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4 Jun 2017

Chinese navy hits India wall - Permission 'delay' ensures three vessels are kept out of Kochi port

Charu Sudan Kasturi, TT, New Delhi, June 3: Strategic concerns wrapped in red tape have shut three Chinese naval ships out of an Indian port.
Beijing had proposed a visit by three naval ships to Kochi this week but the trip never materialised.
Three Indian officials confirmed the proposal to The Telegraph but insisted that New Delhi gave permission for the ships - a destroyer, a frigate and a replenishment ship - to dock at the Kerala port. India went out of its way, the officials contended, since the vessels were not visiting on a bilateral mission.
But Chinese officials suggested they received the permission too late, and that the delay was tantamount to a denial.
Two of the Indian officials, while disagreeing with China's claim that the proposal was effectively denied, conceded that concerns within New Delhi's strategic establishment had delayed a decision.
The issue highlights deepening tensions between the Asian neighbours who publicly sparred last month over Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is also known as the One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative.
The People's Liberation Army's Navy had proposed the port call by the three ships as part of a larger "goodwill tour" that the fleet is undertaking across 20 countries of Asia, Africa and Europe over six months.
But India was worried about allowing the ships to dock at Kochi because the route the ships are taking closely maps the maritime component of the BRI that New Delhi has criticised, the officials said.
India had only last month boycotted a Belt and Road Forum conclave in Beijing hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The BRI includes as a project the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through a part of Kashmir that India claims.
"No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity," foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay had said then, while announcing the boycott of the Beijing meeting.
On Saturday, spokespersons for the defence and foreign ministries and the navy did not comment.
The CPEC - officially India's biggest reason for opposing the BRI - is a land project. But India also has deeper concerns over the so-called "maritime silk route" that is part of the BRI.
India fears that a string of ports that China is building - in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - under this initiative will strengthen Beijing's strategic influence in South Asia.
The three ships that were to visit Kochi - the Chang Chun (a destroyer), the Jing Zhou (a frigate) and the Chao Hu (a replenishment ship) - are currently docked at Colombo port. Their officers and staff have joined relief efforts there following floods that have killed 200 people in Sri Lanka.
Visits by Chinese ships to Indian ports - and by Indian carriers to Chinese ports - are not uncommon. Nor is Kochi alien to visiting Chinese ships.
A Chinese navy training ship, Zheng He, visited Kochi in May 2012 while the destroyer Shenzhen made a stop at the Kerala port in August 2009. The Zheng He and a frigate, the Weifang, visited Visakhapatnam port in late May 2014, days after the Narendra Modi government came to power. The Jinan, a missile destroyer, docked at Mumbai port in July 2015.
In many of those instances, the Chinese ships were returning from anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In some cases, like the 2014 Visakhapatnam port call, the ships were part of a larger "goodwill" visit. The 2014 trip by Chinese ships also included stops in Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam.
But last week's request was part of a trip of unprecedented scale for the Chinese navy, across 20 countries over six months.
Indian officials were particularly worried by suggestions over the past few weeks from China that its navy would undertake the trip spanning countries along the maritime component of the BRI.
Although China's request for the port call at Kochi did not expressly refer to the BRI, officials indicated that the path the three ships had so far taken on their tour fitted the suggestions of a trip across the region that the initiative spans. The BRI is envisaged as a network of highways, ports and railroads connecting Asia, Africa and Europe.
The three ships left Shanghai in late April and began with a visit to the Philippines, a country that had clashed with China over disputed waters till last year but has indicated a rethink under its maverick President Rodrigo Duterte.
No Chinese chip had visited the Philippines in the previous seven years.
Next, the ships visited Malaysia, and then sailed to Myanmar. There, China and Myanmar held their first-ever naval exercises. The ships proceeded to Chittagong in Bangladesh and are now in Sri Lanka.
All these countries participated in the Belt and Road Forum and have agreed to join the BRI.
India has called the BRI opaque, non-consultative and potentially dangerous to the economic independence and ecology of other partner countries.
Prime Minister Modi shared New Delhi's concerns with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a Berlin visit last week.
China has claimed the BRI is a transparent and cooperative initiative and is open for India to join even after it skipped the Beijing meeting.

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