Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo

China warns of ‘military race’

A deal between India and Indo­nesia to develop strategically located ports on either side of the eastern entrance to the Malacca Strait has prompted Beijing to warn that any attempt to militarise the zone connecting the Indian Ocean and South China Sea could ignite a regional “military race”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the agreement — one of 15 inked with Indonesian President Joko Widodo — during a one-day visit to Jakarta on Wednesday, part of a Southeast Asian tour that will also see him give the keynote speech at Singapore’s Shangri-La defence dialogue today.

Ahead of the deal, the Global Times, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party, warned that Beijing would not “turn a blind eye to possible military co-operation between India and Indonesia at Sabang” given its heavy dependence on the ­Malacca Strait for economic and energy security.

“If India really seeks military access to the strategic island of Sabang, it might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers,” an article said this week, highlighting Beijing’s investment in ports across the ­Indian Ocean.

“India’s investment in Southeast Asian ports is welcome, but if new infrastructure facilities fin­anced by India in those ports are designed for military use, China can take various counter-­measures. At the least, Beijing can adopt the same measures in the Indian Ocean.”

India and Indonesia have agreed to jointly develop maritime and economic infrastructure on their respective outer islands — India’s Andaman Islands and Indonesia’s Sabang Island in Aceh province — to improve trade and tourism on either side of their shared sea border.

The deal was discussed last month by the Indonesian President’s key cabinet ally and Maritime Co-ordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan during a visit to New Delhi in which he highlighted the suitability of Sabang’s deep-water port for civilian and military vessels, “including submarines”.

This week, both sides denied plans to militarise the ports and said it was part of efforts to develop the two countries’ maritime relationship, a key element of their newly elevated comprehensive strategic partnership.

Indian security analyst Brahma Chellaney told The Australian there was little doubt of the strategic intention behind the joint development of Sabang Port, and that Chinese port-building activities in the region were prompting other countries to invest in similar efforts as a counter-balance.

Sabang Island lies near the northwestern entrance to the narrow Malacca Strait — one of the world’s most important waterways, connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans but also a key vulnerability for China, given the ­potential for a naval blockade by the US and its allies.

Beijing’s maritime silk route policy is all about developing an alternative shipping route to the Malacca Strait to improve food and energy security.

“If you look at Sabang and India’s naval base in the Andaman Islands, these two will play a central role in the security of the ­Malacca Strait and the northeast Indian Ocean,” Mr Chellaney said.

“Indonesia has so many ports but this one has critical value because of what China has done in the South China Sea,” he added, referring to Beijing’s occupation and military build-up of contested reefs and islands there.

“By turning those artificial islands into de facto permanent aircraft carriers, China is now positioning itself at the mouth of the Indian Ocean but it can only access the Indian Ocean through Indonesia’s waterways, so Sabang and Andaman are going to be the gatekeepers.”

Southeast Asia defence analyst Richard Heydarian said the ­recent improvement in bilateral relations between India and ­Indonesia reflected a “growing ‘middle power’ diplomacy and ­co-operation amid uncertainties over American and Chinese ­assertiveness”.

Mr Joko has made his commitment to developing Indonesia as a “maritime fulcrum” — by building up its maritime defence capacity and infrastructure — a key plank of his presidency.

Chinese maritime intrusions into the Natuna Islands, in the South China Sea but within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, are a clear threat to that ambition.

Meanwhile, India has been steadily pursuing a “look east” policy, and expanding its involvement in strategically located ports around the Indian Ocean amid growing concern over Chinese maritime expansionism in its traditional sphere of influence.

Mr Modi highlighted those “concerns as maritime neighbours and strategic partners” in his speech on Wednesday.

“It is our duty to ensure security and stability of our maritime region,” he said.

“This is necessary to protect our economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.”