The Eighteenth Party Congress Work Report has, for the first time, defined China as a “maritime power” that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is embarking on a massive modernization program and transition to a blue-water naval power. Its objective is to become a new world class Pacific power in the twenty-first century. Perhaps PLAN is looking for an expansive role in the Indo-Pacific maritime space. Apparently, the Indo-Pacific Sea lanes will be pertinent for China to secure its energy resources moving east.
Notably, China is building the Anti Access Area Denial strategy (A2AD) to counter the US power projection into the Western Pacific and the process has intensified with the US ‘pivot’ to Asia. The article contextualises the A2AD vis-a-vis China’s military modernisation. Further, the article delves into the application of strategy to the Indian Ocean Region.
Context for the Anti-Access Area-Denial Strategy
The term can be understood in the following way: whilst a state cannot defeat the US in a conventional conflict, it can invest in other alternatives that restrict the ability of the US to deploy its advantages. China is using this concept to rationalise its increasing defence acquisitions and port facilities in the Indian Ocean Region. Conversely, it is not a war winning capability; the US still retains maritime superiority. It is not a recent strategy either. Indeed, its genesis can be traced back to post Cold War era; during the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 Afghanistan war. The US was successful because of its ability to deploy forces in the region easily.
This strategy has since come into the limelight as China and other nations are deploying diverse weapon systems intended to counter the capability of a technological advanced power to gain access to a conflict zone or contested area during times of hostility.
Tools for an Anti-Access Area-Denial Strategy
China’s military modernisation is focussed on increasing its ability to engage in Anti Access Area Denial. Chinese anti-access capacity includes a large ballistic missile force intended to hit targets, such as air bases and naval facilities. Chinese area denial capabilities consist of advanced counter-maritime and counter-air systems. Further, it possesses the short and medium range ballistic missile (SRBM/MRBM). China’s counter-maritime capabilities include an array of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile (ASBM/ASCM) that can be launched from the air, land and sea. The submarine fleet is yet another credible A2AD threat. The recent acquisition of China Dong Feng 21 D (carrier killer); the world’s most developed anti-ship missile further adds to the country’s increasing military capabilities. The Second Artillery Corps, considered to be the repository of China’s nuclear deterrent, is also speculated to have been delegated the task of Anti Area Access Denial strategy. It is capable of striking against ship and shore targets with conventionally armed missiles.
Thus China has the capability to strike throughout the SCS and the Bay of Bengal. But the use of weapons means waging war and currently it does not want to antagonise the US. Therefore to safeguard its energy interests, China is building port facilities in South Asia especially in the Indian Ocean Region.
Anti-Access Area-Denial Strategy and the Indian Ocean Region
China’s goal is to acquire energy without relying much on any single source, which could be disrupted by an unexpected bilateral crisis. Thus energy security has compelled Beijing to cast anxious eyes on the sea lines of communication (SLOC). It is mitigating the process of securing SLOC also through the ‘Access Denial strategy’. It is not a South Asian power, but has been seeking to build up for itself a strong South Asian presence which could cater to its strategic needs in the long term. It is fostering good neighbourly relations with countries and has built deep-water ports in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Myanmar (Sittwe) and Bangladesh (Chittagong) because it recognises that four fifths of its oil imports pass through the 1100 kilometre long Strait of Malacca which is a complete chokepoint.
With the current acquisitions China can very well operate in the Western Pacific theatre. It can have an effect on the balance of power in the SCS and the Western Pacific through its A2AD strategy. More significantly, during times of hostility, these infrastructural facilities in the Indian Ocean Region will place China in an advantageous position for the operation of its A2AD in the Indo-Pacific maritime space. Thus the overall advantage of the A2AD strategy during operational warfare is the time factor. Nevertheless, the entire development in the region has led to subtle geopolitical contestations in the region.