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International relations

Japan's military chief warns on China naval expansion

New Indian Ocean bases will support military activity in region

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army stand on a ship sailing off from a military port in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province on July 11, 2017.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Japan's top military officer has sounded the alarm over the expansion of Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

Speaking with the Nikkei Asian Review and other media in New Delhi, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, Japan's Chief of the Joint Staff, warned that the Chinese navy is steadily expanding the scope of its operations, referring to the country's rapid military build-up and its move to open a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

Kawano was in the Indian capital to attend Raisina Dialogue 2018, a multilateral conference for top government officials and experts on geopolitical and other issues.

On Thursday, Kawano delivered a speech on the operations of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Indo-Pacific region, in a session entitled "Uncharted Waters: In Search for Order in the Indo-Pacific."

Kawano also held talks with senior military officers of the U.S., Australia and the U.K.

Japan's Chief of the Joint Staff, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, warns of China's increasing capability in the Indian Ocean. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

In the interview, the head of the Self-Defense Forces discussed the geopolitical and security policy implications of China's Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative across Eurasia, and its "String of Pearls" strategy based on naval bases encircling India.

"By investing money in facilities surrounding India ... China is steadily expanding the network of its military bases" in the region, Kawano said.

As examples of facilities supporting Beijing's naval expansion strategy, he cited Gwadar Port in Pakistan, developed with Chinese investment for operations by China; the base in Djibouti, China's first overseas naval base, which was opened in August; and the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, which was handed over to China in December on a 99-year lease.

With regard to the establishment of the Chinese base in Djibouti, Kawano said it will obviously support the country's naval operations in areas around the Indian Ocean.

"The Chinese navy has been steadily expanding the range of its activities, making it easier to reach areas around the Mediterranean Sea," said Kawano.

Sri Lanka and China have so far described the Hambantora port as a commercial facility. But Kawano argued that the 99-year lease has effectively turned it into a Chinese military foothold.

Kawano pointed out that the Chinese navy's deployment capabilities could rise to new levels if the country builds its second overseas naval base in South Asia, at the Hambantota port, for instance.

Generally speaking, he said, by using such facilities as supply bases, Chinese naval ships will be able to stay in the Indian Ocean for a prolonged period without having to return home.

In recent years, China has frequently deployed its nuclear submarines and other naval vessels to the Indian Ocean.

In 2014 Chinese submarines made several calls at the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka in moves that provoked India, a leading regional power.

Last summer, when Chinese and Indian troops engaged in a tense two-month stand-off on a plateau in the Himalayas, China deployed its naval ships to the Indian Ocean and sent a nuclear submarine to a port in Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

"Our vital sea lanes run through the Indian Ocean as well as the South China Sea," said Kawano, adding that Japan will work with the U.S., Australia and India in responding to China's naval expansion in the region.

The four countries held a meeting of senior diplomats in November to develop an "Indo-Pacific strategy" for security cooperation in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

But there are limits to what Japan and India can do effectively to curb the expansion of Chinese naval operations in the region.

Japan, the U.S. and India conduct annual Malabar joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and waters close to Japan.

The exercises are aimed at demonstrating the ability of the three countries to launch large-scale joint military operations during security emergencies.

Kawano said defense cooperation among the three countries beyond the scope of the annual drills is not under consideration at the moment.

But the forces' chief voiced concerns about China's aggressive military buildup. If China continues its current pace of expanding military expenditure, he said, Japan will eventually face a serious security "situation that cannot be overlooked."

In 2016, China's military spending amounted to $215 billion, the second-largest in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The figure still represents only a third of U.S. defense spending, which totaled $611 billion. While China's military outlays have quadrupled in the past decade, however, U.S. defense expenditures have grown by only 16% during the period.

India's defense spending doubled in the decade to $55 billion, the fifth largest, while Japan's defense budget increased by 11% to $46 billion, the eighth in size.

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