Monday, 13 October 2014

China expanding its reach into the Indian Ocean

Over the past years the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) of China has been increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean. Given the competitive nature of relations between India and China as well as India’s own ambition to be the sole dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, it is of vital interest to comprehend China’s ambitions in this region. With two of the emerging superpowers capable of projecting power in the Indian Ocean as well as the vital maritime trade routes situated in this area, any potential conflict can have far reaching consequences.

The Area
The Indian Ocean forms the maritime bridge between the EU and the Far East and many maritime trade routes pass through this area. Dominating this area is the Indian subcontinent, thrusting into the Indian Ocean. This places India in an optimum position to project power in all directions. Many strategic choke points such as the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb can both be easily monitored or blocked by the Indian Navy.
Because of its position and capabilities it seems logical to entrust the Indian Navy with policing this area of the world but as discussed below, China sees things differently.

Main position of maritime trade routes between China and Europe
Chinese ambitions and concerns
The PLAN is a fast rising power that is transforming into a blue water navy capable of projecting power far away. Unlike the EU, which is only projecting its maritime power to the shore of Somalia to combat piracy, China is seeking a more active role when it comes to securing its maritime trade routes.

Piracy around the Horn of Africa prompted the PLAN to join the international effort to combat this threat to maritime trade. At the time this was a remarkable decision by China because it lacked the naval experience to participate in an international operation. It did however show that China is willing to go to great lengths to protect its vital trade routes, not only for the trade with the EU but also its energy supply coming out the Middle East. Over the past years the PLAN has become a constant factor in the anti-piracy mission. The missions allowed the PLAN to gain valuable experience in operating far away from home and helped in the transformation of the PLAN into a blue water navy. At the same time China has been capable of bolstering ties with several nations in the Indian Ocean to expand its economic and political influence.

The string of pearls
Over the past years China has become involved in several smaller countries around India. Its activities are mainly economical such as building and expanding ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Although all these projects are economic in nature, mainly driven to expand the trading capabilities of friendly nations, there is the possibility that the new port facilities can be used as military naval bases to support a permanent PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean. This is mainly a concern India has who views the String of Pearls as a means to surround India with Chinese naval bases and challenge India for control over the Indian Ocean. So far, none of these ports have served as a permanent naval base but Chinese warships are using these ports to dock and resupply while on mission in the Indian Ocean.
The big question what everybody is asking is whether or not the String of Pearls will one day become a chain of military bases on to what extend the PLAN will operate in the Indian Ocean.

String of Pearls: Chinese port building/expanding projects surounding India

Future projection of Chinese ambitions
China is a rising superpower and it has the tools to project power. The past years have seen an increase of PLAN naval activity, not only within the First Island Chain but in the Indian Ocean as well. Rival tensions between India and China will force the PLAN to operate in the Indian Ocean and be able to confront the Indian Navy. From a Chinese point of view, the geography of the Indian Ocean puts India in a main position to block the Chinese trade lines running through the Indian Ocean. China depends heavily on the import of energy and raw materials coming out of the Middle East and Africa and is no doubt looking for means to secure these supply lines against any kind of enemy intervention. As such, the Indian Ocean will be part of China’s strategic policy for the future.

However China, and by extension the PLAN, are caught on a two front war. Its rivalry with the United States forces China to concentrate its resources in the western Pacific. Aggressive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas put China in a confrontation with its neighbors, almost all of them are backed by the United States. This all leaves only little amount of military hardware available to be used in the Indian Ocean.

As such, the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean will be limited as the most modern ships such as aircraft carriers, modern destroyers and nuclear submarines will all be needed to confront the United States Navy and its pacific allies. The less modern and less advanced ships will therefor make up the bulk of forces China will have available for service in the Indian Ocean.

With only a limited force that can be deployed in the Indian Ocean China will have only two options available to keep its presence in the Indian Ocean as high as possible. A first option is looking for allies. The navy of Pakistan seems like a good ally for China as it can bind a large portion of the Indian Navy. Already the cooperation between both navies is visible with China building frigates for Pakistan.

A second option for China is to have permanent bases in the Indian Ocean. Transforming the String of Pearls from an economic endeavor into a string of military bases allows China to more efficiently protect its trade routes against any Indian intervention. At the same time, fully equipped military bases with repair facilities allow Chinese warships to operate over extended periods of time in the Indian Ocean before they are forced to head back to Chinese naval bases located on the Chinese coast for modernization or complicated repairs.

Although the String of Pearls are far from a chain of military bases, any future development of these Chinese projects that make up the string of pearls is worth noticing and analyzing in order to grasp China’s intentions concerning its presence in the Indian Ocean.

If the String of Pearls one day develops into Chinese military
bases then China would be in a favourable position to interfere
with the naval movements of India

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