somali pirates for encouraging major powers to join forces to keep the sea lanes secure. But at the moment it seems more likely they have indirectly accelerated the mistrust and naval competition between China and India. And with the financial crisis likely to throw the governments of all Asia’s great powers off balance, these are not good times for them to have to devote attention to security tensions.

Oh, and the Japanese are on their way.