The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now the largest navy in the world. This development, announced in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2020 annual report on the Chinese military, appears to demonstrate a determined strategy in Beijing to develop a powerful blue water fleet. Both Chinese and outside naval experts speculate that the PLAN may have an Indian Ocean fleet in the near future. Supporting this possibility, multiple Chinese sources have started to articulate an emerging Indian Ocean strategy for the PLAN. These writings are useful to understand evolving Chinese grand strategy. Furthermore, Beijing is actively laying the groundwork for such a fleet both in terms of potential bases and logistical centers, as well as naval hardware. However, beyond its anti-piracy missions and naval presence, for political and technical reasons, the PLAN is currently unable (and possibly unwilling) to officially establish an Indian Ocean fleet that could supposedly dominate the region.
In order to understand the emerging Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, I examine three key areas. First, I provide an analysis of what the Chinese are saying about Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean. For example, what do Chinese strategists say about a possible two-ocean PLAN, and how does this align with Chinese strategy? Second, I examine the Chinese aircraft carrier program and argue that any significant PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean region would likely require multiple Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups. Finally, I discuss the major political impediments and consequences to the PLAN playing a leading role in the Indian Ocean.
A Two-Ocean Fleet?
Over the past two decades China’s interests in the Indian Ocean have rapidly expanded. Roughly 80 percent of China’s imported oil transits through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait. Chinese strategist Zeng Xinkai correctly notes that China’s energy imports transit sea lanes controlled by other states. In addition, 95 percent of China’s trade with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe passes through the Indian Ocean. More importantly from Beijing’s perspective, this region is controlled by Chinese rivals: the United States and India. Since 2000, the PLAN’s port visits to regional states have also significantly increased. In 1999 there was not a single PLAN port visit in the Indian Ocean region, however, since 2010 the PLAN has averaged close to 20 port visits a year. Furthermore, China is the only country to set up embassies in all six island nations in the Indian Ocean.
The overwhelming strategic objective of PLAN modernization over the past quarter century has been to achieve a force level capable of defending Chinese interests in East Asia and keeping the Americans out of a Taiwan contingency, or at least keeping them at an arm’s length before the rest of the Chinese military can fulfill its mission. Now armed with over 100 advanced destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, Chinese strategists are starting to develop long-term plans for the Indian Ocean.
Hu Bo, the director of Beijing University’s Center for Maritime Strategy Studies, argues that in the future the main zones for the PLAN are first the western Pacific, followed by the northern Indian Ocean stretching from the Middle East and African coasts to the Malacca Strait. Of greater significance, professor Hu writes that “in order to achieve an effective military presence in both oceans, China should consider deploying two oceangoing fleets, centered around aircraft carriers- [sic] the Pacific fleet and the Indian Ocean Fleet.” The proposed Indian Ocean fleet would be based on key islands in the South China Sea and in friendly countries around the northern Indian Ocean. While the primary mission of such a fleet would be to work with the American and Indian navies to protect sea lines of communication and deter piracy, Hu asserts that the United States and China have marked each other as each other’s greatest strategic rival. Professor Li Zhang of the South Asian Research Institute at Sichuan University is less ambiguous in his assessment of the American presence in the Indian Ocean region, which he sees as a strategic attempt to establish a political and military alliance targeted at China.
The prospect of a two-ocean approach to maritime security is in line with forward edge defense, which envisions China establishing an “arc-shaped strategic zone that covers the western Pacific Ocean and northern Indian Ocean.” The Chinese Science of Military Strategy states, “Because our at-sea sovereignty and interests have frequently come under intrusions … we need to form into a powerful and strong two oceans layout in order to face the crises that may possibly erupt.”
For more than a decade and a half there has been discussion of a string of pearls in the Indian Ocean. This concept is based on the perception that China is strategically building ports in bordering countries to contain India. While the drivers of such infrastructure are debatable, many Chinese analysts have commented extensively on this issue. Liang Meng argued that the Belt and Road Initiative can help break the strategic containment of China by the United States and India. Discussing the importance of the Indian Ocean to China, Shi Hongyan points out that India’s Andaman-Nicobar Command serves as an iron curtain effectively blocking China’s entry into the Indian Ocean. Directly addressing China’s need for bases in the Indian Ocean, three researchers from the Naval Academy of Military Science write that the development of the Indian Ocean is the only way for China to expand its sea power. Specifically, they write that the lack of bases is a form of malnutrition that lags far behind the expansion of China’s national interests. They believe China needs to develop strategic fulcrums in the region, but must be careful in selecting these. Such bases can serve as supply and support points, which can serve strategic roles in China’s maritime power. They list Gwadar in Pakistan, but also mention Dar es Salaam, the Seychelles, Djibouti, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Cognizant of the concerns such activities may generate, they call for slow penetration to reduce Indian and American maritime hegemony. These potential bases would be in addition to the strategic strongpoint that China has already set up in Djibouti as well as the recently signed agreement that gives the PLAN access to a Cambodian naval base on the Gulf of Thailand.
