Asia Defense

China’s Ghost Fleet in the Indian Ocean

Are the stories surrounding China’s Indian Ocean fleet just wishful thinking?

China’s Ghost Fleet in the Indian Ocean
Credit: U.S. Navy

Today, Defense News ran a very interesting piece attacking the often repeated assertion that China will soon be adding one additional fleet to the three existing ones (the North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea Fleets) it currently operates. This new fleet will allegedly be headquartered in Sanya on Hainan Island and project Chinese naval power into the Indian Ocean. One expert noted in 2014: “There have been reports that China is already creating a fourth fleet that would eventually consist of two Carrier Battle Groups based at Hainan Island. This fleet might be placed directly under the Central Military Commission, the highest military decision-making body, making it a powerful instrument of geopolitical signaling.”

Yet, Defense News quotes a Ching Chang, former Taiwan naval officer who now is a fellow at Taiwan’s ROC Society for Strategic Studies, in saying that such reports are “overstated speculation” and not credible. “Without any diplomatically credible, militarily reliable, and logistically functional forward base in the Indian Ocean area, it is impossible for the [Chinese Navy] to establish any long-lasting military organization there, though certain ad hoc arrangements such as dispatch forces, task forces and exercise maneuvering units may appear in the Indian Ocean from time to time,” Chang emphasizes.

He also pointed out that the alleged home port of the new fourth fleet, Hainan Island, is part of the Guangzhou Military Region, which already has the South Sea Fleet as its naval arm, making an additional fleet redundant. “Neither the actual practices of the present military organization may have any space to accommodate such an organization of the fourth fleet. Please remember that all three existing fleets are named by the territorial seas. This is a basic rule hardly to be changed in near term,” Chang says. He concludes: “[M]any commentaries [that] appeared in the overseas Chinese electronic medias might only reflect some aspirations of the military fans in China or overseas Chinese community.”

The Defense News article also quotes long-time The Diplomat contributor, James Holmes. Holmes points out that:

“From a geographical standpoint, establishing such a fleet would concentrate even more attention on the chokepoints where shipping accesses the Indian Ocean from East Asia. If Beijing bases a fleet on Hainan and doesn’t forward deploy it, the fleet’s ships could be cut off and stranded in South Asia by some access-denier operating in the vicinity of the Strait of Malacca or the Lombok or Sunda straits. The crucial issue is the number of naval platforms. Once China produces these — after the three fleets are fully equipped — we could possibly see the fourth fleet.”

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Holmes furthermore notes that China’s PLAN could just create the shell organization of a new fleet, which “would resemble the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, which has only a command ship and shore facilities. Ships ‘chop’ to 6th Fleet temporarily, meaning they put themselves under tactical control of the fleet commander. China may be thinking about a similar arrangement for now, and perhaps permanently. Navies exist to give commanders and political leaders options. This may fall into that category.”