Here's What You Need to Know: 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.
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 in February 2016 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.
And China does need some sort of logistical hub. The PLA Navy generally keeps a three-ship squadron on station for antipiracy duty. A small flotilla demands logistical support, but can get by without a true naval base. Each flotilla rotates back home once another takes its place. Returning ships undergo major maintenance at Chinese shipyards.
Nevertheless, construction at Djibouti furnishes an index for tracking China’s naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Monitoring what Chinese engineers build and how seafarers use it may help fellow Indian Ocean powers glimpse what comes next for the PLA Navy in the region. Minimal infrastructure implies a transitory presence, commensurate with police duty, while major infrastructure suggests something bigger. Beijing may want to lay the groundwork for a presence aimed less at scouring the sea of lawbreakers and more at entrenching Chinese naval power in South Asia.
Indians afford such developments close scrutiny, as they have for at least a decade. I lost count of the number of times various quad-plus interlocutors stated, more or less as fact, that China is fashioning a “string of pearls” in the region. That’s the commonplace imagery for an array of Chinese naval bases. It could mean full-fledged naval stations. It could connote lesser arrangements—say, agreements with coastal-state governments that open their seaports to China, letting PLA Navy vessels tarry there routinely but impermanently.
Or a string of pearls could combine both types of arrangements, much as U.S. Navy fleets make their homes at hubs like Yokosuka and Bahrain, yet call at harbors like Singapore for sustenance and R&R from time to time.
And China? It’s doubtful that China is operating under some grand plan to make itself master of the Indian Ocean. In all likelihood, Beijing is amassing options for itself should it someday see the need for a standing presence in the region. Bankrolling development of strategically located seaports like Gwadar in western Pakistan, or Colombo in Sri Lanka, stores up goodwill with prospective host nations while presumably creating a sense of indebtedness on their governments’ part. China could call in such favors during future negotiations over naval access.
It would consolidate its strategic position in the Indian Ocean in the process. The phrase string of pearls, accordingly, has taken on sinister overtones for many Indian observers. One quad-plus delegate upbraided China for encroaching on India’s environs, voicing a wish that New Delhi and friendly governments will prod Beijing to keep its naval expeditions in the region brief, episodic and geared to specific missions, such as succoring those struck by natural disasters. Indians, in short, want China to forego permanent bases—the logistical pillar of sea power.
One Chinese ship type in particular rankles with Indians: submarines. The Indian delegates at Jaipur fretted repeatedly at PLA Navy subs’ presence in regional waters. Beijing has pushed the official line that Chinese boats cruise the Indian Ocean to battle piracy. Indians regard this as a charade. Undersea craft are decidedly suboptimal platforms for chasing speedboats around the Gulf of Aden. Skeptical Indians thus view Beijing’s story as flimsy cover for missions that are meant to acquaint Chinese submariners with future patrol grounds.
Taken in total, this seems to be what Indians mean by capability: naval hardware, access to seaports, the human factor and familiarity with operating terrain. Whether it would really take the PLA Navy fifteen years to amass the makings of Indian Ocean sea power, however, remains an open question. Resolute nations have built great regional navies from scratch in about fifteen years, global navies in about thirty—and China is hardly starting from scratch, two decades into its naval enterprise. The Indian take on China’s maritime prospects seems unduly upbeat.
As for me, I’d say Beijing could stage a potent force in the Indian Ocean almost overnight—if it were prepared to make the PLA Navy battle fleet an expeditionary fleet, and thus if it accepted major risk to its interests and purposes in the China seas. And, of course, such a strategy would turn on whether regional partners proved willing to host such an imposing fleet while riling up India, South Asia’s natural hegemon.
The bottom line is that, if China trusted its anti-access/area-denial weaponry to fend off competitors closer to home, then it could outmatch the Indian Navy in its home region. Do the arithmetic: the PLA Navy boasts the numbers to do so.