(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and
commentator. He can be reached at email@example.com)
Do you remember Captain Nemo, the immortal character of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea? While in a gossiping session with Professor Pierre Arronax of the Paris Museum of Natural History, Nemo offers him a cheroot. The Professor is surprised and thinks that Nemo, who has voluntarily decided to shun the civilized world, still maintains a connection with Havana, famous for such cigars. But Nemo soon dispels the Professor's illusion and gave out that the cheroot was actually made of sea weeds. Nemo also predicted mining of minerals from sea beds in future.
This may be the reason behind the next round of stand-off between India and China in the Indian Ocean. Recently a Chinese research vessel was caught conducting illegal research activities to the west of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The ship was asked to quit. It complied with the order. But something more serious has come to light. Another Chinese survey ship recently released underwater drones in the Indian Ocean to survey ocean floors. Now mapping of ocean floors and underwater currents by drones can be a very effective tool for having an idea about ocean deposits and also for submarine and anti-submarine warfare.
Strategically speaking China's intentions in the Indian Ocean are not very clear. Of course, China is boosting up its naval strength at a rapid pace. It bought a Kiev class aircraft carrier from Ukraine in 2012 and rechristened it as Liaoning. Beijing has also commissioned another home-made aircraft carrier called Shandong in 2019 and a third one is under construction. It is boosting up its satellite surveillance technologies. It has acquired more advanced space technologies in the form of BeiDou-2 and 3 satellite constellations which will give it considerable leverage over the Indian Ocean.
However, it is pointless to compare India's naval strength with that of China because no confrontation in the Indian Ocean will remain bipartisan. About 40 per cent of the world's total oil supply and 64 per cent of oil trade pass through various lanes of this ocean and the US, Japan, Australia and India has formed a maritime bloc called Quad which stages joint naval exercises here. For China more important is the heavily-clogged Malacca Strait which is actually the gateway for Chinese energy supply coming from the Persian Gulf.
Through its acquisition of several ports and bases in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean like the Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Kyaukphyu in Burma and the Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Beijing is perhaps girding up its loins to thwart any future attempt to block its energy supplies although it may not have plans of any immediate military venture against India right at this moment. However, there are reports that China is feverishly upgrading its base at Djibouti where it has even built up underground quarters for housing 10,000 personnel. Originally described as a logistics supporting hub for Chinese ships engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, this massive upgrading does not tally with the base's publicly stated objective. In addition China is reportedly helping Bangladesh in building up a naval base at Cox's Bazar and the alleged militarization of the Gwadar port in Pakistan has been reported in international media.
But the presence of a Chinese research vessel near the Andaman and Nicobar Island gives the whole issue a totally new twist. Indian Ocean is rich in mineral deposits and in near future we may witness here another theatre of Indo-China rivalry akin to what has been happening on the Himalayas. It will not be an over statement to say that the future of mankind lies beneath the oceans and a confrontation between the two Asian giants over the mines lying beneath the Indian Ocean is perhaps inevitable.
Let us have a clear idea about these minerals of the Indian Ocean and how they have become important for mankind. They can be found in the shape of poly metallic nodules and poly metallic massive sulphides. The former are golf-to-tennis ball-sized round shaped nodules containing copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese and rare earth materials and are generally found four to five kilometres in water depth. In the case of the latter the word 'massive' means the high content of minerals present and they contain copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold. So in terms of value poly metallic sulphides are more important. In plain terms they refer to minerals brought to the sea bed from the earth's crust by hot springs. These materials are useful in making smart phones, laptops, pacemakers, hybrid cars and solar panels.
In 1987 India was given the right to explore polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean basin and in 2016 India signed a 15-year contract with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to get exclusive rights to conduct exploration in a 10,000 square kilometer location near Mauritius where three tectonic plates meet. In 2017, New Delhi started exploration for polymetallic sulphides also. For India seabed mining is very important to get free of China's stranglehold on rare earths as Beijing now supplies 90 per cent of these materials which are used in aviation and defence manufacturing. Moreover, India is looking forward to mining copper, nickel and cobalt in seabed for clean power generation.
Several countries of the world are now engaged in seabed mining activities and China is also one of them with a right to explore 10,000 square kilometres of seabed in south-west Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. So the presence of a Chinese research vehicle off Anadaman and Nicobar Islands points out to two possibilities- first Beijing is determination to explore seabed which is not within its assigned territories and secondly in future also it will try to measure up the Indian military installation at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by sending such vessels.
How far is India ready to take on the Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean? Well, it is better to admit that India is still way behind.