The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) of the 21st-century represents a geopolitical hotspot.
In the context of:
naval modernisation, and
limitation in power, this article attempts to understand Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean and argues that China will emerge as a dominant player in the IOR notwithstanding the obstacles it will face in the near future.
History of China’s Strategic Identity
Strategic identity has remained a key element in China’s foreign policy. The Mao era adopted a more continentalist mindset owing to a decline in economic growth and increased land threats. This essentially slowed the progress of naval expansion till the late 1970s.
The importance of maritime power slowly became recognised among later regimes such as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. Deng’s era witnessed economic reforms that enabled China to develop its navy. Under Hu, a widespread philosophy and narrative of sea power spread, noting the works of prominent Chinese explorers like Zheng He in political discourse. In 2006, Hu even went on to declare China a “maritime power.”
It was here that a fundamental shift began, that such a vision is here to stay and will strengthen further, under later regimes. A peaceful and harmonious concept towards the seas was expressed by leaders, strategists, and military officers. The Mahanian notion that “sea power is inseparable from national greatness” still resonates with many Chinese strategists. Under Xi, the CCP adopted a similar approach to his predecessors - peaceful naval expansion.
Creation of a Hybrid Identity
However, an interesting point of difference is that the present CCP is attempting a hybridisation of its identity to combine land and sea power elements - most evident in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will be touched upon later.
It indicates a new identity altogether, taking inspiration from the perspectives of past regimes and their visionary scholars. But the current CCP under Xi is undoubtedly contentious, from its aggressive nature of territorial claims in its near seas of influence, including the East and South China Sea and now, to its increasing activities in the IOR to potentially accelerate and achieve its goal of developing a future Indian Ocean fleet to assert dominance in the region.
Rapid Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army Navy
In 2015, China publicised its current naval strategy doctrine titled “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection.”
Rooted in the ideas of Mahan and Mao, the former implies protection of territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the near seas, around the first island chain, including the East China Sea (ECS), the Yellow Sea, and South China Sea (SCS). It includes elements of peace and war - from conducting non-combat operations and participating in international peacekeeping efforts to securing China’s use of strategic sea lanes abroad and striking enemy targets.
The number and scope of the efforts and operations of the People’s Liberation Army Navi (PLAN) are also largely developing, along with China’s global maritime footprint.
Reasons for China’s Engagement in the IOR
The importance of securing international sea lanes is possibly the most significant reason for China to engage in the IOR actively.
Over the years, China’s defence white papers have disclosed similar themes and narratives in their strategy - the protection of overseas energy routes and investment, development of blue water capabilities and the need to promote logistics abroad. The PLAN began rapidly modernising its capabilities concerning shipbuilding, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, major surface combatants, advanced anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine weapons, warfare ships, auxiliary ships, developing and fielding advanced weapons, sensors and other command capabilities.
Some of its efforts have already been visible in the Indian ocean with occasional patrolling of nuclear submarines and deployment.
Port visits and calls have also seen a steep rise. Since 2010, PLAN visits have grown close to 20 port visits a year.
Its anti-piracy missions have enabled it further to explore the waters of the IOR, particularly in and around the Gulf of Aden. A former retired Indian Naval officer even claimed that there are 6-8 PLAN warships actively passing through at any point in time.
Being a ‘World Class Force’: Importance of Securing Sea Corridors
China’s exact aims in the Indian Ocean are still not known, and its regular presence there is justified in the name of non-combat operations. Maybe the purpose of these missions is military or, in fact, only limited to understanding the IOR waters better.
In August 2020, critical changes were added to the existing Science of Military Strategy (SMS) document, and a revised version was released. In this, a striking new section named “maritime manoeuvre operations, (海上机动作战, haishang jidong zuozhan)” was added. It highlighted the need to control “important sea areas” and “important maritime passages”. Although the document mentioned no specific location, it essentially indicated distant areas, away from near seas.
Furthermore, it emphasised the need to fight jointly in future combat operations and boost training. Another vital factor to consider is the inclusion of advanced technologies into PLAN naval capabilities, such as an increased focus on “intelligentization” and “informatisation”. The changes are to improve PLAN capabilities and strengthen them to become a “world-class force”, as Xi mentioned in his speech to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.
Challenges to China’s Strategy
The challenges to China’s Indian Ocean strategy are surprisingly multifold. Apart from the fact that Chinese ambitions in the region are still vague and in their early stages, there are other reasons to support the view that it may not have a leading presence here.
An immediate disadvantage lies in the construction of overseas military bases. Beyond its current permanent base in Djibouti, China has been considering developing bases and logistic facilities in countries surrounding the IOR, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Seychelles, Indonesia, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Maldives. A global logistics network is what China is aiming for. But they are far from achieving this for several reasons because:
Djibouti is the only permanent base they currently hold in the IOR.
Although talks have taken place to set up bases in Pakistan’s Gwadar port and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, plans have not yet materialised.
China’s BRI, is a part of its global naval plans, with long-term strategic intent. Yet, It is currently set to fulfill strictly economic and commercial interests.
Finally, China’s so-called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ strategy adds to the tensions of countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as they fear being indebted to the CCP. The political risks are therefore high.
India Responding to Chinese Engagement
Even with potential bases in the making, China will still struggle to manage resupply and repair management activities. It presently holds little influence in the region, particularly in the Northern Indian Ocean.
India is actively responding to Chinese presence by increasing its naval and military engagement with surrounding countries and conducting joint naval exercises with partners, explicitly the Quad countries. Also, the number of Chinese deployments is still relatively small compared to the American and Indian navy presence in the region.
The road ahead will be a rough one, and a lot is at stake for big, middle and small players in the region.
Whether or not China’s Indian Ocean fleet comes into existence, the threat is enough to warn India. Still, Chinese identity remains strong, and its plans for expanding across broader maritime domains directly result from the regime’s mindset; a cautionary tale indeed.
(Ameera Rao is a Research Assistant at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @AmeeraRao. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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