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Military planners in India are eyeing a crucial junction of the world which serves as the conduit for 80 per cent of China's imported oil.|
The Strait of Malacca, where the Indian Ocean joins the Pacific, is seen as China's Achilles' heel. These shipping lanes, vital for Beijing's energy supplies, could be the setting for any future confrontation between India and China.
The two giant powers are long-standing rivals who share a disputed 2,100-mile border and are waging a diplomatic struggle for influence in Asia. They fought a border war in 1962, which ended in victory for China and left Beijing in control of 16,500 square miles of territory claimed by India.
Both countries are increasing their defence budgets, with India's military spending rising by an average of 18 per cent in each of the past three years and now exceeding ￡15?billion.
If these tensions were ever to boil over into war, India would probably exploit a crucial advantage. Its navy, which eventually plans to deploy three aircraft carriers and two nuclear-powered attack submarines, would probably seek to close the Strait of Malacca to Chinese shipping through an increased presence. By cutting off the supply of oil, this could cripple China and prove the decisive move in any conflict.
"The most likely flashpoint would be along the border, but ultimately the decision in any war would be on the ocean," said Sheru Thapliyal, a retired Indian general in New Delhi who once commanded a division on the frontier with China.
"The Indian Ocean is where we could use our advantage to the maximum. If you want to choke China, the only way you can choke China is by using naval power."
With China's key vulnerability in mind, India has constructed a naval base within striking distance of the Strait of Malacca at Port Blair on the Andaman Islands. China has countered by installing military facilities of its own, complete with electronic monitoring and eavesdropping devices, on the nearby Coco Islands. These specks of land belong to Burma, a long-standing ally of China.
Beijing is now taking other steps to address what President Hu Jintao has called the country's "Malacca dilemma". With hugely ambitious infrastructure projects, China hopes to bypass the Strait of Malacca and eventually end its dependence on this vulnerable waterway for energy supplies.
On India's western flank, China is helping to build a new port in the Pakistani town of Gwadar. Thrust together by their shared rivalry with India, Pakistan and China are old allies.
Gwadar could eventually provide a base for Chinese warships. Or it may be used as the starting point for a pipeline travelling through Pakistan and carrying oil and gas into China itself. If so, Beijing could import energy from the Middle East using this route, bypassing the Strait of Malacca.
The same rationale may explain China's actions on India's eastern flank. A new port and pipeline terminal are being constructed at Kyauk Phyu on Burma's island of Ramree. This will be the starting point for a 900-mile pipeline, able to carry oil directly to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southern China.
"They know that we could attempt to choke them completely and that's why they want these ports," said Vijay Kapoor, a retired general in New Delhi and former commandant of the Indian Army War College. "Their aim in all of this is to prevent us from being able to choke them."