Red Star Over the Indian Ocean?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Red Star Over the Indian Ocean?


Attack submarines from the Chinese navy are becoming increasingly active in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and could pose a “grave threat” to Indian interests there, a report by the Indian defense ministry said last week.

Using subsurface contact information reportedly shared by the U.S. military, the report, prepared by the Integrated Defence Staff, said that at least 22 contacts had been made in the IOR in the past year alone, with the latest incident occurring in February. As India is confident that only two navies in the region — the U.S. Navy and the Indian Navy — have the capabilities to engage in such activity, the Indian military concluded that the boats involved were very likely from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Indian media said the report proved that a fleet of Chinese nuclear submarines was making “frequent forays into the Indian Ocean.”

According to the report, titled Indian Navy: Perceived Threats to Subsurface Deterrent Capability and Preparedness, the “implicit focus” of the PLAN appeared to be undermining the Indian Navy’s ability “to control highly sensitive sea lines of communication” within the region. For the time being, however, China’s intent more likely was to determine the Indian Navy’s ability to detect undersea objects. The report added that the PLAN’s “extended patrols may fully overlap with the Indian Navy’s area of operation.”

The focus of such deployments, the report said, was the IOR, a sea area that spans from waters off the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Strait and the western shores of Australia.

According to India Today’s coverage of the report, one contact with a suspected Chinese submarine took place 90 km from Indian soil in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while six took place northwest of the Straits of Malacca, 13 south of Sri Lanka and two in the Arabian Sea. The submarines were believed to be from the South Sea Fleet based at Sanya on Hainan Island, off China’s southern coast.

In May 2012, China announced that it could deploy Type 094 nuclear submarines at Yulin Naval Base at Sanya as part of its long-term strategy in the South China Sea. The SSBN will eventually be outfitted with outfitted with the JL-2 Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs).

The number of confirmed contacts mentioned in the report represented a marked increase from four year ago, when U.S. intelligence reportedly revealed that China’s fleet of more than 50 submarines had carried out 12 “extended patrols” outside its territorial waters in 2008, up from six the previous year. Reports then did not indicate where the extended patrols were said to have taken place, though it can be assumed that some occurred near or within the IOR.

Such signs of increasing activity in the IOR have fostered fears — and those were reflected in the report — that the PLAN may have embarked on a project to “strangulate” India.

Port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, close to the border with Iran, which China has is suspected of seeking to turn into a naval facility as part of its “string of pearls” in the region, would give the PLAN “enormous command and control capability for prospective … presence in the IOR,” the report warned.

Furthermore, the report said, the Chinese Navy appears to be building “expeditionary maritime capabilities” and could use nuclear-powered submarines and area denial weapons such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile to threaten India within the region.

Some Indian analysts, however, have gone on the record saying that such assessments tend to overstate the nature of the threat and the viability of the “strong of pearls” as a means to transform PLAN adventurism in the area into a more permanent presence. Still, the growing frequency of PLAN submarines in the IOR is yet another sign — and this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone anymore — that China has ambitions to become a global naval player. The waters are also becoming increasingly important for China, as its energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, which must transit the IOR, continue to grow.

bob millington
May 15, 2013 at 05:03

Hey there Cheng.. playing admiral to day are we?.. I surmise that the "sub pictured is the great tech you speak of.. also that 90% of any good technical ability has been stolen; try comedy– you'd be a hoot .

Devindra Sethi
April 9, 2013 at 17:54

A pointed, well written, column on the increasing forays of Chinese SSN's into the Indian Ocean Region. The data from two democratic navies operating in the IOR lends authenticity to the ' contacts' being classified as ' snoopers'.Navies whilst exercising are always aware of the location of their own sub surface forces, at all times. As a Chinese admiral, it would be discerting read the IN REPORT &  to be made aware that his submarines were classified as hostile contacts 22 times. In peacetime, protocols, ensure that the SNOOPER submarine is herded away and not prosecuted to destruction. In war time the losses would be unbearably high. It indicates a serious flaw in the SSN's acoustic / magnetic / pressure signatures and more, which I will leave unsaid. Time to retract these subs and back to the drawing board. Will Chinese SSBN's operate far from home waters? Unlikely, as the current trend in the PLAN is to operate from 'sanitised bastions', and rely on their SLBM's to provide MAD. This policy was perfected in  the old Soviet Navy, and the Chinese have learnt it well. This policy also enables 'hard' control of the CPC politburo over the SSBN's commanding officers. The Chinese Navy is getting its feet wet along the SLOC's wherein its ULCC's / VLCC's must traverse bringing in much needed oil and gas supplies from the Middle East.This pathline is crucial for their economy, as any disruption, say by IN ships / submarines, in times of hostilities, could play major havoc with the Chinese industrial heartland. Recent remarks by Chinese Naval speakers in international forums indicate their deep concern. However they realise or must realise that geography is against their current strategy of deploying SSN's in the IOR. The New Silk Road runs from say the Gulf of Hormuz / Aden, for thousands of kilometers  along India's coastline / EEZ / IN operating areas in the Arabian sea / Bay of Bengal / A&N ISLANDS / Andaman sea. These facts cannot be wished away.  

Admiral Cheng
April 9, 2013 at 16:44

How do you Indians and the Imperialist like it? China subs can go and suface undetected and at will. According to a reliable souce, We have the best submarine technology in the World.PLAN is capable of sufacing its subs Even in New York Harbour and one day soon Chinese subs will in New York. So Imperialist better pary that our subs will be there for friendly visit and not otherwise.

