What's a Recent Chinese Naval Deployment to the Eastern Indian Ocean About?


The crisis in the Maldives continues, with the recalcitrant president, Abdulla Yameen, having extended the state of emergency that he put in place earlier this month. As I discussed in these pages shortly after Yameen declared the state of emergency, the crisis was about far more than domestic politics and democracy in small archipelagic state.

Inevitably, the stakes in Malé have come to attract great interest in both India and China. Amid their ongoing competition for strategic presence in the Indian Ocean, the fate of the Maldives after this crisis is far from an irrelevant outcome.

Amid all this, a recent Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) foray into the Eastern Indian Ocean has gained some attention, particularly in the Indian press. A Chinese surface action group, comprising a Type 071 amphibious transport ship and four other vessels, including destroyers and a supply ship, entered the eastern Indian Ocean for a regularly scheduled exercise dubbed “Navy Blue 2018A.”

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The deployment was curiously only reported on in detail by Sina, which included a map purporting to show the movement of the vessels. Even Reuters‘ report—the source many subsequent English-language reports have replied on—sourced its claim to this same Sina report, noting that there was no link to the situation in the Maldives.

With one exception discussed below, Chinese state media, including PLA Daily, which generally reports on exercises and naval movements, have yet to publicize the deployment (The Diplomat kindly invites a correction if that is not the case). According to Sina, the surface action group entered the Indian Ocean for supply and logistics training.

Meanwhile, Indian defense officials who spoke to the Times of India appear to be playing down the significance of the deployment, which they note is some 3,500 kilometers away from the Maldives. “The warships entered the eastern Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait and exited through Lombok Strait to the South China Sea,” another Indian source, identified as a senior Indian Navy officer, told the Hindustan Times. (The Print, meanwhile, has a source noting that the Indian Navy has noticed “no account of unusual deployments” or “unusual movements or deployments near the Maldives.”)

That, however, hasn’t convinced some Indian strategists, including Abhijit Singh and Abhijnan Rej, who write in LiveMint that the PLAN deployment is most likely not a pre-scheduled drill, but a response to the crisis in the Maldives.

Singh and Rej offer a range of arguments why this is the case:

To begin with, the timing: it is quite possible that Yameen’s decision to impose the emergency in the Maldives was based on his impression that the tides were not favourable to him, and that the Mohamed Nasheed-led opposition was about to depose him, potentially with Indian support (do recall that the Maldives has been in New Delhi’s radar since Yameen ramrodded a China-Maldives free trade agreement through the parliament a few months ago). In that case, it is likely that he would have consulted Beijing on the future course of action. In turn, China may have deduced that the opportune moment for an Indian intervention in the Maldives—following the Operation Cactus playbook of 1988—would have been right around the time Yameen would set his counter-plan into motion. In order to stall an Operation Cactus redux, Beijing would have had to signal India that it has the muscle to push Indian forces out of the Maldives if it so chooses.

Signaling is tricky business, and it’s difficult to conclusively determine what message is being sent here to decision-makers in New Delhi, if any at all. Indian elites have long known that China has aspirations to regularly operate in the Indian Ocean, which strategists in Beijing love to note is not India’s ocean, contrary to its name. That the Indian Ocean is increasingly contested is not news.

Not only has Beijing operationalized its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, on the western edges of the IOR, but its 2015 defense white paper clearly set out an agenda to transform the PLAN from a near-shores defensive force to a global navy with expeditionary ambition. Meanwhile, the PLAN started conducting regular exercises in the eastern Indian Ocean as early as 2014.

It is curious that authoritative Chinese state media outlets have seriously underplayed the deployment; I’m aware of a sole CCTV broadcast discussing the deployment, but no mentions so far in authoritative Communist Party-linked newspapers. Even the semi-authoritative Global Times, aside from publishing an editorial critiquing the Indo-Pacific concept and criticizing India’s “meddling” in the Maldives, has yet to talk up the deployment.

Xinhua and People’s Daily, meanwhile, carry no record of the deployment. If this is an attempt at signaling toward India by China, it’s a substantially different approach than Beijing has deployed during bilateral land-based crises—especially last summer’s bitter standoff at Doklam. (One variable worth considering here may be the onset of the new year’s holiday in China, which came shortly after the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives.)

The official Indian reaction to these exercise—at least what can be gleaned from the comments given to Times of India and the Hindustan Times by their sources—suggest a wise wait-and-see approach in New Delhi. Overreacting to a PLAN surface action group entering an area as vast as the Indian Ocean would prove counterproductive to India’s interests. Perceptions cut both ways here: an overly skittish reaction in New Delhi to a PLAN deployment thousands of miles from the Maldives may instead harden Beijing’s resolve to double-down in the IOR amid the crisis.

Parts of the Indian media may have made a bit too much of this deployment—with some even terming it “psychological war” by Beijing—but by all accounts this appears to be a regularly scheduled training exercise, in line with longstanding PLAN practice and ambition, that appears to have been deliberately kept low key by official media to avoid injecting the Maldives crisis with unnecessary tension.

In the meantime, while India does not yet appear to be on the cusp of military intervention in the Maldives, it’s unlikely that the presence of a PLAN surface action group in the eastern Indian Ocean would be decisive in tilting Indian decision-making either way. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean and its ability to project power across critical sea lanes are far from a surprise for Indian strategists, who have been seriously mulling the consequences of the PLAN’s presence in the region since at least the mid-2000s.

In the meantime, however, there’s no doubt that observers in India are watching Chinese movements in the IOR with eagle-eyed attentiveness as the crisis in the Maldives plays out. That was true too before the crisis, and it’ll remain so even after Yameen’s fate is decided.

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