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Chinese Sub Base Prompts Concerns in India

NOAH ADAMS, host:

These days, Asia's two rising powers - India and China - are doing more business with each other. While relations have improved, there are still some suspicions between the two countries.

India is watching uneasily as China's military strength grows. Of special interest to India is an unusual naval base the Chinese are building in the South China Sea.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports now from New Delhi, earlier this month, images of that base were published on the Internet.

Vice Admiral ARUN KUMAR SINGH (DG Coast Guard): (Speaking in foreign language)

PHILIP REEVES: Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh pores over his laptop. He's staring at a blurry satellite vertigraph.

Vice Adm. SINGH: Now, this part is interesting. You see you got these three jetties here. And each jetty are 300 or 320 meters in length. It can take submarine on either side.

REEVES: This is a picture of a secret underground naval base that China's constructing on a holiday island. Singh points at the mouth of a tunnel carved in the side of a hill. This is widely believed to lead to a maze of canals and cabins that the Chinese are building to house among other things, nuclear submarines armed with nuclear ballistic missiles. These images are generating interest in the corridors of many defense ministries around the world, but nowhere more so than in India. The base is at Sanya, on the southern tip of Hainan Island. You may have heard of the place before, but perhaps not for military reasons.

(Soundbite of Miss World 2004)

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Vice Adm. SINGH: Well, I was actually very surprised. I am frankly, I was very, very surprised, that this was a place which is touted by the Chinese as the international Hawaii as far as they're concerned. There was a Miss World there, a couple of years back. There was (unintelligible) they managed to build a base of such a size and kept it reasonably secret.

REEVES: Vice Admiral Singh retired recently, after four decades in uniform. He's a submariner who rose to command India's eastern fleet, so he knows what to look for in a satellite photo of a military base, and he says this one is going to be big.

Vice Adm. SINGH: The potential is enormous. Right now what the satellite photographs are showing (unintelligible) is one of the best. If you can't put in 30, 40 warships, and you can put in another 20, 30 submarines, it'll more than what most medium-sized navy's have.

REEVES: China were confirmed or denied the Sanya base exists. Though it sets its military policies are defensive. Analysts said the base will give China more leverage over Taiwan. It will help increase Beijing's ability to dominate disputed islands in the South China Sea. It'll help it to protect crucial sea lanes, especially the straits of Malacca, through which it brings most of its imported oil. And, says Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert based in New Delhi, it will also help China realize its ambition to develop a blue water fleet.

Professor SRIKANTH KONDAPALLI (Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi): The Chinese have been having an idea of fleet, which is floating on the high seas, a blue sea fleet. We could see possibly Sanya base providing the logistics and armaments backup.

REEVES: This is where India's main concerns lay. Its worried China's expanding navy will eventually make forays into the Indian Ocean. China is already building toe holds there. Beijing's got contracts for civilian ports for example in Kawada, Pakistan and in Sri Lanka. And it's tightening maritime links with nations in the neighborhood. Former Indian Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, says India is generally responding to China's rising military might.

Mr. KANWAL SIBAL (Former Indian Foreign Secretary): We are developing our missile program. We've been testing longer range missiles. We are developing our conventional capabilities; a lot of money is being spent on defense.

REEVES: But Sibal says India also recognizes that China has a huge head-start militarily. He says it's seeking to take a realistic approach by developing what he calls a minimal capacity to counter Beijing. He also says there's more to all this than military spending.

Mr. SIBAL: Now, India is trying to maintain a degree of balance in their relationship with China, realizing that it's in absolutely critical to keep engaging China.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.