Hong Kong [China], April 25 : As China prepares to imminently launch its first indigenously built aircraft carrier in Dalian, and as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) celebrated its 68th anniversary on 23 April, attention is turning to how and where China will use its growing fleet of such platforms.
The mention of Pakistan as a possible base for the PLAN raises the growing specter of Chinese warships crisscrossing and patrolling the Indian Ocean even more than it has hitherto.
This is, and should be, of concern to India, even though Beijing is legally entitled to do so. David Shinn, an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington Universityand writing for The Jamestown Foundation, commented, "Since 2008, China has significantly increased its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, giving rise to Indian concerns of potential military encirclement and raising questions in American strategic thinking about China's ultimate objectives.
Both the United States and India maintain a much stronger naval presence than China in the Indian Ocean, but the balance is beginning to shift." The PLAN's very first foray into the western Indian Ocean was only in 2000, but the PLAN has since gained far more than just a temporary foothold in the western Indian Ocean.
This opportunity was leveraged by China in December 2008 when it deployed its first anti-piracy task force to the Gulf of Aden.
The 25th rotational anti-piracy task force is now operating there, with a typical group comprising two warships and a replenishment vessel.
However, in 2014 the PLAN also dispatched a conventional submarine and a nuclear-powered submarine the following year.
Given that submarines are not ideal platforms with which to intercept pirates, there were obviously deeper strategic reasons behind it, including giving the PLAN invaluable deployment experience.
Furthermore, for the past five years there were no pirate attacks by Somalia-based pirates, but there has been a resurgence since March.
For example, earlier this monthIndian Navy (IN) warships and a PLAN warship helped rescue the Tuvalu-flagged bulk carrier OS 35 after being boarded by pirates.
Interestingly, despite zero pirate attacks for many months, China has not brooked the idea of removing its naval presence in the area.
In fact, it is quite the reverse. Since last year China has been constructing a so-called "logistics facility" in Djibouti under a ten-year leasing agreement.
There is absolutely no chance that China will withdrawfrom the Gulf of Aden or Djibouti, no matter what the piracy threat is.
This can be traced back to several reasons. One is China's growing international interests and investments in places like Africa and the Middle East.
The presence of forward-deployed military assets helps protect Chinese citizens and businesses.Evacuations by PLAN warships have already occurred in Yemen and Libya, for instance.
Another is President Xi Jinping's hallmark One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. This strategic "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" stretches from the Chinese coast, through the Indian Ocean, reaching the African coast and even as far as the eastern Mediterranean.
Military engagement will closely follow economic investment along these various tentacles that this initiative is spreading.
China, often dubbed "the factory of the world" and operating the fourth largest commercial shipping fleet in the world, is totally reliant on seaborne trade for raw materials and exports.
It is the largest consumer of imported oil, of which 52% comes from the Middle East and 22% from Africa.
Thus, 82% of its oil transits the Strait of Malacca chokepoint, and nearly 40% through the Strait of Hormuz.
Such figures underscore the necessity of China protecting its sea lines of communication. This is also why China is showing interest in the Arctic northern sea route. Another reason is China's contribution to United Nations peacekeeping missions, including 235 personnel in Darfur in Sudan and 1,063 soldiers in South Sudan at the moment.
If it has military outposts along the periphery of the Indian Ocean, including Africa, China could rapidlysupport these UN deployments.
China has not been totally coy about its expanded security remit either. Its 2015 Defense White Paper promised the country would protect interests "concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communications, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad".
Consequently, the PLA is required to"safeguard the security of China's overseas interests" and build the nation "into a maritime power." Establishing overseas bases or support facilities is also in natural accord with China's declared policy of shifting to a combination of "offshore waters defense" and "open seas protection".
The revelation that the PLAN Marine Corps will multiply from its present 20,000 members to nearly 100,000 is again further indication that China is seriously eyeing and anticipating overseas expeditionary deployments.
Some will doubtlessly deploy to Djibouti, and Gwadar is another expected destination. China's single carrier, the Liaoning, has not ventured farther afield than the South China Sea, but it is only a matter of time before a Chinese carrier does enter the Indian Ocean.
