A Shang-class submarine of Chinese Navy underway in the Indian Ocean Region

New Delhi sees Beijing’s presence in naval drills with South Africa, Russia as part of an agenda to expand its military might in Africa

NEW DELHI: While South Africa’s joint military exercise with Russia and China is being dubbed by the western countries, including the US, as a development amounting to an endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India has some other reason to raise its eyebrows at the event. It is the presence of China that does not go down well with India. Though every nation is free to participate in a bilateral or multilateral joint military exercise like this, the security and diplomatic establishments at South Block in New Delhi are averse to Beijing being part of it.

The diplomats, who have been asked to keep a close eye on the exercise due to China’s presence in it, are of the view that Beijing’s only agenda is to look for more avenues and opportunities to grow its influence in the African region. “This is what China wants to use the joint military exercise for, which is being organised in the Indian Ocean off the African coast,” a diplomatic source aware of the matter told The Sunday Guardian. “A high-level meeting of diplomatic and security officials took place wherein a comprehensive analysis of this exercise from the perspective of China factor was carried out,” a source informed this newspaper.

There is no denying China is always more than keen to keep shipping lanes wide open and active for commercial ships which transport goods and other items from Chinese ports to African ports. There is evidence about how Beijing has been actively working to enhance its naval power in the Indian Ocean. China’s motive is to use this exercise to get its navy out into international waters in a much bigger way, sources said. China is already using Djibouti on the east African coast as a naval base on the pretext of fighting the piracy, while it is a clear attempt on the part of Beijing to enhance its presence in the region as part of its expansionist agenda.

“China is looking for more opportunities to establish and augment its bases in Indian Ocean off African coast, and it always readily agrees to participate in the joint military exercises which have potential to serve the strategic purpose,” an official said, adding, “This is exactly why India is closely monitoring China’s joint military exercise with South Africa and Russia.”

“India has no problem with South Africa and Russia together carrying out joint drills in the Indian Ocean. But Chinese presence alerts our security and diplomatic network,” sources say. Meanwhile, the US has criticised the 10-day naval drills, which will continue over the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, which is on 24 February. “The Ukraine and Russia war angle is not something that India is bothered about,” officials say. South Africa has already denied that the drill has anything to do with what marks the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion. The government of South Africa has said that it routinely hosts similar exercises with other countries including France and the US. South Africa has indicated that the western countries and the US also participate in such exercises held by it.

Sources said that the Indian High Commission in South Africa has been asked to keep a close watch over Chinese participation in the exercise called Mosi, which means smoke in the Tswana language. The diplomats would be sharing their feedback and inputs on the same “from China angle”. “Even the US is well aware of China’s agenda to expand its footprint in Africa. The Biden administration is rattled by China’s burgeoning trade with Africa,” said diplomats. Moreover, China has poured money into Africa for decades in the form of business and infrastructure investment. Beijing has also boosted security, strategic and diplomatic cooperation with the African nations. It has given huge loans to several African countries in what is seen as Beijing’s bid to grow its influence in the African region.

What has pressed alarm bells in the security establishments in Washington as well as in Delhi is that China’s growing influence in Africa also reportedly extended to arms sales.

Officials at South Block have noted with all seriousness the remarks made by British MP Bob Blackman who said during an interview recently that “China is trying to encircle India as it already has a very strong representation with Sri Lanka with the deep sea port and the international airport. It got strong representation in Pakistan and now in East Africa and increasingly in South America as well”.