China’s Emerging Strategy for Power Projection in the Indian Ocean

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe (US Navy), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

New Chinese Strategy is complex and sophisticated unlike previously imagined

In a speech delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 18, 2017, President Xi Jinping prioritized the development of a “world-class military” that includes a Bluewater Navy capable of carrying out expeditionary operations overseas. The three strategic requirements for PLA’s power projection include defending sovereignty, denying interference and protecting China’s overseas interests overseas. While the first two requirements are focused on defending Beijing’s regional claims in South China Seas and denying interference in Taiwan, the third requirement has a global dimension. The one area where the Chinese have a considerable overseas interest is the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) due to several reasons. Nearly 80% of China’s oil import flows through SLOCs in the Indian Ocean Region. Between 2017–18 alone, for example, China invested over $143 billion in the region, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment. One way China can achieve its Strategic objective in IOR is by developing its power projection and expeditionary capability. This article looks at the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to develop Expeditionary and Power Projection capabilities in the medium-term (up to 2035). It will also look at the policy implications of these Chinese efforts for IOR powers like India and the US.

PLA’s Power Projection objectives and timelines in IOR

In a February 2019 PLA journal article Liu Jiasheng wrote that in the short term, the PLA must be ready to fight a limited war in the maritime domain around China’s periphery requiring robust sea and airlift forces. In the medium term, he stated that the PLA must be able to fight a limited war overseas to protect its interests in countries participating in BRI and in the long term, the PLA must focus on “global projection,” making use of China’s overseas bases as well as air and space assets to be prepared to rapidly deploy anywhere around the globe. The short, medium and long term periods mentioned by Liu may correspond to the PLA’s deadlines given in the 2019 National White paper on Defense for achieving “full mechanization” by 2020, becoming “modern” by 2035, and becoming “world-class” by mid-century. China’s approach to Power projection and expeditionary capabilities is much more sophisticated and comprehensive than given credit for in the simplistic “String of pearl” type strategies. As rightly pointed by some analysts, observing operational capabilities are at least as important as infrastructure development. It is therefore important to look at operational indicators to understand Chinese intent for IOR. China has displayed a unified and well planned ‘Whole of Government’ Approach to developing its IOR strategy. In the absence of an official Chinese document on its IOR strategy, the best indicators for understanding Chinese strategy for Power projection are its efforts at the military-civil fusion of logistics, basing efforts and PLAN force structure developments.

Military-Civil Fusion of Logistics

This new Chinese approach places significant emphasis on military-civil fusion of logistics to support power projection and expeditionary capabilities. PLAN considers itself weak in strategic delivery systems. It has only 18 naval supply ships which are grossly inadequate for credible force projection in far seas. The 2016 National Defense Transportation Law promotes civil-military transport integration. This law provides the legislative basis to PLAN for mobilizing civilian transportation resources to support power projection missions. This is in addition to laws such as Regulations on National Defense Mobilization of Civil Transport Capacity and the National Defense Traffic Law. In 2015, China issued the Technical Standards for the Implementation of National Defence Requirements for Newly Built Civil Ships, the standards apply to five types of ships — container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and breakbulk. It is estimated that 100 civilian ships can be mobilized to support such a requirement. China’s COSCO Shipping alone operates over 360 container ships, with the third-largest container fleet capacity worldwide. Of COSCO’s container ships, 64 can both transport over 10,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) and travel at more than 20 knots. Civilian tankers have also been used for PLAN replenishment in exercises. Among others, the Ningbo East Sea Shipping Co. has signed agreements with the PLAN to build tankers that meet military specifications. The types of civilian support missions planned to support PLAN’s power projection include transportation and delivery, at sea replenishment, medical support and equipment technical support.