Christopher Gill
April 9, 2013 at 16:43

I broke the story of the PRC military intent to expand base facilities in IOR on my blog, which is now 250,000 views. PRC expansionist ambitions is real and not over inflated.They have signed an agreement with the Seychelles government to support it with high intensity military training arms, and collateral support. Seychelles has over 110 islands in the Indian Ocean and many of them are ideal for bases. Though PRC has declared in Delhi last year(statement by General Guan Ji Li Supreme Commander) ) that they have no ambition to expand in the IOR to calm tensions, who can take that as serious diplomacy? It sounds more like the wolf telling Little Red Riding Hood she has fine skin and a lovely smile so come and rest next to Grandma. 

Andrew Carter
April 9, 2013 at 16:42

Chinese submarine capabilities are far greater than many suppise – but Israeli Dolphin-class subs have also visited Thailand and Vietnam. The torpedo which sunk the S Korean corvette “Cheosan” was found to have German metallurgy, and N Korea’s Soviet-era subs are incapable of carrying torpedos of that type or diameter (Dolphin-class subs are manufactured in Germany)

April 9, 2013 at 15:48

yeah…you are right. Pakistan will sure welcome chinese just because pakistan is self appointed enemy of INDIA. However, I am not sure about Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka welcomes Chinese because Indians are slow to recognise Lankan's concern.

April 9, 2013 at 13:55

Now indian ocean is dominated by indian and U.S navies. If Chinese navy enters the indian ocean, there will be more balance in the naval forces there. This is a healthy trend.

Fernando Cruz
April 9, 2013 at 13:14

If the Chinese wanted the South China Sea because the word China was used. Then let the Indians claim and own the Indian Ocean and sink any passing Chinese submarine underneath.

Tom F
April 9, 2013 at 13:09

slow news day in India….

April 9, 2013 at 12:32

True. Most South Asian countries would invite China into their ports and neighborhood to counter balance India. Pakistan also has submarines capable of everything Indian submarines are capable of.

April 9, 2013 at 12:28

Indian Ocean is not Indian only. There are many more countries in the Indian Ocean. Their interests must also be taken into account. For instance Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are very happy Chinese submarines are in the region. It is 4 against 1. A Chinese submarine base in coming up in southern Sri Lanka and it is normal there were 13 out of 22 sightings in south of Sri Lanka. Probably some of them even called at Sri Lankan ports. Same goes for Pakistan. No one worries about it except India. Frequency of Chinese submarines will increase as China is pressed from its east to expand on its south west. China is most welcomes in South India.

April 9, 2013 at 12:14

Imperium Vita,

I agree that there seems to be a certain hypocrisy in the rhetoric of high seas politics, but the problem stems from intent.  Often times the US inserts itself into a situation in the name of maintaining relevance while China does not seem to be doing the same thing in the Indian Ocean. 

I'll grant you that China has played the bully in the South and East China Seas, but where the Indian Ocean is concerned China has every right to expand its blue water capabilities. 

April 9, 2013 at 10:38

Couldn't agree more, typical threat inflation and more opportunistic China bashing. Frankly, the majority of these contacts are USN subs, an organization hardly renowned for it's operational transparency or benign goals. Sadly, poor justification for another procurement of Russian hardware by the Indian military; typical attempt to shoehorn this into the "China as aggressor so let's contain them" narrative the warmongering US military continues pandering.  

John Chan
April 9, 2013 at 03:51

Indian media got it all wrong, India should not worry PLAN submarines while they can detect them as the article indicated, India should only start to worry, when they cannot detect subsurface contact at all. If India media really concerns India’s subsurface security, they should ask Indian Navy about the activities of USN subsurface contact in IOR, if Indian Navy has no clue about the USN subsurface activity, then India can be easily fooled into a confrontation with the wrong guy by the USN with a false flag operation like Gulf of Tonkin incident. Trusting USA is like trusting Scorpion won’t sting you,  “grave threat” to Indian Interests is Indian Defense ministry trusting USN.

April 9, 2013 at 02:24

When the USA does it in the sea to the South of China it is “cold war thinking,” “Imperial aggression,” “Containment,” and “continued humiliation.”

When China does it in the Indian Ocean it is a natural right of every soveriegn nation to patrol the seas.

April 9, 2013 at 02:21

India tends to overinflate most threats, especially where China is concerned.  An Indian journalist (whose name unfortunately escapes me right now) noted that Indian politicians are quick to claim China's goal is to counter, surround, and/or suppress India while Chinese politicians are slow to acknowledge that India even exists.

If Chinese submarines are operating in the Indian Ocean, and there's no reason to believe they aren't, they are likely doing so with sea lane security in mind rather than any grand "anti-India" strategy.  The "string of pearls" that is so often brought up was actually a term coined by American defense officials and not Chinese authorities.  That alone should tell us that many of the perceived threats by China to others are probably just the result of observer bias and not any actual plan by China to counter anyone in particular.

The deployment of submarines as opposed to surface vessels likely serves several purposes, the testing of Indian capabilities likely being a bonus to their plans rather than a priority or even a stated goal.  In my opinion, China is just increasing its blue water capabilities as well as scouting out a region that is increasingly important to its future energy and trade needs.


April 9, 2013 at 02:07

India is going to have to learn to live with the PLA-N in the Indian Ocean, much like how the Chinese learned to live with Americans in the West Pacific. What do they want to do, declare the Indian Ocean their "sovereign territory"and attack the PLA-N? Furthermore Im sure a lot of smaller countries there such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka welcome China's presence as a balance against a domineering India :)

Lauren Garza
April 9, 2013 at 01:44

There might be other players in the region but I believe American SOSUS is able to track their mission from start to finish. Terrible for the Chinese to know that their moves are being tracked. More informative for them is to know when and where (and is) they're not. It's a big ocean.

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