During a press conference on January 29, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND), announced that China will step up its deployment of a range of warships in the Indian Ocean. IHS Jane’s reports that Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, after being asked a question on PLAN submarine movements in the Indian Ocean, tried to downplay Chinese naval activities in the region, characterizing them as “normal” and emphasizing that “there is no need to read too much into them.”
“[T]he Chinese military has sent various kinds of naval ships to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast to conduct escort missions since 2008. And in the process, we have notified relevant countries of the escort missions of the PLA naval ships, including the PLA naval submarines,” Yang said in his remarks. “In the future, the Chinese military will send different kinds of naval ships to take part in the naval escort missions in accordance with the situation and the requirement to fulfill the task.”
The presence of Chinese submarine forces in the ocean has the other great regional power, India, worried. Indian military officers have stated that the deployment of nuclear subs would cross a redline and trigger a naval arms race.
As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi pointed out this morning, many Indian and Western analysts believe that China is pursuing a clear-cut long-term naval strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean. In 2005, the U.S. consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton came up with the “string of pearls” hypothesis, which posits that China will try to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery. Those ports in turn could be put to dual use eventually and serve as naval ports for ships of the PLAN.
Chinese investment in the port of Gwadar is often cited as the prime example, as are recent investments in port facilities in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. China tried to alleviate Indian and Western fears by re-branding its initiative, calling it a “Maritime Silk Road.” However, according to experts, the strategy remains essentially the same and includes infrastructure projects, special economic zones, and a system of linked ports.
In an analysis of the situation, Prem Mahadevan notes that “in the medium-term, it is unlikely that many IOR [Indian Ocean Region] states would acquiesce to a creeping militarization of their territorial waters by permitting a permanent Chinese naval presence.” In the long-term, however, he notes that many governments in the region may ultimately consent to an increased Chinese naval presence in their waters in order not to jeopardize trade deals with Beijing.
Looking at the situation from a purely military perspective, it is evident that China, ever since 2008, has begun expanding its South Sea Fleet. Mahadevan elaborates that China may already be in the process of creating a fourth fleet, based at Hainan Island and consisting of two carrier battle groups, which could be operational by 2020. Since these carrier battle groups would be extremely vulnerable to U.S. naval superiority in the Western Pacific, their logical field of operation would be the Indian Ocean, where they would exercise more of a psychological impact. Yet even in peacetime, the presence of these groups in region will increase the change of incidences at sea.
Mahadevan concludes, “The IOR plays an integral part in China’s narrative of a ‘peaceful rise.’” However, the recent PLAN incursions may trigger India (and other Indian Ocean nations) to question this narrative more thoroughly.