The above discussion highlights various Chinese government documents and informed scholarly analysis of Chinese perceptions of the Indian Ocean region. A key question is whether these are simply trial balloons, or whether they constitute a clear and sustained approach to the region. The Chinese facility in Djibouti and the small but constant presence of the PLAN in the northern Indian Ocean are empirical evidence that the PLAN does have clear Indian Ocean ambitions. Interestingly, one of the six berths at the Doraleh Multipurpose Port in Djibouti (close to the Chinese base) is reserved for the PLAN. However, these alone demonstrate only a limited engagement and do not constitute a clear strategic objective. This is best found in various Belt and Road projects around the rim of the Indian Ocean. The construction of ports in multiple states in the region is one indicator, but these ports may be primarily about economics and connectivity projects and less about permanent bases. A better measurement is the sheer size of the Chinese fleet and the necessary steps being taken to facilitate blue water capability. The PLAN has eight 903/A supply ships, which have been used in the Gulf of Aden, and has built two Type 901 fast combat support ships for its carriers.
Beijing is unlikely to formally declare an Indian Ocean fleet before one is operational, and even then, for political reasons, it may not call it a fleet. What we can infer, based on the available evidence ranging from official government publications, Belt and Road port projects, and most importantly, a sustained and increasing effort to commission blue water capable warships, is that the PLAN is acquiring all of the requisites that would support such a fleet. These three factors provide the political, logistical, and security foundations for such ambition. For a China that increasingly perceives the United States as a rival that is determined to thwart China’s rise, such a fleet and potential base structure provides a form of deterrence against real or perceived American hegemony in the region.
Carrier Battle Groups with Chinese Characteristics
For China to have an effective naval strategy for the region, some Chinese analysts believe the PLAN would have to field multiple fully operational aircraft carriers. One Chinese analyst argues the PLAN must be equipped with at least three carriers if it is to send one into the Indian Ocean. Other sources argue that China is seeking up to six carriers by the mid-2030s to better carry out blue water operations and that two carriers may be deployed to the Indian Ocean. The absence of a fully operational aircraft carrier must not be understated. With 36 destroyers equipped with Dragon Eye combat systems similar to the American Aegis system, and 30 modern frigates, along with an emerging nuclear powered submarine fleet, the PLAN has arrived as a force to be reckoned with in East Asia. However, Chinese missions conducted in East Asia will likely have the benefit of some form of air support from land-based fighter aircraft. China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, and to a lesser extent the indigenously produced Shandong, are primarily experimental carriers that are used for training purposes.
China faces significant technological challenges to carrier aviation. Even though the Liaoning took to sea in 2012, it was not until 2018 that the PLAN announced the first nighttime landings of jets on the flattop. Furthermore, the PLAN is looking to replace the J-15 fighter jet, which is experiencing severe technical difficulties ranging from thrust to being the heaviest carrier based fighter in the world at 33 tons. By comparison the American F-18, the workhorse of the U.S. Navy’s fighter aircraft, weighs around 20 tons. Of greater importance, the F-18 is launched by catapults, while the J-15 is launched without a catapult off a ski jump with no assisted propulsion. Because of the excess weight, Chinese naval fighters must take off without adequate fuel and are likely not carrying ordnance. Recently the PLAN has sought to alleviate this challenge by conducting buddy refueling where one J-15 equipped with extra fuel pods refuels another J-15 in midair. While carriers may be the bling of international status, if not operating in a coordinated manner with effective, layered protection from escort ships, they are a massive liability. Properly integrating support ships and submarines into a viable carrier battle group is an extremely complicated task in a combat zone where an enemy can launch attacks from over the horizon and from below the surface. The PLAN is also developing the KJ-600, which is a carrier based early warning aircraft. If operational, such an aircraft will add an important level of sophistication and subsequent protection to a Chinese carrier battle group.
The Utility of a Carrier in the Indian Ocean Region
Professor Hu from Beijing University clearly acknowledges the challenges of developing combat-ready carriers and warns that the Liaoning will not rapidly change the PLAN’s capabilities. Importantly, he writes that carriers that are not ready for combat may be taken hostage and vulnerable carriers can easily be tracked and attacked from the air, surface, and undersea. Given such challenges, he argues, “these aircraft carriers will likely become a liability for the PLAN rather than a tool for victory.”
The concerns voiced by some Chinese analysts on the vulnerability of carriers raises the question of why the PLAN would need or want a carrier in the Indian Ocean. Over the past several decades China has amassed an arsenal of increasingly sophisticated anti-ship missiles that are both land-based and mounted on Chinese surface vessels and submarines. In the event of a hostile interdiction on the high seas, the ability of the PLAN to strike an enemy combatant with an over-the-horizon missile likely constitutes a greater threat than does a hulking aircraft carrier that constantly needs to be protected. American Adm. Stansfield Turner (and former CIA director) highlighted these concerns 15 years ago when he argued that because of advanced anti-ship missiles, carriers are becoming superfluous. In fact, China has yet to operate a carrier in the Indian Ocean. The well regarded Type 54A Jiangkai II guided missile frigate makes up 40 percent of escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and requires far less maintenance than does a carrier. In discussions with multiple Chinese maritime security experts, they pointed out that one thing a carrier and its accompanying battle group can offer is visible evidence that China is a great power. Many of them are aware of the liabilities inherent in maintaining a carrier, but they emphasized the mianzi (“face” or “prestige”) aspect of carriers.