Basing Models

For the better part of the last two decades, Indian and US observers have sought to explain the Chinese strategy in IOR using the so-called ‘Strings of Pearls’ strategy. The phrase owes its origin to a 2004 report by defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton called “Energy Futures in Asia.” This report posited that China’s investments in ports across the Indian Ocean could be secretly used to create a network of naval bases. This became known as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. However, it is now evident that the ports being developed by China in IOR under BRI are not equipped to support high-end military logistics and can only serve as pit-stops in peacetime. Except for Djibouti which is a military base none of the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ ports has supported PLAN ships on regular basis. It should also be borne in mind that no country will allow PLAN ships to use its ports in case of a conflict unless it wishes to lose its neutral status with consequent implications. Many analysts feel that the ‘String of Pearl’ theory is not borne by Chinese actions on the ground. As per Yung and Rustici who studied six possible PLAN logistics models, The ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’ Model’s mixture of ‘access to overseas commercial facilities and a limited number of military bases’ most closely aligns with China’s future medium-term power projection requirements and will likely characterize its future arrangements. However, as the PLAN’s expeditionary ambitions and capability grow the basing strategy will have to increasingly seek Military bases with the ability to stockpile military supplies and weapons. The Chinese sources like the 2013 Science of Military Strategy have been vocal about the need for “sites to provide support for overseas military operations” and researchers at the Chinese Naval Research Institute have even suggested seven sites for overseas military bases in IOR. A Jane’s study indicates that China’s future logistic network may include four options: Commercial Indirect (support to the PLAN by civilian ships using commercial port), Commercial Direct (PLAN ships using commercial ports), Military Logistics facilities (like Djibouti) and Military base (with prepositioned weapons and platforms). The Study also analysed potential PLA military bases and found four in IOR as most likely: Ream (Cambodia), Gwadar (Pakistan), Sittwe (Myanmar) and Duqm (Oman). The Chinese basing efforts thus indicate the adoption of a hybrid approach to support the logistics for Power projection requirements in IOR.

PLAN Force Structure developments

Apart from the military-civil fusion of logistics and basing efforts, China is also rapidly modernising its Navy for Power projection and expeditionary roles. In the medium term, if the PLAN aims to fight a limited war in the IOR it will have to work out a logistics sustenance model for its fleet which is independent of the commercial ports. In case of a conflict, relying on commercial ports would be risky as host governments may refuse these facilities fearing ‘enemy combatant’ status. A projection for PLAN of 2035 indicates 4-8 Type 901 fast replenishment ships and 9 Type 903 A replenishment ships. The Type 901s have approximately 20,000-tonne fuel capacity and are likely to be support ships for the 4-6 aircraft carriers estimated to be in PLAN by 2035. It is assessed that the replenishment capability of PLAN in 2035 will still be inadequate to support operations in IOR for 2-3 weeks and will have to be supplemented by civilian ships. The power projection and expeditionary element will be provided by the planned 6-8 Types 075 LHDs and 8-10 Type 071 expected to be in the PLAN fleet by 2035. These indicators are backed by recent disclosures that the PLA’s Marine Corps (PLAMC) would be absorbing former People’s Liberation Army Ground Force amphibious units to reach a force level of 100,000 which represents a jump of 400 per cent from the current levels. The PLANMC may ultimately include more than six brigades supplemented by aviation and special forces units. Observers feel that this is a definite sign of PLAN’s strategy for power projection in IOR.

Implications for India, US and other navies

The emerging Chinese Strategy for the Indian Ocean goes far beyond the earlier prognosis of Chinese intent in IOR by Indian and US Analysts. The new hybrid Strategy cleverly exploits the opportunities offered by commercial/civilian resources as well as boldly seeks to establish military bases in IOR. The PLAN build-up indicates a significant capability to project power and conduct expeditionary operations in IOR by 2035. PLAN is well on its way to achieve parity and even surpass the US and Indian naval capabilities in IOR. By 2035 it will be feasible for the PLAN to deploy 2-3 Carrier Strike Groups in IOR to tackle a limited war scenario. Indian Navy will have to look at its force architecture to combat PLAN’s influence in IOR. Indian Navy’s current plans to build conventional and nuclear attack submarines will have to be fast-tracked to achieve significant deterrent capability by 2035. India needs to complete the ongoing theatre Command reforms and develop a strong unified maritime Command on priority to meet the PLAN challenge. The defence of India’s far-flung Island territories will need a fresh look in the face of PLAN’s enhanced amphibious capabilities. There is a need to increase bilateral and multilateral cooperation amongst like-minded navies threatened by PLAN’s growing capabilities in IOR. Quad grouping should consider expansion to include additional NATO and Asian navies. The nascent US proposal for the ‘Indian Ocean Fleet’ may be worth a serious look. Whilst the recent focus on Free and Open Indo-Pacific is well reasoned, the efforts by US and other navies have mostly been limited to South China Sea and East Asia. It is time to start focusing on the Indian Ocean where the next great challenge will be posed by PLAN’s power projection and expeditionary capabilities in the not so distant future.

Manoj Rawat is a former Indian naval captain and director of naval operations at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on front­line warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Indian Ministry of Defence.