Can China dominate the Indian Ocean?
Today it is legally indisputable that the high seas belong to all. This means China’s navy has as much right to ply the Indian Ocean as any other nation, even though it might make countries like India feel a creeping sense of dread.
Likewise, it is a well-established fact the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been sailing in the Indian Ocean far more frequently in recent years, compounded by fears that Beijing is seeking to establish new naval bases on the periphery of this ocean. Yet, is China really trying to dominate the Indian Ocean?
Looking back, a major step for China was its first deployment of warships to the Gulf of Aden to join an international counter-piracy effort. The first trio of warships arrived in December 2008, and a task force has seen a constant presence there ever since.
Chinese warships remain despite pirate attacks disappearing almost entirely in the area. However, such assets have also been used for non-combatant evacuation operations in Yemen and Libya, plus ships are available for humanitarian assistance operations.
China is understandably concerned about protecting its sea lanes, the conduits that bring in raw materials (9.3 million barrels of oil per day, with 44% of Chinese oil imports coming from the Middle East, in 2018) and which simultaneously deliver finished products to Africa and Europe (20% of China’s GDP comes from exports). Strategists call these sea lines of communication (SLOC), and Beijing wants to protect them from threats in peacetime and against hostile powers in times of tension or war.
China’s economic investments continue to grow, as does the diaspora of its citizens. The Middle East and Africa comprise an essential part of Chairman Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, and its importance is seen in the fact that Xi has visited the region 18 times since he gained power in 2012.
Furthermore, there are particular chokepoints along these SLOCs, locations where shipping is funneled and becomes particularly vulnerable. The most obvious of these is the Strait of Malacca between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Other chokepoints are the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandab (the Horn of Africa) and Suez Canal.
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean region is a product of growing commercial interests, with the PLAN being handed the task of safeguarding them. This is not a new concern, for Beijing’s 2015 Defense White Paper stated that “with the growth of China’s national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil…and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue”.
In actual fact, three critical factors affect how China can project power, protect its SLOCs and keep chokepoints open. The PLA is acutely aware of all three, and much effort is devoted to negating current disadvantages. First is the PLAN’s rather modest presence in the Indian Ocean, especially compared to powers like India or the USA. Second is the PLAN’s limited air defense and anti-submarine warfare capacity. Third is China’s rather limited logistics/sustainment infrastructure along the Indian Ocean’s periphery.
If China is to dominate the Indian Ocean, if that is its aim, it must address each of the above weaknesses. Interestingly, the US Naval War College recently published a report addressing the PLAN’s utilization of the Indian Ocean. Authored by Jeffrey Becker, the report entitled Securing China’s Lifelines across the Indian Ocean provides insights into Chinese ambitions.
It summarized China’s predicament as follows: “To address these challenges, Beijing has already undertaken a series of initiatives, including expanding the capabilities of China’s base in Djibouti and leveraging the nation’s extensive commercial shipping fleet to provide logistics support. Evidence suggests that China may also be pursuing other policy options as well, such as increasing the number of advanced PLAN assets deployed to the region and establishing additional overseas military facilities.”
Becker admitted, “However, while the PLAN’s ability to operate in the Indian Ocean has improved considerably, its ability to project power into the region, and defend access to SLOCs and chokepoints in times of crisis, remains limited.”
Addressing each of the three factors in turn, the first was China’s modest naval presence in the Indian Ocean, with just two warships and a support vessel on permanent rotation to the Gulf of Aden. Other warships may occasionally make passage or conduct exercises, plus it is estimated that Chinese submarines perform just two forays into the Indian Ocean annually on average.
Nonetheless, Chinese naval exercises west of the Malacca Strait (but still in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean) are becoming more common. These have two advantages, familiarizing crews with the area, and normalizing the appearance of PLAN ships.
It is certainly possible for the PLAN to deploy more ships there, for it is the largest navy in the world in terms of hull numbers. Becker quoted one source suggesting “that China is already capable of maintaining about 18 ships on station fulltime in the Indian Ocean, given the PLAN’s current force posture”.
Senior Captain Liang Fang at China’s National Defense University has written papers advocating that the PLAN deploy aircraft carriers there to protect SLOCs. A Chinese carrier group operating around the Horn of Africa would certainly make a bold statement about Chinese power projection capabilities, and could provide leverage over nearby countries. However, it is rare for Chinese experts to directly discuss any concept of a dedicated PLAN Indian Ocean squadron.
The second aforementioned factor is the PLAN’s limited air defense and anti-submarine warfare capacity. Close to home, Chinese warships enjoy support from land-based missiles and aircraft, plus a heavy concentration of submarines, but these are luxuries not afforded in distant seas. Such support would be absent in the Indian Ocean, plus Chinese assets would be within land-based strike range of potential adversaries like India. The latter, especially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is boosting its ability to detect and track foreign submarines and surface ships.