The enormous surface area of the Indian Ocean also calls into question the utility of a carrier. In the event of hostilities, a carrier may find itself thousands of miles from the conflict zone, and it could be days or even weeks before it would be available at the scene. Smaller, stealthier vessels such as frigates and destroyers, if detached from a carrier battle group, can offer a wider net of protection for Chinese interests. According to the U.S. Naval War College, China has over 100 warships and submarines that are capable of operating in the Indian Ocean. If coupled with bases in the region, they may offer a viable deterrent to would-be enemies.
The PLAN is rapidly expanding its presence in the region. According to the Indian Navy, at any given time there are between six and eight PLAN warships in the northern Indian Ocean. Most of these vessels are providing public goods in the form of anti-piracy patrols. These exercises provide the PLAN with extremely valuable lessons on how to operate in the blue water, ranging from managing the logistics of operations far from home ports, to understanding ocean currents in this part of the world. However, in the absence of effective air cover, any PLAN flotilla in the region will not be able to engage in any meaningful combat with a state that has either its own naval aviation, or nearby land-based fighter jets. Furthermore, these deployments are still small compared to the American and Indian naval forces in the region. The absence of air cover cannot be underestimated, and this is a severe impediment to the PLAN’s ability to effectively project power beyond the symbolic showing of the flag. While the PLAN will eventually master the art of carrier-based aviation, until this is realized, it will not be able to engage in combat operations beyond dealing with pirates or other relatively low-risk missions such as evacuations.
The Politics of an Indian Ocean Fleet
As a sovereign state with substantial interests in the Indian Ocean region, China has a right and lawful interest in developing some sort of Indian Ocean fleet/naval presence. Just as the Americans protect their interests in the region, Beijing is concerned with its ability to protect its expanding interests. Apart from the technical hurdles involving carrier battle groups, China faces the crucial political challenge in the region, how to deal with India.
India’s concerns about Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean on their own do not generate major concern in Beijing. As Ye Hailin, the vice president of the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy in the Chinese Academy of Social Science, stated, “In layman’s terms, China has never regarded India as a main concern, whether it is a partner or an opponent, it is a secondary level.” However, Indian leaders’ fears of China potentially containing India have driven New Delhi to reach out to Washington. This situation is inimical to Chinese interests.
Over the past seven years, India and the United States have signed three foundational defense agreements covering areas ranging from logistics to intelligence sharing. Furthermore, the U.S. military routinely assists its Indian counterpart in security issues such as help with catapults on India’s aircraft carriers, or tracking Chinese naval movements in the Indian Ocean. Simply put, increases in Chinese military activities in South Asia and, in particular, the Indian Ocean directly cause an increase in security and political ties between New Delhi and Washington. This plays to the hand of anti-China hawks in both capitals who seek to counter and constrict China in the region.
A Free Rider?
Oddly enough, as Beijing takes steps to protect its sea lines of communication in the region, Chinese scholars acknowledge China is, to a certain degree, free riding off the American military presence in the Indian Ocean. Xu Ruike and Sun Degang, both China-based scholars, admit China is an economic heavyweight in the Middle East, but is a military featherweight in the region, and will remain so for the coming decades. They further state that China will continue to be a free rider on the American-led protection of oil sea lines of communication for years.
Overall, China’s increasing ties to the Indian Ocean and beyond have expanded enormously over the past two decades, and in a future post-COVID-19 world, this will continue. Chinese analysts and government entities are increasingly calling for some form of Indian Ocean fleet/force that can protect and project China’s interests. Crucially, based on the available evidence consisting of port infrastructure projects, various statements from the government and China-based scholars/analysts, as well as new naval hardware, it appears that China does intend to develop some sort of Indian Ocean force. While China will never establish full sea control in the Indian Ocean, it will likely possess the ability to provide a credible deterrent to other states that may threaten Chinese sea lines of communication or entities. However, while China increasingly has the surface combatants to conduct meaningful power projection in the Indian Ocean and has even carried out live-fire exercises in the northern Indian Ocean, critically the PLAN lacks the requisite protection of air power. Beijing will eventually solve the hardware component of its “Indian Ocean Dilemma.” However, the political dilemma of what to do about bases and, of greater strategic importance, what to do about the growing security relationship between India and the United States, which is driven by Chinese activities, may prove to be the biggest obstacle to China’s long-term Indian Ocean ambitions.
Christopher K. Colley is a non-resident China fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the National Defense College, or the United Arab Emirates government