Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
The early morning hours of July 11, 2017, marked a watershed moment for the People’s Republic of China. In an official ceremony at the port of Zhanjiang, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Shen Jinlong, “read an order for the construction of China’s first replenishment base in Djibouti, and conferred military flag on the fleets.” With a salute and a wave of his hand, Shen then ordered the ships carrying Chinese military personnel to set sail on their mission.
Since early 2016, there has been speculation and much concern about a potential Chinese military base in Djibouti. At first, Chinese commentators denied the development, but later admitted that Beijing was indeed considering setting up a logistical facility in the Western Indian Ocean. As the first contingent of Chinese military personnel sailed out of Zhanjiang last month, China insisted the facility was merely for logistical and support purposes. An official release from Beijing said the facility was meant to assist the PLAN in the discharge of its “international obligations” by facilitating Chinese escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and humanitarian rescue missions in Africa and West Asia.
Whatever its purported justification, China’s new base in Djibouti has stirred consternation in India, where commentators regard the development as a statement of strategic intent in the Indian Ocean. With an estimated area of nearly 250,000 square feet, the facility includes a large underground complex and is capable of hosting an estimated 10,000 troops. Over the past decade, New Delhi’s view of Beijing’s Indian Ocean ambitions has evolved significantly. Previously, a section of India’s strategic elite saw China’s forays in the region as largely commercial, and believed the Indian Navy, which dominated the South Asian littorals, could effectively counter PLAN aggression there. That consensus appears to have shifted. Many Indian observers now believe China’s military outpost in East Africa is aimed at regularizing a PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean, underscoring Beijing’s strategic ambition across the arc of the Indo-Pacific Region.
China’s Indian Ocean Power Play
Indeed, there seems to be more to China’s play in Djibouti than its benign claims about escort and humanitarian missions. It was in 2008 that Beijing first considered Djibouti as a prospective logistical base for its naval flotilla, providing security to Chinese shipping convoys in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. But after 2013, when China began investing heavily in infrastructure projects — including a new port, two new airports, and the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway — the outreach seemed clearly political, intended to bolster China’s military and diplomatic presence in the western Indian Ocean.
The strategic nature of China’s investments in Djibouti was confirmed in 2014, when Beijing signed a Defense and Security Agreement with the Horn of Africa state — already home to military facilities of the United States, France, and Japan. In exchange for the PLAN’s use of its port, Djibouti’s government requested that China assist in the development of military capabilities, including patrol boats and airplanes, as well as the establishment of a civilian maritime complex. Soon, Beijing arranged for the delivery of a MA-60 plane and a Norinco WZ 551 APC to the Djiboutian Air Force.
To be sure, China’s Djibouti strategy still seeks to promote Beijing’s commercial interests. Given China’s economic penetration of Africa and Central Asia, Beijing is giving high priority to its commercial investments in the Indian Ocean. As China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative gathers momentum, however, the focus is also increasingly on developing political influence in Indian Ocean rim states. Beijing needs the cooperation of the regional political elites to allow the PLAN access to critical Indian Ocean littorals for the protection of Chinese investments. A military base in Djibouti is a useful asset for China, as it denotes both geopolitical heft and economic stakeholdership in the Indian Ocean. Its location, next to the new port terminal at Obock, ensures Chinese military forces can be rapidly mobilized to protect China’s commercial investments and efficiently deliver military assistance.
Notably, Beijing’s quest for a military footprint in Djibouti is a significant departure from China’s traditional role as a resource extractor in Africa, with primarily commercial interests. Although China has long had a presence on the continent, Beijing’s security interests in East African states have been rapidly expanding. Regardless of its utility in facilitating anti-piracy operations and non-combatant evacuation operations from troubled regional states, Beijing’s new base in Djibouti marks the start of a longer-term enterprise aimed at embedding China into the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.
The View from New Delhi
Until about 2005, many Indian analysts believed China’s maritime security interests were confined primarily to the Eastern Asia littorals. The PLAN’s forays in the Indian Ocean, in this view, were mainly driven by the need to protect China’s trading interests. The Indian Navy saw itself as a powerful security player in the Indian Ocean region, second only to the U.S. Navy, with whom it shared a warm and collaborative relationship. India’s maritime planners were confident their navy could fend off any aggression by a hostile power, particularly the PLAN, which many analysts believed to be vulnerable in Southern Asia’s littorals.
However, since 2008, when China first began deploying warships off the coast of Somalia for antipiracy duties, there has been a sea change in Indian thinking about Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Indian analysts now view the PLAN’s rapidly expanding military activities in the Indian Ocean — in particular its submarine visits to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and its attempts to establish logistics bases like the one in Djibouti — as part of a broader Chinese effort to establish geopolitical influence in the wider Asian littorals. PLAN submarine missions in the subcontinental waters have grown in complexity and scope, analysts say, indicating a keenness to master the operational environment of the Indian Ocean. Notably, Chinese submarines are spending unusually long periods exploring the Southern Asian littorals — gaining familiarity with the regional operating environment, fine-tuning standard operating procedures, and gathering vital hydrological and bathymetric data — signifying a desire to dominate the Indian Ocean’s critical maritime spaces and lines of communication.
