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#2823, 2 March 2009
China’s Naval Strategy: Implications for India
Sanjay Kumar
Research Assistant, USI-CS3
e-mail: kumarsinha@yahoo.com

China’s sixth white paper on Defence, released on 20 January 2009, throws significant light on Beijing’s current thinking on key strategic issues, besides providing a passing glimpse of the PLA in transition. The white paper is significant to the extent that it establishes Beijing’s desire to advance its military capabilities from “strategic counter-attacks” (2004 white paper) to “strategic projection operations.” The paper highlights China’s capability to deploy warships in “distant waters” or to engage its air force in long-range “strategic projection operations.”  

The white paper stresses that China will "gradually develop its capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering nontraditional security threats." Beijing’s recent decision to dispatch three warships to support international efforts to curb piracy in the Gulf of Aden suggests a marked strengthening of China’s naval capabilities as a result of over two decades of sustained efforts. It also suggests Beijing’s growing desire to move quickly to project power on the high seas. 

The white paper amply suggests that China’s increasingly assertive posturing to secure its energy and economic interests has made it vulnerable to a wide range of security threats. Understandably, Beijing’s strategy to dominate oil shipping routes, extending from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf, has upset other Asian powers. China’s huge export industry is another reason why China is keen on securing the sea lanes between the Indian and the Pacific oceans. However, this maritime zone is also critical for the export-oriented economies of South Korea and Japan. Therefore, it is unlikely that China’s efforts to gain sea dominance in Asia will pass unchallenged by other key powers of the region.

China’s maritime ambitions, however, span beyond sea-borne commerce to seek great power status globally. The white paper seeks to allay international fears over China’s expanding diplomatic relations with countries of the Indian Ocean and its modernizing naval capabilities, together reflected by its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. However, what the white paper cleverly conceals is the fact that China’s ambition to reach great power status through maritime routes is clearly shaped around traditional sea-theory which stresses upon dominance of sea-borne trade as critical to winning wars.

China’s new defence white paper has special significance for India. Hence, it needs to be studied carefully. More often than not economic and security interests of both China and India intersect near and abroad, resulting in fierce strategic rivalry between the two nations. While the white paper shows China’s growing concern towards strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside, it remains silent about Beijing’s own strategic maneuvers towards India. 

As stated above, China’s recent strategic maneuvers in and around the Indian Ocean threaten both India’s economic as well as security interests. China’s naval capabilities have significantly expanded over the past few years with induction of new warships and submarines. It has nearly surrounded India by forming strategic alliances with countries of the Indian Ocean.  

As part of China’s naval strategy to encircle India, Beijing is in the process of building a number of bases around India in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh. China’s Sanya naval base in South China Sea, an underground nuclear submarine base, is about 1,200 nautical miles from the strategic Malacca Strait and the nearest naval base to India. With the construction of Gwadar naval base in Pakistan (400 km east of the Strait of Hormuz), China plans to restrict the movement of Indian Navy in the Arabian Sea. The strategically important Gwadar will also reinforce Pakistan’s Karachi naval base against India. 

Chinese naval activities in Bangladesh have significantly increased in recent times. With China’s active collaboration, Bangladesh conducted last year its maiden missile launch of a Chinese land attack anti-ship cruise missile C-802A from the Jianghu-class 1,500-ton F-18 Osman frigate in the Bay of Bengal. With the modernization of Chittagong naval port in Bangladesh, China intends to deter the movement of India navy in the Bay of Bengal. 

China is also apparently planning to develop a submarine base at Marao in Maldives to counter the Indian navy’s southern command. In Sri Lanka, China is said to be developing Hambantota port to provide extensive bunkering facilities to its submarines and warships. China is also in the process of upgrading its surveillance capabilities at the Great Coco Islands in Myanmar besides constructing two helipads and storage space for weapons. A Chinese electronic intelligence unit at the Coco Islands tracks India’s missile launch facilities on the eastern sea coast at Chandipur in Orissa besides intercepting classified communications emerging from India’s first tri-services command at the Andaman and Nicobar. 

China’s naval build-up against India signifies more than conventional threats. 26/11 has highlighted more than ever non-traditional maritime threats facing India. Hence, security planners in India need to work out an effective counter-China strategy in the Indian Ocean, not just because of conventional maritime threats, but also because of the fact that that foreign naval bases around India might be used to link counter-India elements in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

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