Nairobi: Little by little China is forming military links in Africa and in the Indian Ocean in order, experts say, to protect Beijing's economic interests in the region.

In the past three weeks Beijing has committed to supporting Ugandan forces operating in Somalia and to helping the Seychelles fight piracy.

"It is very clear that the Chinese leaders recognize that military force will play a bigger role to safeguard China's overseas interests," Jonathan Holslag, of the Brussels Institute of Chinese Contemporary Studies said.

"There is a willingness, and even a consensus, in China, that this process will take place."

The Indian Ocean is strategic, Holslag said, noting that 85 percent of China's oil imports and 60 percent of its exports are routed via the Gulf of Aden.

Beijing does not so far have any military base in the region: its military presence consists of three vessels in the Gulf of Aden to fight Somali pirates.

But the deployment of those ships in 2009, the first of its kind for the Chinese navy, was already highly symbolic.

For the moment, cooperation between China and the islands of the Indian Ocean is still limited to "low profile military-to-military exchanges, but it is getting broader and more structured," Holslag said.

"The mere fact that China has a multi-year naval presence in the Gulf of Aden has great symbolic and diplomatic significance," said Frans-Paul van der Putten, senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.

"Symbolic because it shows other countries that China is an emerging naval power in the region, and diplomatic because China uses its navy ships for occasional visits to ports along the Indian Ocean rim, which helps it strengthen its diplomatic ties with countries in the region," he added.

During an unprecedented visit by Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie earlier this month, the Seychelles asked China to set up a military presence on the archipelago to help fight piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Victoria is ruling out a military base but is looking rather at having "reconnaissance planes or patrol ships stationed" there, along the lines of what the US and Europe do, Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Paul Adam said.

(Agencies)