Can the PLA Navy Make the Indian Ocean Chinese?

Does China need to dominate the Indian Ocean in order to have a world-class navy?

Can the PLA Navy Make the Indian Ocean Chinese?
Credit: kees torn via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

A recent Wikistrat simulation (full disclosure: I am a senior analyst with Wikistrat, although I did not work on this project) investigated the future of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy. In particular, the report (written by David K. Schneider) examined China’s effort to establish control over the East Asian littoral (A2/AD and amphibious capabilities) and to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean.

Readers of The Diplomat will recognize familiar notes in the report’s discussion of the PLAN’s A2/AD efforts. The more interesting question evoked by Schneider is this: Can the PLAN make the Indian Ocean Chinese? Chinese growth depends on access to the Indian Ocean, from whence the PRC gets much of its energy and a large proportion of its natural resources. China has spent much of its economic and diplomatic capital on building relationships in the region, from Pakistan to Africa. However, the Indian Navy has the capacity to pose a critical threat to Chinese access. With a large fleet and local bases, India can threaten Chinese control of the Indian Ocean at its leisure.

The report also examined China’s relationship with Russia, which remains important for access to technology and expertise. Traditionally the junior partner in this relationship, the increasing size, sophistication, and range of the PLAN should tip the scales in the next few years. Schneider also emphasized the role that political coordination between Moscow and Beijing could improve the PLAN’s prospects for strategic action.

Perhaps most interesting, the report identifies several key caveats that underlie China’s effort to build a world-class navy. These include the health of long-term collaboration with Russia, the ability of the Chinese national innovation system to deliver advanced technology, the overall health of the Chinese economy, and the ability of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLAN to work well with one another. Of these, the first and the third pose the greatest concern; significant economic problems could severely crimp China’s effort at naval expansion, and a deterioration (for whatever reason) of relations with Russia would leave China in a very, very lonely place.

To this I would add the inherent positionality of naval affairs. The power of China’s navy depends directly on the strength of its competitors. If Chinese naval growth continues to inspire India, Japan, and the Southeast Asian countries to expand their own fleets, then Beijing has spent a lot of money for little relative gain. Although the comparison between the PRC and Wilhelmine Germany has been overdone, it’s nevertheless worth noting that Germany built a remarkable fleet that succeeded only in creating enemies, and in spurring foreign naval construction.