Chinese ‘Navy’gation

Why China Is Pushing The Envelope In The Indian Ocean Region

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi, India 22 October 2018

Have China’s President Xi Jinping and his advisers shown poor judgement and strategic vision by aggressively deploying their navy first in the South China Sea and increasingly so in the Indian Ocean?

Vice-Admiral Anil Chopra, a retired Indian naval officer who commanded the eastern and western fleets, believes so, arguing that “President Xi Jinping may have ruined his navy by deploying it before it is ready”.

Other naval officers say China has shown both technological innovation and enterprise in the way it has gone about expanding its navy.”But naval strength is not just about the number of hulls you have although these are important,” said another naval officer, pointing out that “China’s naval power is still nascent and it has no combat experience at all.”

Add to that the logistical nightmare of having to transit three choke points (Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits) as it moves to foreign seas from China’s eastern ports.

But China watchers and maritime experts believe the People’s Liberation Army Navy strategy is to substantially raise the risk and the cost of confrontation for other navies. A case in point is the Indian Navy’s “mission based deployment/patrolling” launched last year to counter the Chinese navy in strategically important waters and sea lanes.

At least 15 warships of various kinds are required with one permanently stationed at the mouth of the Malacca Straits and another in the Andaman Sea. Add to that regular surveillance by P8I maritime patrol aircraft hunting for Chinese submarines. All this means greater cost in terms of maintenance and repair of ships and aircraft and, of course, fuel.

China’s strategy has another side to it. Scholar Srikant Kondapalli says “Beijing has constantly pushed the envelope, inching forward to see what reaction it provokes. If one looks at the South China Sea where it has dredged up artificial islands and militarised them with no reaction from any country, it suggests their strategy is working”.

Tomorrow if there is any confrontation in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy can be expected to think twice before it sends its naval units in. Earlier this month, in the seas off the China-claimed Spratly islands, a U.S. navy ship carried out “evasive manoeuvres” after a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 metres. The U.S. Navy described the Chinese action as “unsafe and unprofessional” but it showed the Chinese were ready to take chances and “push the envelope” while U.S. wasn’t. China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean is unfolding in a similar manner.

“China has no friends,” notes Admiral Chopra but in the next few years it will have a force of at least 6000 marines deployed in the Gwadar naval base in Pakistan. Although Pakistan’s value in any confrontation is doubtful, Gwadar strengthens Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Together with the existing base in Djibouti and possibly another in Yemen (once the civil war ends), China is developing long legs in the Indian Ocean Region.

Add to that China-financed port construction in Lamu in Kenya and Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Both projects are far from commercial shipping lanes and are therefore seen to lack viability but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese.

Kondapalli says India needs to closely monitor how China’s 99-year lease of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka proceeds. Could the Chinese, citing the possibility of confrontation with India, declare Hambantota a naval base? The China Merchant Port Holding Company owns nearly 70 per cent of the shares in Hambantota port, and the two companies formed to undertake security and commercial services, are also reportedly Chinese-controlled.

A Chinese navy submarine docked in Hambantota in 2014 and other Chinese submarines have been spotted in the Indian Ocean ostensibly on “anti-piracy” missions. Senior navy officers say it’s hard to see how submarines can support an anti-piracy mission but China has at least two submarine deployments lasting three months each in the Indian Ocean region every year, a conventional submarine alternating with a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Clearly, China’s naval deployment is driven by the need to secure its energy supplies that transit the Indian Ocean (45 per cent oil, 60 per cent gas). But China watchers say it is also about challenging what it sees as U.S. hegemony and India’s own ambitions. The assessment is 60 per cent of the Chinese navy’s deployable fleet is in the Indian Ocean.

China sees itself as the undisputed world leader; it therefore cannot rest until it displaces U.S. from that perch. India may have no aspirations to world power status but it is also seen as the one Asian power whose rise has the potential to challenge China. The question is whether China feels confident enough to share space with India or will seek to curb and contain. The former option has never been evident, the latter has.

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