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China Sees Mixed Results in Quest for Indo-Pacific Air Access

September 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

Previously obscure Indian Ocean fishing villages such as Hambantota, Gwadar, and Kyaukpyu have suddenly been transported into the glare of international media attention as China, India, and others compete for control over ports across the region.

But competition over critical infrastructure isn’t just confined to the maritime realm. In fact, access to airfields is just as essential to allow military aircraft to cover the vast distances across the Indian Ocean. This is why China and its competitors are paying ever more attention to securing access to airfields and to deny access to others. As a “new” power in the Indian Ocean, China has the biggest need to secure air access to fulfill multiple strategic imperatives. It needs staging points for evacuations or other operations to protect Chinese nationals, and for maritime air surveillance in support of its naval presence.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is only starting to make its presence felt. It participated in the 2011 evacuation of some 32,000 Chinese from Libya, staging through Sudan (which likely strained the force’s capabilities). The People’s Liberation Army Air Force also participated in the 2014 search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 out of Perth.

These are baby steps. The air force faces a steep learning curve and is well behind the People’s Liberation Army Navy in experience and capabilities (such as air-to-air tankers) necessary to conduct long-distance operations. Like the navy, the air force faces considerable geographic disadvantages in the Indian Ocean stemming from the distance from Chinese territory. It simply can’t reach very far into the Indian Ocean using Chinese bases. This means that China’s air force will require assured air access points in several locations in the region, including in the east, central and western Indian Ocean, just as the navy is looking at its maritime access needs.

A key driver of the air force’s presence in Africa will likely be so-called Military Operations Other Than War, particularly civilian evacuation and protection operations. Although China’s navy now has a base in Djibouti, its air force has to share Djibouti airport with the United States and others. From Beijing’s perspective this is not ideal.

Elsewhere in Africa, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force may have also secured access arrangements in conjunction with China’s construction of airports across the continent, including in SudanEthiopia,  Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. China may soon acquire operational control of some airports, such as in Lusaka, Zambia (although this has been officially denied).

Another important air force role will be to support the navy’s regional presence. Naval bases need assured and efficient air access for the transport of people and goods such as spare parts. Naval operations require maritime air surveillance and protection. This may have been a factor in China’s involvement in building airports near Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Pakistan), both of which are seen as potential Chinese naval facilities.

China has funded the construction of a new airport near Gwadar. This, and the new Pakistan Naval air station at nearby Turbat, could help serve a People’s Liberation Army Navy presence in Gwadar port, as well as being a staging point to extend the Chinese air force’s reach across the Arabian Sea and even into the Persian Gulf.

But the Chinese-built Hambantota Airport has not turned out so well. It was never commercially viable, and what has come to be dubbed the world’s emptiest airport saw its last commercial flight in June. Its future is very uncertain. India may have now trumped China by apparently acquiring control of the airport, although negotiations are ongoing. The ability to monitor and control air movements from Hambantota Airport would substantially reduce the value of Hambantota as a naval base for China.

Last week, the Indian government airport authority announced it was pitching to operate Palaly airport in northern Sri Lanka, although this was denied by Sri Lanka. Palaly might have potential military value for India, but just as important will be India’s ability to preempt any future Chinese presence.

The Maldives has also become a focus for intense strategic competition, with air access rights being a key issue. For a decade, the Indian Navy has maintained helicopters at airfields on the islands of Gan and Laamu. But since a political crisis earlier this year, the Maldives government has been trying to force them out. Delhi suspects this may be an effort to clear the decks for a Chinese air and naval presence.

Indeed, China’s presence is growing throughout the Maldives. In 2012, a Chinese company took over redevelopment of the Maldives’ main airport near Male, displacing an Indian company that had the contract for that project. This could give China de facto control over air access to the capital in a crisis.

China has now proposed building a new port and airfield on Laamu Atoll in the southern Maldives. If these facilities were available for military purposes, they would allow the air force to conduct maritime air surveillance over large portions of the Indian Ocean, including keeping watch over the U.S. air and naval base at Diego Garcia. That would not be a good outcome for Australia.

The newly elected government in the Maldives may well reverse the country’s drift into China’s strategic sphere. But more than likely it will be just another chapter in long-term strategic competition between India and China across the region.

 

Dr. David Brewster is with the National Security College at the Australian National University, where he specializes in South Asian and Indian Ocean strategic affairs. He is also a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute. Dr. Brewster is the author of The India-Australia Security Engagement:  Challenges and Opportunities, which examines security and defense cooperation between India and Australia.  His books include India as an Asia Pacific power which considers India’s strategic role in the Asia Pacific, and India’s Ocean: the story of India’s bid for regional leadership which examines India’s security role and relationships in the Indian Ocean region.

Image: Xinhua