Where else could China set up military bases? Apart from the aforementioned Gwadar port and Djibouti base, Chinese corporations have been building commercial port facilities in Egypt (at both ends of the Suez Canal), Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
The Seychelles and Maldives have previously been named in mostly Indian publications as potential hosts for Chinese bases, but no such deal has eventuated to date.
Incidentally, in 2011 China won a 15-year contract from the International Seabed Authority to prospect the seabed in a zone south of Madagascar, and a Chinese research vessel has been operating there since 2015.
Amidst a fair degree of Indian paranoia over the "string of pearls" issue, it is important to remember that China's highest priority remains its own coast, the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca and Western Pacific.
China is particularly wary of the Malacca Straitchokepoint, which is just two miles wide at its narrowest point.
Former president Hu Jintao labeled it the Malacca Dilemma, and this is a major reason why China has been building overland oil and gas pipelines to reduce dependence on this vulnerable strait, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
China has invested heavily to create military infrastructure on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.
Not only do these bases protect Hainan Island, home to a PLAN nuclear submarine base, but they help shore up the eastern end of the Malacca Strait.
It is only natural that China will try to do the same in places like Djibouti and along the Indian Ocean rim, even though it must tread softly because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
At this stage, Beijing cannot contemplate sea control strategy in the Indian Ocean so far from home and with minimal regional bases.
Nevertheless, a permanent presence at new regional bases, plus the deployment of submarines, could offer sea denial capabilities in that ocean.
Indeed, China is a long way from competing with either the IN or USN in the Indian Ocean. The latter has its 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, plus Diego Garcia in the middle of the ocean is a critical naval and air support base.
The USA also has an Africa Command (AFRICOM, established in 2007) and a base at Djibouti with approximately 4,000 troops.
Incidentally, Japan has a modest-sized base in Djibouti with a couple of maritime patrol aircraft. India, hemmed in by mountains and China to the north, and archenemy Pakistan to the west, is reliant on seaborne trade too.
Indeed, 90% of its trade by volume and 90% of its oil travels by sea. Unsurprisingly, the ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Lombok and Malacca Straits, is declared the IN's "primary area of interest".
The PLAN could never hope to field a warship fleet in the Indian Ocean that could effectively compete with the IN, which aims to have a 200-ship navy by 2027.
Furthermore, it has been reaching out and cooperating with countries like Japan and Vietnam. India also signed a logistics exchange memorandum of agreement that allows India and the USA to use each other's facilities for supplies and repairs.
Certainly the strategic equation is complicated. China is helping Pakistan build up its navy (including future conventional submarines, Zulfiquar-class frigates and Azmat-class missile boats), while both Pakistan and India are nuclear-weapon states.
Deploying nuclear weapons at sea would raise the stakes, and it is surely something the USA does not want to occur.
At the same time, Delhi and Washington have no desire to see rising Chinese hegemony in the region. Shinn opined, "A strong case can be made for maximizing UScooperation with India in the Indian Ocean region while, at the same time, identifying areas where Washington and New Delhi can bring China into the picture in an effort to minimize future conflict among the three parties and enhance regional stability." He listed possible areas of cooperation as exercises, intelligence sharing, disaster relief, counterterrorism, combating drug and arms trafficking, and counter-piracy.
The academic Jonathan Ward, also writing for The Jamestown Foundation, stated, "While OBOR-related infrastructure has been used militarily, China is also expanding its Indian Ocean naval presence by proxy, supplying Pakistan with eight diesel-electric submarines, and thus giving India's neighbor a transformative boost in its undersea capabilities." Mistrust between China and India will not be overcome easily, especially when China is not communicating well its strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean.
This distrust now ranges far from the Himalaya border dispute as ithas taken on a serious maritime aspect.
China could do much to thwart or frustrate India, including basing capital warships or troop contingents inneighboring Pakistan or elsewhere.
Care must therefore be taken by Delhi not to allow the Sino-Indian relation to descend into a downward spiral whereby China nefariously uses security tensions as justification for such deployments.
While strategic competition in the Indian Ocean is clearly intensifying, Ward went so far as to assert, "There is little doubt that sea power in this century will be defined by the rise of the Chinese and Indian navies.".