To counter China, India needs a military base in Djibouti
The maiden visit by President Kovind to Djibouti comes in the wake of the opening of a Chinese military base in Djibouti. As India renew its strategic calibration for the region, the visit highlights the geopolitical significance of Horn of Africa. The Indian navy has been operating in the region, carrying on anti-piracy drives as well as in the evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen.
Djibouti is located at the entrance to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean: connecting Africa, the West Asia and rest of Asia. It is also the gateway to region’s multiple conflicts — inter-state and intra-state. In recent years, Djibouti has assumed significance for hosting multiple foreign military bases on its territory, including an important American base, used for counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia. India has traditionally engaged with African nations through its soft power initiatives, such as contribution to school and college education, laying of optic fiber networks, training of hospital staff and other skill development projects.
It has often been said that the Indian Navy’s operational area stretches from Bab-el-Mandeb to Straits of Malacca. The Indian strategic community has been arguing for some time at countering the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. The Chinese base in Djibouti is a realisation of those concerns. The protection of sea lines of communication and controlling the choke points, and maintaining access to major islands of the Indian Ocean are central to India’s security and economic prosperity. It has often been mentioned of New Delhi being the ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region; Djibouti, a strategic naval outpost, is a step in that direction to fulfil that objective.
The increased Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean region has raised alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. The docking of Chinese submarines in Pakistan and denial of a similar request by Sri Lanka point to the assertive nature of Chinese naval activity which can only be countered by defensive capabilities being built up by the Indian Navy.
The Indian navy has been developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a strategic outpost to monitor rival naval activity in the region. Over the past few years, India has also beefed up its military capacities on the strategic Bay of Bengal island territory which includes the refurbishment of naval air stations and operational turn around facilities. To counter increasing Chinese surveillance activities close to the Andaman Islands, New Delhi has been investing in the development of an integrated surveillance network in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea with radar stations in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and other littorals to keep track of Chinese naval activity.
An Indian outpost in Djibouti will have a huge signalling effect on the Chinese strategic thinkers with respect to their ambition in the Indian Ocean region. The increased non-traditional security challenges in the region and the West Asia also demand enhanced cooperation between the US and India through LEMOA. The agreement helps Indian armed forces to develop their capabilities, play better humanitarian assistance and relief operations, and to operate beyond the South Asian region in safeguarding its vital national interests.
It needs to be further highlighted that the Chinese naval activities in the South China Seas might be a precursor to their strategic ambitions of having an influence over another important maritime choke point at Bab-el-Mandeb. China for long has been trying to gain influence at major global choke points through a string of new naval bases and a series of economic deals. Through these various choke points nearly 90 per cent of all global trade passes. If any of the main trade chokepoints were disrupted, it would have an adverse impact on global GDP, employment, and inflation of nearly every country.
India currently does not have an embassy in Djibouti. The president’s visit suggests New Delhi is now revisiting its approach towards the region and re-engage strategically.
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