Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean rim

China’s maritime chess


Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, February 10, 2009


Boastful claims in China’s official media that Chinese warships forced an Indian submarine to surface in a standoff in Indian Ocean waters off Somalia are the latest pointer to the Chinese navy seeking to challenge India in its backyard. They also underline an incipient naval competition for power and influence between the world’s two most-populous nations.


            The claims came soon after the communist regime in Beijing made its first-ever deployment of a naval task force beyond the Pacific by dispatching battle-ready warships to the Indian Ocean rim under the anti-piracy banner. The start of Chinese patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden is intended to extend China’s naval role and presence far from its shores while demonstrating a capability to conduct complex operations in distant waters.


            With China’s new emphasis on the seas, the Indian navy has been trying to monitor Chinese naval movements. In separate incidents in 2006, it photographed three Chinese submarines in the Mediterranean and a new destroyer off the Yemini coast. In the latest case, an Indian submarine, seeking to “fingerprint” the two Chinese destroyers involved in the anti-piracy mission, recorded their acoustic, propeller and electromagnetic signatures. But according to reports carried by Xinhua and the China Daily, the Indian sub was cornered and compelled to surface — a claim rubbished by the Indian navy, which said no sub can be forced to surface in international waters.


What is clear is the Chinese political resolve to challenge India’s maritime pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean. A paper published by the military-run Chinese Institute for International Strategic Studies last May points to the inevitability of Beijing setting up naval bases overseas, including in the Indian Ocean rim. It warned that without naval assets overseas, “China’s maritime fleet will face an extremely dangerous situation,” adding: “Most of the world’s major powers have overseas bases, and China can be no exception”. An earlier article in the Liberation Army Daily had asserted that the contiguous corridor stretching from the Taiwan Straits to the Indian Ocean’s western rim constitutes China’s legitimate offshore-defence perimeter.


In that light, China has aggressively moved to build ports in the Indian Ocean rim, including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma. Besides eyeing Pakistan’s Chinese-built port of Gwadar as a naval anchor, Beijing has sought naval links with the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. It aims to control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through a “string of pearls” strategy. Its latest “pearl” is the billion-dollar port its engineers are building in Hambantota, Sri Lanka.


Today, the geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean is beginning to rival that of the Pacific. Much of the global oil-export supply passes through the Indian Ocean rim region, particularly through two constricted passageways — the 89-kilometer-wide Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman, and the piracy-plagued Strait of Malacca, which is barely 2.5 kilometers wide at its narrowest point between Indonesia and Singapore. In addition, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the nuclear standoff with Iran undergird the critical importance of the Indian Ocean region. Asserting naval presence in the Indian Ocean is part of the high-stakes game of maritime chess that China is now ready to play.


More broadly, China is seeking to underpin political, commercial and energy interests through a sea-based power projection force capability and position itself as a militarily strong and economically dynamic peer competitor to the U.S. while, at the same time, seeking to prevent the rise of peer competition from Asia’s other two main powers, India and Japan. Just as the need to battle pirates along the so-called Barbary Coast of North Africa in the early 19th century helped spur the rise of a powerful U.S. navy, China is today seeking to add force to its global power ambitions by taking on pirates under the placard of internationalism. Indeed, that same plank came handy to Beijing earlier to agree to joint anti-piracy patrols with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea and to extend similar cooperation to ASEAN.


The U.S., oddly, has welcomed the Chinese task-force deployment in the Indian Ocean rim. As if to underline its attempt to propitiate Beijing by overlooking Indian concerns, Washington has hoped that the Chinese deployment would be “the springboard for resumption” of Sino-U.S. military contacts — suspended by Beijing in reprisal to a recent U.S. package of largely defensive arms for Taiwan. But India, with its enormous strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, cannot afford to allow China to chip away at the Indian navy’s dominant role in the Indian Ocean.


Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi

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