IPCS Discussion

China’s Maritime March West

03 Jul, 2014    ·   4543

Dibya Shikha and Sonia Hukil report on the proceedings on the discussion

Admiral (Retd.) Pradeep Kaushiva
Director, National Maritime Foundation

Given China’s geographical location, it is possible for China to access the world via three different directions: eastwards across the Pacific, westwards across Central Asia or westwards via south to the South China Sea (SCS). Historically, China went west in the first instance via the silk route and eventually reached Europe. Today, China is positioned across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Mediterranean, the west coast of Africa, and continues to reach out globally. However, there has been no historical record for it to have crossed the Pacific. Furthermore, China’s dependency on Africa for its resources, West Asia’s energy lines and its stretch across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) makes many practitioners question the strategic contours of China’s maritime engagement. 

A focus on four different aspects of China’s presence in the maritime domain will help stimulate a discussion on the issue:

•China’s strategic focus in the IOR; and an analysis of China’s pursuit of reinforcing its navy and exerting a legitimate presence in the Indian Ocean.

•Interpretation of China’s maritime activities in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (SCS). 

•The perspectives from the littorals, especially reactions from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan, on maritime security. 

•An analysis of the geostrategic implications of China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, both in terms of maritime security and regional stability.

Jayadeva Ranade 
Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

Since the mid 1970s, China has had a deep desire of exerting its influence in the IOR. Several Chinese articles circulating around the mid and early 1970s viewed the identification of the IOR with great scepticism. For them, the Indian Ocean should not have been termed the ‘Indian' Ocean.  However, no provocation existed at that time due to negligible competition between India and China. China always had a clear ambition of establishing its dominance in the IOR, which reflected in its national policies. In the 1980s, China, pursuing its ambition of developing into a regional naval power, appointed military officials for constructing and modernising its navy. This was achieved by following two trajectories: first, while planning the construction of ships, a ground work for “Self-Reliance” in the defence field was laid, which was viewed crucial at the time. Second, a major ship building program was initiated for construction of new shipyards, where new fighter ships could be built.

China’s initial priorities consisted of building a capacity of deterring and denying the foreign powers from gaining access into the SCS. Their primary focus was on building a fleet of submarines and missiles. Over the years, a lot of progress has been made in these two arenas. Several adequate markers point to China’s maritime ambitions and capabilities, such as the entry of the Chinese Navy flotilla extensively for anti-piracy operations. Successful flotillas comprising of different ships remain present in the area, demonstrating the capacity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for carrying out different operations. In 2008, the first flotilla entered the IOR, followed by a navy fleet public demonstration, marking the arrival of the Chinese Navy at the international stage. In 2009, China gathered increased attention in its naval capacity and sought to develop aircraft carriers.

An aircraft carrier is a manifestation of power, which is ideal at operating in the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, photos of aircraft carriers under construction flourished on the Chinese military websites. Another Chinese ambition was the initiation of an unmanned underwater vessels program in order to improve the quality of their control and the depth to which they could progress in the IOR.

Beijing has been determined to exert its influence in the IOR. As for its dominance in the Pacific, it remains unperturbed and has left it to the US. The allocation of the seabed for resource exploitation by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) gives China legitimacy in remaining in the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, China has ensured continued legitimacy in the region for a long period. Beijing has proposed two plans in this regard: first, a rail link between Beijing up to Madrid serving as a cargo transplant and second, a rail link from Beijing through Turkey up to London and finally to India. Chinese plans mesh very neatly with their boundless national interest. As for India, it is time for it to catch up to their counterparts. The speed with which China is reaching its objectives must be a grave matter of concern for India so as to not get overshadowed in the near future.

Commodore Kamlesh K Agnihotri
Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation  

The doctrine tactics and procedures of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) all emanate from a combined military strategy of “Active Defence.” The naval component of the “Active Defence” strategic guidelines is the off-shore defence strategy. The PLAN’s tasks have been divided into two parts: traditional (inclusive of maintaining constant combat readiness; national, defence and coastal security) and non-traditional (comprising of supporting economic and social development; rescue of oversees personnel; disaster relief; anti-piracy missions; port visits etc.). These strategies translate into maritime activities in terms of two imperatives: securing their maritime interests, endeavours and boundless national interest and also the need for a growing power to find larger operating space, and striving for greater global presence. This has enabled capacity-building of the PLAN for “Blue Water” roles for effective distant water missions. It has also resulted in a quantitative up-scaling of civilian maritime activities – an indication China’s presence and purpose. 

Post the deployment of the PLAN’s 15th and 16th task force – covering Kenya, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, South Africa, among others – China had circumscribed the African continent. This was initiated with a well-planned vision of building linkages in West Asia, North East and West Africa. Chinese activities in the IOR consist of anti-piracy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden; participation in the ‘Aman’ maritime exercises etc. Its first ever symbolic exercise in IOR is south of the Lombok Strait.

Chinese activities in the Pacific are also significant. They comprise of regular maritime exercises beyond the 1st Island Chain; and the first ‘Three Fleet’ Joint Exercise in East China Sea; extensive work up of aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning;’ an aircraft carrier in the SCS; and naval diplomacy, among others.

China is following their economic and boundless national interest which is protected by the PLAN. As a result, India stands to be affected first and to the greatest degree since the passing PLAN ships would continuously keep them in midst of critical Indian maritime area; threaten SLOCs security; negatively affect India’s naval operations and constrain maritime space for training and other exercises. For the near future, there seems to be no scope for a short-term resolution between India and China. One can only hope for the maintenance of a stable equilibrium between the two.  