The defensive capacity of Chinese warships is improving, though, The Type 052D destroyer, for example, has 64 vertical-launch missile cells that can fire missiles against multiple enemy aircraft. However, within their first five years of service since 2014, none had deployed to the Gulf of Aden. Significantly, their first foray with a Gulf of Aden task force occurred in May 2019.
Moving on, the third factor is China’s limited logistics support infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region. China formally opened a shore-based base in Djibouti on 1 August 2017. China is not the only country with a military presence in Djibouti, for France, Italy, Japan and the USA all have military facilities there, with the Saudis to build one too.
China has been expanding the pier at its Djibouti military base in recent weeks, sufficient to host at least a four-ship flotilla, including the large Type 901 auxiliary ship. The future deployment of more advanced weaponry to Djibouti – such as surface-to-air missiles or anti-submarine aircraft – would indicate more urgent Chinese intent. Already, one of six berths at Djibouti’s commercial Doraleh Multipurpose Port is reserved for use by the PLA.
Becker commented on auxiliary ships: “While these ships could be used to support other vessels in the fleet, given their limited numbers, and the fact that they were designed to support the PLAN’s future carrier strike groups, expanding facilities in Djibouti to support Type 901s may indicate that the base could also host a PLAN carrier strike group in the future. Indeed, the size and nature of the facilities being built at Djibouti suggest that the PLAN is establishing the capability to support a carrier strike group from its first overseas base should it so chose.”
China is well aware of the advantages that new regional logistics bases would bring, and Pakistan is usually touted as the most likely location. Becker noted, though, “…At least in the near term, the likelihood of the PLAN obtaining access to a military facility which it could use during a conflict remains remote, as many Indian Ocean region countries seek to maintain a balance in their relations between regional powers, and appear unlikely to abandon this hedging approach.”
One Chinese scholar, Gao Wensheng of Tianjin Normal University, encourages setting up such Chinese “strategic fulcrum ports” to enhance logistics support in the region. This topic, often referred to as the “string of pearls theory”, has generated a lot of heat and noise. Such bases along the coast of the Indian Ocean – whether dual use or purely military – would undeniably greatly aid the PLAN’s ability to operate so far from home.
Becker assessed, “Over the past decade, the PLAN has proven capable of sustaining small groups of vessels in the Indian Ocean for long periods of time. However, though a three-ship taskforce is sufficient for the PLAN’s counterpiracy needs in peacetime, defending access to Indian Ocean SLOCs in a conflict would require a much larger and more sustained force, and the PLAN has only a limited number of replenishment ships capable of supporting far-seas operations.”
A shortage of replenishment ships (currently eight Type 903/903A and two Type 901 vessels) could force China to utilize its massive commercial fleet, one of the largest in the world.
Becker indeed noted: “Beijing has already taken steps so that the fleet can better support PLAN activities. For example, it has promulgated regulations requiring certain civilian vessels – including roll-on/roll-off vessels, tankers and container ships – be built to military specifications, theoretically facilitating their future use by the navy with few if any modifications. In September 2016, China enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on National Defense Transportation, which improves the process for military requisition of civilian transportation assets during wartime, natural disasters, emergencies or ‘special circumstances’, both domestically and abroad.”
Chinese commercial vessels have taken part in maritime exercises, meaning that an entity such as COSCO could easily be called upon to support the PLAN in the Indian Ocean to augment naval capabilities. Furthermore, Chinese state-owned companies own or operate port facilities around the region (including Djibouti, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the UAE), and they could provide some degree of sustainment.
In line with other analysis, Becker concluded: “…Other than its base in Djibouti, the PLAN does not, at present, appear to have arrangements with any other country in the region that would allow it to preposition specialized military equipment or technicians required to use that equipment, even in port facilities owned or operated by Chinese state-owned firms. Host governments whose ports do service PLAN vessels during a conflict, or allow the PLA to preposition military equipment on their territory, could possibly be dragged into the conflict as a co-belligerent.”
Yet China has slightly improved its posture by developing more comprehensive naval facilities farther south within China – including an aircraft carrier base at Yulin on Hainan Island, thus speeding up the PLAN’s ability to deploy assets to the Indian Ocean. China could also surge platforms from reclaimed reef bases in the South China Sea, as they can harbor ships and accommodate aircraft such as fighters, maritime patrol and aerial refueling types. This would give the PLA a quicker response to any contingency in the Malacca Strait, for instance.
It would make sense for China to establish a second overseas military base at the eastern end of the Indian Ocean, to help defend access to the region. For many years, locations such as Myanmar have been discussed. Or even farther east, China’s military relationship with Phnom Penh has become quite exclusive in recent years. In 2019 there were media reports that China may have forged an agreement for the PLAN to use a Cambodian naval base, plus a large and mysterious airport is being constructed in Cambodia. Speculation is rife that the PLA could one day use the latter, even though Cambodia is some 1,000km from the Malacca Strait.
Becker suggested another possibility, that Beijing may simply be content to emulate the Soviet Union’s past presence in the Indian Ocean. The Cold War power sought only limited SLOC protection and localized sea denial, as opposed to outright sea control. This could represent an achievable solution for China too.