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30 August 2018, Gateway House

The strategic impact of technology

Every country has strategic goals to pursue and technology ecosystems play a vital role in achieving them

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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This is the transcript of a speech that the author gave at a seminar, ‘Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA): Framework for Effective Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)’, organised by the Maritime Research Center, Pune and Savitribai Phule Pune University. Click here to view details of the event.

Good evening, everyone.

It is a privilege to speak to such an esteemed gathering.

The benefit of humankind is a long shot to achieve. A country which aspires to become a superpower first really tries to tick off its priorities. It is very clear about what it wants and quite prepared to achieve its end goals. We are lucky to have such a country as our neighbour. I say ‘lucky’ because, had we been lackadaisical we could have seen China as a threat, but we are catching up – and we will (catch up), sooner or later.

I’ll take you back some 30-32 years. Liu Huaqing used to be the naval chief of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around 1986 when he came up with a long, nearly 80-year looking-into-the future strategy, known as Offshore Defense. This was very simple. It saw China as a landlocked country despite a sea on its eastern border; it called for cutting off all the barriers that had been erected along its eastern periphery – mostly post the Second World War.

There is a long history, a century of humiliation (that they suffered) that made the Chinese focus on the misdeeds done to them by the Dutch, French, English and Portuguese. I am not trying to justify what is happening now as an accumulation of their fears and anger over the past 200-300 years. But they found a solution, they have worked quite diligently, and we will hear more about how technology ecosystems are very important in achieving the strategic goals that China has been pursuing for a long time.

Take, for instance, any strategic literature from China: you will come across things known as ‘Project 863’ or ‘Project 714’. These are alphanumerical projects, they are specific targets, suggesting that by a certain year, we will have these many supercomputers, or the capabilities to have manned submersibles going to the depths of the ocean. By ‘depths’, I don’t mean conventional submarine depths which are around 4,000-5,000 meters below sea level, but about 11,000 meters or so. One does not often find such depths below the surface of the earth, where average depths are somewhere around 4,500 meters. But when one goes that deep, it calls for creating new materials which can withstand that sort of environment. Or one will not be able to descend that far at all. There is a reason for this.

Indian philosophy has the concept of parinamavada, wherein ‘the cause and effect are both evolving’, they are in a continuous state of transition. Much policy making, not just in India, but elsewhere too, does not take this into consideration. We propose something in the 1990s or 2000s and may bring it to fruition in the 2000s and 2010s, by which time the world has progressed. We need to create a mindset where we can think about causes – and effects – in a continual manner and with the same momentum.

(I am sorry this map does not look good. It needs better resolution.) You might be seeing a few lines going from here and there. These are not maritime lines, traffic lines of commercial ships; they are underwater optic fibre cables which China has built on its own. Some of it is entirely for military purposes, while the rest has been built for other countries. Most of these countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This brings us close to our dear neighbour, Pakistan, which has been in the news. China has built an optic fibre cable as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which goes from Taxkorgan in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, passes through Indian territory and then enters Pakistan. It then goes through Rawalpindi and eventually on to Gwadar. Gwadar is a quasi-military base: here, there is a land-based optic fibre cable. From Gwadar, it joins Djibouti, which is an accepted naval base. So you have a submarine optic fibre cable, connecting China’s two military bases – one quasi-military, the other an acknowledged military base.

Why do we need optic fibre cables? We need them for communication. Some of you must have watched the movie, Godzilla, or even the latest Jurassic ParkJurassic World – where you create hybrid dinosaurs which are able to communicate with one another. So these naval or military bases are acting like hybrids. They are hybrids because they are quasi in nature, and are now talking to one another, but not on the conventional communication platform. I will not go into the technical details, but they are talking on an encrypted platform. So that’s why you have quantum encrypted cables and optic fibre cables being made in the following manner.

Huawei built cables in the Maldives, which is again a heavily indebted country. The cable allows Chinese shipping companies and Beijing bathymetric (the study of under water depth) companies to go in and map that terrain for future applications of interest to them. I do not want to anticipate what their interests are, but they are mapping it.

It does not end there. They have connected the islands of Rodrigues and Mauritius, a distance of about 700 km. They have connected the French island of Mayotte with Comoros, which share some tensions. Comoros claims that Mayotte is its territory. The French, in 2009, conducted a referendum in Mayotte for the people to decide whether they wanted to stay with France or switch over to Comoros. The thumping majority stayed with France. The cables are being laid to create mischief, political mischief. Further, Kenya is another big entrepot into Africa. There are two or three major ports coming up on the Eastern African coast.

Then you have a cable going from Cameroon, West Africa, which connects to Brazil in Fortaleza. And that is not the only connection to South America. It also hints at an interest within Chinese strategic circles for what is known as the “Global South”. Along with the Fortaleza line, there is a potential line coming up, proposed by Huawei, which will join Shanghai to Valparaiso in Chile. Earlier, it was supposed to go through the Solomon Islands; from the Solomon Islands, they were trying to take a diversion into Sydney. But the Australian government rejected that plan: there is now no Chinese cable coming from the Solomon Islands into Sydney. Yet, next, they want to pull it into Chile.

There is a small town called Puerto Montt on the rugged, Chilean coast. They are putting in an optic fibre cable through that entire jagged coastline, going into a town, known as Puerto Williams, which is the southernmost town in the American continents. The Chinese Antarctic station, called the Great Wall, is only 700 km from there. So why go there? Why go to that extreme southern point where no navigation, economy or population exist? There are no roads from Puerto Williams to Puerto Montt; roads cannot be built on such terrain. The tall Andes Mountains run directly into the Pacific Ocean. It is this region that China is mapping. It is the same strategy which the British and Germans had used in the Second World War, which was to have control over what is known as Drake’s Passage, a narrow gap, running between Antarctica and South America.

There is more. Cables are prone to being cut by adversaries. Russia very often threatens America in this manner. But China has a plan now. They have set up a constellation of three ground-based stations for quantum encrypted communication: one in Vienna, Austria; another very close to the Indian border in the Demchok region in Shiquanhe; and the third is close to Beijing, the heartland. You can talk over it and nobody will be able to decrypt what you are transmitting. So that’s the level of technology they are trying to achieve. This is all in the public domain; it is all open source intelligence.

I will conclude by saying that we are all stakeholders; it is not just the government. It is our duty as citizens, researchers and analysts that we make the most of open source information. There are patterns within open source information which can help us devise strategies. China is here as a very aspirational power, it is next to us. We cannot afford to widen the technology gap between the two countries because that will cost us dear. Thus, there is the need for building ecosystems, and to be able to do so, we first, need awareness. And awareness comes through the fact of you being here.

Thank you.

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies, Gateway House.

These remarks were given at a seminar, ‘Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA): Framework for Effective Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)’ on August 24, 2018. Click here to read details of the event. 

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