India’s political leadership also worries about Beijing’s leveraging of PLAN warship deployments for diplomatic purposes. Not only is China maintaining a regular naval presence in the Indian Ocean, it is using anti-piracy forays to secure geopolitical leverage with states in the region. In April this year, when China sent its 26th naval escort taskforce to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy duties, it spent considerable time visiting Indian Ocean coastal nations. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives — all India’s maritime neighbors — have each, at some point, played host to visiting PLAN warships.
Strategic Implications and Policy Options for India
While China’s military activity in the Indian Ocean isn’t inherently provocative, the geopolitical implications for India are substantial. The PLAN’s expanding presence in maritime Southern Asia challenges the Indian Navy’s preeminent regional status and feeds fears of strategic encirclement. As India and China move closer to each other in the waters of the subcontinent, it is but a matter of time before the two entities come into conflict. The danger lies not only in inadvertent escalation (a commonly held fear among maritime analysts), but also in a deliberate ratcheting up of tensions by both sides through greater naval posturing in a bid to underscore their dominance of the South Asian littorals. Each side realizes that in order to prevent an incremental takeover of its strategic space by the other, it must be prepared to up the operational ante in areas of overlapping influence. The situation is worrisome for New Delhi because in the absence of critical combat capability — in particular, conventional submarines, anti-submarine helicopters, and minesweepers — the Indian Navy’s ability to push back against the PLAN might lack vigor, drawing a stronger response from Beijing in India’s near seas than would be normally expected.
Policymakers in New Delhi know India needs to expand defensive maritime capabilities in the Indian Ocean to counter the PLAN’s assertive power projection. The Indian navy has been developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as strategic outposts to monitor rival naval activity in the regional commons. In recent years, India has also beefed up its military capacities on the strategic Bay of Bengal island territory through a graded expansion of existing facilities and assets. This includes the refurbishment of naval air stations and operational turn around facilities. To counter increasing Chinese surveillance activities close to the Andaman Islands, New Delhi has been investing in the development of an integrated surveillance network in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea with radar stations in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and other littoral locales to keep track of Chinese naval activity.
India’s most critical challenge is the emerging Pakistan-China maritime nexus in the western Indian Ocean — in particular, the prospect of Chinese warships being permanently positioned at Karachi or Gwadar, where China has helped construct a port. Nothing disquiets India’s maritime managers more than the prospect of a combined China-Pakistan maritime front in the Arabian Sea. Not only does the PLAN’s ready access to Pakistani bases facilitate Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean, it also inhibits the Indian Navy’s coercive options during a crisis. Meanwhile, Beijing’s assistance to Pakistan’s naval modernization program — the proposed sale of eight Yuan-class submarines, a program for construction of patrol boats for the Pakistani Navy, the upgrade of four Pakistani F-22P frigates and the supply of high-end weapons and sensors — has convinced many Indian watchers that China is nurturing a proxy power in South Asia.
New Delhi is aware that China’s maritime aspirations in the Indian Ocean extend well beyond Djibouti and East Africa. As Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Maldives grow progressively welcoming of Chinese investment in the form of the Maritime Silk Road — a geopolitical project involving the creation of connectivity and huge maritime infrastructure — New Delhi suspects China’s military is bound to follow. In Gwadar, for instance, Indian analysts believe the PLAN will move to establish a military base in the not-so-distant future. Combined with its presence in Djibouti, China could then establish a strategic stranglehold over the Northern Arabian Sea.
Responding to China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean will require more than a strategy for robust defense. Contrary to popular belief, India is unlikely to be able to keep Chinese warships out of the Indian Ocean. Many Indian Ocean rim states have welcomed Beijing’s maritime initiatives and investments in the area, meaning India’s efforts to constrain China there are bound to meet with regional opposition. The navy may be able to curtail the PLAN’s presence in maritime Southern Asia, but it is unlikely to be able to stop Chinese submarine deployments completely.
Beyond denying the Chinese navy strategic space in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, the Indian Navy will need to project naval power in the Western Pacific. As China’s maritime footprint in the Indian Ocean grows, New Delhi will need a corresponding strategy to expand its own presence in the Southeast Asian littorals, an area that China has traditionally dominated.
To be sure, applying counter-pressure to Chinese maritime domains will not be easy. India will need institutionalized access to refueling and resupply facilities in the Pacific, and deeper strategic engagement with the United States, Japan, and Australia. To shape the security dynamics of East and Southeast Asia, the Indian Navy will have to develop the operational wherewithal and strategic capacities to undertake long-duration naval missions in the broader Pacific sphere of China’s influence. There will be occasional bouts of posturing and counter-posturing vis-à-vis the PLAN, but Indian commanders will need to be firm about their right to operate in the Western Pacific, keeping Chinese naval forces off-balance in a region Beijing considers a core interest. Diplomatically, a strategy of counter-presence will allow New Delhi to play an aggressive hand as well, putting Chinese interlocutors on the defensive. In many ways, then, New Delhi will need to walk the strategic talk on its “Act East” policy. By emphasizing its Pacific stakes, India might be far more effective in tackling China’s naval assertiveness than by defending its strategic space in the Indian Ocean.
As China institutionalizes its power and normalizes its military presence in the Indian Ocean region, India needs an innovative response. Nothing will be more be more effective in signaling Indian resolve to Beijing than New Delhi’s own little “Djibouti” in China’s perceived sphere of maritime influence.
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow and Head of Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Image: People’s Daily