Get Ready, India: China's Navy Is Pushing West

New Delhi needs to be clear-eyed about Beijing's ambitions.

There are worse things than fleeing the bleak New England midwinter for warmer climes—such as Jaipur, India’s famed “Pink City.” So cold was it when I departed Providence last month that the nozzle on my plane’s fuel hose froze shut, grounding the plane until the crew could unfreeze it.

Frolicking around in shirtsleeves at a Mughal dynasty fort in Rajasthan was a welcome relief from frostbite. The occasion for the trip, though, was three days of “quad-plus dialogue” about sundry topics important to Indian Ocean powers. The “quad,” or standing membership for these unofficial “track II” gatherings, refers to India, Australia, Japan and the United States. Sri Lanka is the “plus,” or rotating participant, for this year.

Maritime governance in the Pacific and Indian oceans was the subject of my panel. China came up repeatedly during the gathering, which should shock no one. After all, China—a great power on the make—constitutes a menace to freedom of the seas in East Asia. Communist Party apparatchiks and ordinary Chinese alike seem to view water and sky as territory to be occupied, controlled and ruled through domestic law. And the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), predictably, is militarizing the South China Sea with verve, protestations from top leaders notwithstanding.

How to manage a great-power challenge to nautical freedom is a question of a higher order altogether than how to police the Indian Ocean. Think about it. Ne’er-do-wells like corsairs, weapons traffickers and seagoing terrorists are the main threats to free navigation in maritime South Asia. Everyone, including Beijing, can agree to work together to combat brigandage in the Gulf of Aden or Bay of Bengal, expanses largely free of great-power entanglements. China plays reasonably well with others to the west of Malacca.

To date, anyway. During the Q and A following our panel, I got into a cordial shouting match with a retired Indian admiral and general about how long the present era of good feelings would endure. (We almost had to resort to pistols at daybreak.) The debate boils down to this: When will the PLA Navy be strong enough to overpower the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, an expanse that New Delhi considers an Indian preserve, if Beijing gives the word?

The good news: we all agreed that doom is not nigh. While occasionally irksome, the burgeoning PLA Navy presence in regional waters poses little threat for now. But we arrived at that happy conclusion by different routes, and drew different implications from it. The Indian delegates cited shortfalls in Chinese “capability,” opining that it will take the PLA Navy “at least fifteen years” to station a standing, battle-worthy naval squadron in the Indian Ocean. Such a sanguine view rules out a Chinese threat; it lulls Indians.

That might not be such a good thing, considering the growth of Chinese military might over the past couple of decades. Nonetheless, let’s parse the optimists’ view. What constitutes “capability” for the PLA Navy? By that, Indians must be referring to some amalgam of technologically sophisticated hardware; the number of ships, planes and armaments cranked out by defense production lines or procured abroad; and the seamanship, tactical prowess and élan displayed by the mariners who operate this shiny new kit.

“Capability” also encompasses logistics—especially when a navy contemplates instituting a standing presence in distant seas. Modern navies are far from self-sufficient. Ships of war, even nuclear-powered ones, cannot ply the briny main for long without a ready supply of bullets, beans and black oil. That’s U.S. Navy shorthand for the manifold stores demanded by fuel- and maintenance-intensive vessels. And ships and warplanes need regular upkeep. It’s most convenient to perform maintenance in the theater—close to likely hotspots—rather than subject hulls and crews to long voyages back home for overhaul.

To deploy a fleet permanently to remote waterways, in short, a navy needs bases—facilities complete with supply and ammunition depots, dry docks, all manner of workshops, and more. Without one or more lavishly appointed naval stations, Beijing will find it hard to stage more than a fitful presence in the Indian Ocean.

It may be taking steps to correct the logistical shortfall. Last month, engineers broke ground on what reporters touted as China’s first overseas naval base, at Djibouti in East Africa. Well, maybe. In all likelihood the facility will remain a more humble affair than American naval stations such as Yokosuka and Sasebo, which anchor the U.S. Seventh Fleet presence in Japan. It’s worth pointing out, moreover, that the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force also operate out of Djibouti.