China Plumbs Indian Depths

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India’s northern neighbour has won a seabed exploration bid in the Indian Ocean. Is this part of a grand design to encircle us?

China has done it again. Alarmed the Indian security establishment. This time round, it has secured a deep sea mining approval from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore an Indian Ocean ridge for undersea polymetallic sulphide deposits. This raises the spectre of Chinese vessels, including military ones, roaming the seas just about a thousand kilometres south of the Indian peninsula.

With its ‘blue sea’ naval ambitions, India has long aspired to holding sway over the Indian Ocean. But China’s winning of an exploratory bid right under India’s nose clearly means two things: one, that New Delhi should have been better prepared for such an outcome; and two, it makes no sense talking endlessly about foiling its northern neighbour’s geo-political gameplan without the wherewithal to pre-empt its moves.

Polymetallic sulphide deposits are a recently discovered source of minerals, found around volcanic springs on the seabed and thought to contain gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper. While India slept, China awoke to their potential quite some time ago. As Wang Fei, deputy director general of the China Oceanic Administration, announced in Beijing last week, the prospecting application was submitted in May 2010 to the ISA, a UN body, and it has allowed China to explore a section of the Southwestern Indian ridge for 15 years. The ridge lies in the southern hemisphere, not far from Madagascar. “It covers an area of about 10,000 sq km,” Fei said, “China will enjoy priority in offshore mining for commercial purposes in the approved area when conditions mature.”

The ISA, which regulates prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in international seabed areas, estimates that each polymetallic sulphide deposit could hold as much as 110 million tonnes of metal ore. However, only about 5 per cent of the 60,000 km of oceanic ridges, where most such deposits are believed to lie, have been surveyed in any detail so far. That leaves the field open to other explorers with the requisite expertise.

“Refined metals from the deposits will help China meet its increasing demand for mineral resources for its rapid economic development,” in the words of Jin Jiancai, another Chinese official. The exercise will help China access new mineral resources, learn more about the deep-sea environment, and even enhance technologies for deep-sea mining and exploration, he added.

So, is that the sole aim—to search for minerals? Jabin T Jacob, a Delhi-based China analyst, does not want to ascribe any ulterior motives to this Chinese move. “Ultimately, it is a capability issue,” Jacob says, “The Chinese first received such a deep sea prospecting licence in 2002 (in the Pacific Ocean). Indian planners should have seen this coming. And, India has not even developed the capabilities required to pre-empt such a Chinese move.”

The move speaks of Chinese acumen in more than one way. It takes space surveillance to identify ocean zones worth exploring, and China may well have used its space assets to the hilt to narrow its choice down to the Southwestern Indian ridge. While India’s own Isro is content sending up experimental satellites—a euphemism for low-orbit spy satellites—and surveying the Indian Subcontinent for mineral deposits through remote sensors, China has gone well beyond its littoral with the help of the technology at its disposal.

Under the terms of the 15-year contract that China will sign with the ISA this November, after eight years of prospecting, China will have to give up its exploration rights to half the approved area; and after 10 years, it will be allowed to explore only 2,500 sq km. This places a premium on precision planning. Clarity on exactly where the mineral deposits are located (“the most treasured area”), Jin said, was important.

The average depth of the approved ridge is about 3,000 metres, well within China’s capability; it has already tested its indigenous technology to reach depths of 5,000 metres undersea. Jiaolong, a Chinese submersible vessel, recently plumbed a depth of 5,188 metres on a test mission, and is reputed to be able to reach 7,000 metres under optimum conditions. Last year, it logged as many as 17 dives in the South China Sea, reaching 3,759 metres in its deepest dive. Whether it was a manned mission is not known, but it was impressive all the same. Only four other countries are known to be able to reach depths of 3,500 metres or more: the US, Russia, France and Japan.

What has got heads being scratched in New Delhi, however, are the military implications of China’s deep-sea programme. After all, such a presence can pose a hard-to-monitor threat. With India already unsettled by China’s purported ‘string of pearls’ strategy to encircle the country—as in the Chinese board game Go—oceanic vulnerability is not something to be ignored. An Indian Navy document has already expressed concern that the ISA permission places Chinese hardware much too close for India’s comfort. Also, on the pretext of deep-sea mining, China could access valuable oceanographic and hydrological data that could be used for purposes of military mapping.

Jacob says the Indian Navy needs to be wary of Chinese operations so close to its waters, but feels that the country should not overreact, given that it is already accustomed to Chinese anti-piracy and disaster relief operations in the region. Also, such exploration contracts are routine nowadays. For one, China does have the expertise, acquired during its 2002 ISA-approved exploration of 150,000 sq km of the Pacific seabed. For another, other countries are in the game too. On 19 July, the ISA approved three other deep-sea explorations. Nauru and Tonga were given approval for exploration for polymetallic deposits in the reserved area of the Clarion-Clipperton Fractured Zone in the east Pacific Ocean. Likewise, Russia was given a nod for the same in the mid-Atlantic range.

Moreover, some suggest that China wouldn’t dare anything too aggressive in the Indian Ocean, since the US has it under close watch from its vantage point of Diego Garcia, just south of the equator, supported on two sides by its Navy’s heavily armed Seventh Fleet based in Japan and Fifth Fleet based in the Gulf.

Still, as an independent guardian of its own interests, India has no option but to keep a close watch on Chinese moves in the neighbourhood.

China has signed a string of agreements, including some military ones, with Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. Lately, it has been wooing countries like Seychelles and Mauritius, both of which have uninhabited small islands that could serve China’s aim of setting up listening posts.

So far, Mauritius and Seychelles have been friendly to India and have even let Indian military interests operate on their soil. But with China investing heavily in infrastructure and commerce there, the delicate balance in India’s favour could well change.

Notably, China has given a $300,000 grant to the Indian Ocean Islands Games currently underway in Victoria, Seychelles, in which six island countries are participating: Madagascar, Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion Island, Mayotte and Seychelles. China’s grant, routed through the Guangdong People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, was in the form of laptops, timing devices, LCD screens and sports accessories. So, even as India kept this event off its radar, China managed to generate some valuable goodwill for itself.

It doesn’t help that Nepal, to India’s north, may already have made the switch in regional allegiance after Maoists seized partial power three years ago, ending the Himalayan state’s India-friendly monarchy.

New Delhi cannot afford any further loss of influence in the region. India’s Ministry of External Affairs, acting as reactively as ever, is reportedly trying to stop China’s Indian Ocean venture legally, but it is doubtful if such exploration in international waters can be blocked on the basis of mere suspicion.

As Jacob says, China’s capabilities do not necessarily signify hostile intent, let alone hostility. “And where the two come together, China still often has to walk on eggshells on the international stage,” he says, “Chinese military modernisation is under global and regional scanners, and this constrains China, for, as an aspirant to the world No. 1 spot, it cannot afford to worry its neighbours, offend other powers, or overreach itself.”

At this juncture, all India can do is ask the ISA to ensure that the Chinese adhere strictly to the terms of their licence for exploration and mining operations. Such a request would be a signal enough of India’s scepticism of China’s agenda in the Indian Ocean.

However, as the Asian geo-political stakes rise, India will simply have to raise its own game. It must stay alert, and learn to get there first—even if it’s a few thousand metres underwater.