Teshu Singh
Coordinator, China Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

Today, a new kind of geopolitics is evolving in the IOR. The region is no more a just a highway. It has become economically, strategically and politically important for all the powers. However, the most important development is the emerging role of the IOR littoral states.

There are asymmetries of power in the region with big, small and external powers taking keen interest. Smaller powers such as, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh have the flexibility to meet their national interest by playing with their strengths and the major powers’ dependence on them.

Major Powers that look at the Indian Ocean as a dynamic region – one that is vital to their power and commercial ambitions – find it difficult to sustain their stakes without some support and acceptance by smaller powers. The construction of the Indian Ocean into the IOR has therefore complicated the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean with the shift to new geographies – that enhance the representation of smaller powers and the increasing stakes of major and dominant powers in the IOR. 

These developments will have serious challenges to the Indian Ocean security initiatives. An Indian Ocean Security regime is still taking shape, but it is still in a very nascent stage. In the given scenario, India and China have major stakes in the region. The new regional security architecture will have to take into account all the factors, especially that of the littorals.

Commodore Gurpreet S Khurana
Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation

While the broad contours of China’s maritime strategy is amply clear, accessing China’s increasing strategic presence in the IOR in a very objective way has become the necessity.

Social Constructivist’s view of positive-sum would help in understanding both positive and adverse implications of China’s march west into the IOR. Common stakes in the IOR are security of maritime trade/energy flow; safety of seafarers; access to natural resources (including the sea-bed) and economic connectivity – for further sustaining Asia’s ‘rise’. Salient challenges in the IOR are piracy and other maritime crimes; terrorism; adverse effects of climate change; maritime disasters; geographical constraints for economic connectivity; and naval access for China in the IOR. India encounters a similar predicament in the Western Pacific. Facilitating factors between India and China are the ongoing operational coordination and information-sharing for countering piracy and China’s quest to be a part of IOR security mechanism; enhancing cooperation on China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ concept; and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor. Possible outcomes for such cooperation would be: PLAN complementing IOR naval capacity for humanitarian missions in the region, and security cooperation leading to major sea-borne commerce and economic integration of not only the IOR but also of broader Asian region.

On one hand, maintaining the regional stability in the IOR is important for securing economic investment, markets and citizens of the region. On the contrary, intra-state separatist tendencies, economic disparity leading to socioeconomic instability and fragile political systems of the region are major challenges for maintaining stability.

Facilitating factors are China’s “historic mission” for stability and humanitarian operations in the region which will discourage it from being a ‘free-rider’ during a regional crisis – that has been the case so far. Multi-faceted regional integration in the IOR will pave the way for crystallisation of norms for regional and extra-regional stakeholders that could enhance China’s stakes in the Region – further reducing the risk of regional instability.

Viewing through the realist’s view of the Zero-Sum concept, assumptions are: China wants to displace the US’ influence and create a favourable balance of power in the region–by improving ties with India. However, China’s ‘March West’ could be also seen as answer to India’s ‘Look East’ Policy. Aggravating factors in the region are: the debate over the String of Pearls that it is just a ‘sleeper facility’ or military utility; the demonstration of Chinese naval power in the Lombok Strait and other regions; increasing focus of the US rebalance strategy in the Western Pacific; China’s disregard for international norms, Chinese arms sales to the IOR littorals guided by self-interest. Possible outcomes in view of this development are: China could draw the IOR states from democracy; regional arms race; skirmishes the between PLAN and the IOR navies; China-US conflict in the West Pacific can spill into the IOR, and India-China conflict across the Line of Actual Control escalating horizontally to the Indian Ocean etc.

In the Indian perspective, China’s presence in the IOR may lead to increased avenues of maritime and economic cooperation. However, a strong Chinese naval presence in the Region would weaken India’s overall conventional deterrence against China. Future course of action for India could be strengthening operational coordination; standing agreement for mutual assistance; development of operational compatibility among navies leading to mutual trust; code of conduct for international naval encounters at sea and building strategic deterrence vis-à-vis China. It could also reinforce its partnerships with the US and the IOR littoral states.

•Is China only focused on the IOR or they are interested in going west from north as well? 
•Military bases are a double-edged sword. Military bases could be counter-productive not only in terms of opposition from local forces but also from the vulnerability of operationality.
•If China is exercising an ‘aggressive maritime strategy’ in the region, how can Beijing ignore that all the Southeast Asian countries could unite against it?
•What could be the implications of the increasing population of Chinese citizens in the IOR and Pacific Islands?
•Is there any hope for peace and stability in the IOR, when so many great powers (read US and China) are involved in pursuing their own self-interests?

•China is looking for holistic presence in all maritime hotspots. China is trying to get access to every feasible area in the region and beyond. However, they follow a dualistic policy on different platforms. On the global scene, China would like to be in a bipolar world but on the regional scene they would like to be unipolar.
•China is not going to be a world power in recent future. While they have indeed signaled their intention, translating it into capability would take many years. It would take decades for the Chinese aircraft carriers to exercise sea control in the IOR. However, China’s nuclear submarines have tremendous power and endurance, which is worrisome for India.
•Maritime peace and stability in IOR is a difficult aim to achieve due to the complexity of the region, based on different languages, cultures, religions and traditions.
•Repercussions of Chinese bases are not dependent on China’s preferences but on those of the littoral states of the IOR.
•For the first time in history, the US influence is relatively decreasing in the IOR. India has also become vulnerable in its own area. Therefore, appropriate action should be taken to secure New Delhi’s interests.
•For the next two to three decades, China will be look to establish support systems for the deployment for the security of maritime resource generation, trade and energy lines. China will have self-defendant units but they do not have capability to defend geographical areas.

Rapporteured by Dibya Shikha and Sonia Hukil, Research Interns, IPCS