Chinese Navy Trains for Forays in the Indo-Pacific
A PLA Navy (PLAN) flotilla comprising of three warships, an amphibious assault ship and a supply vessel were sighted in the Bering Sea off Alaska in early September 2015. Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that Chinese warships had entered the US territorial waters and the US authorities had “not detected any sort of threat or threatening activities’ but were puzzled by the presence of the PLAN ships close to US shores since the ‘intent of this is still unclear’. It was also clarified that as long as foreign warships operate in ‘international waters in accordance with international law’, it was quite acceptable to the US. Notwithstanding that, the first ever presence of Chinese warships off the Alaska coast has left the US confounded and the US political establishment is confused over the sighting given that it ‘coincided with Obama’s tour of Alaska as well as a massive military parade marking 70th V-Day anniversary in Beijing’. It is pertinent to mention that President Xi Jinping is also scheduled to visit the US during the month.
The above naval foray is not an isolated incident and in the past a Chinese Dongdiao classauxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel was sighted off Guam in September 2014 during the US Navy exercise ‘Valiant Shield’ involving 19 surface ships including two aircraft carriers, USS George Washington and USS Carl Vinson, and nearly 200 aircraft. At that time, the US spokesperson had stated “The ship is not disrupting our Valiant Shield exercise and is adhering to well-established international rules that military operations in international commons and outside of territorial waters and airspace are a fundamental right of all nations.”
Earlier that year, in February 2014, three PLAN warships (Changbaishan amphibious landing ship and destroyers Wuhan and Haikou) sailed south through the Sunda Strait and carried out naval drills which caused concerns in Australia. It was observed that there is ‘nothing illegal or fundamentally hostile about what the Chinese navy has just demonstrated’ but ‘will prove far more consequential to Australia’s strategic future’.
Unlike the above incidents, PLA Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean has invited sharp reactions in India. In September 2014, a Chinese Type 925 submarine and Changxing Dao support vessel docked at the Chinese run Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) in Sri Lanka during a stopover in Colombo harbour for refueling and rest & recuperation for the crew before heading to the Gulf of Aden in support of international efforts to fight piracy. The Indian Navy Chief noted that Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean were being continuously monitored and reassured that his force was “ready to face any challenge”. Similar forays (during December 2013-February 2014) by a Chinese nuclear submarine into the Indian Ocean were detected and apparently, the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence had informed India of plans to send a submarine in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, United States, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia were also given the above information. More recently, air-independent propulsion (AIP) fitted Yuan class diesel-electric submarine docked in Karachi harbour and the Indian Navy chief responded by noting that the Chinese naval activity was being ‘minutely and continuously’ monitored and his force was ready to respond to any ‘challenges they could pose’.
Indian strategic experts believe that such forays are expected to continue in the future and there are at least five important reasons which encourage the PLA Navy, particularly the submarines, to sail far into the open seas and explore unchartered waters in the Indian Ocean. Also, the 2015 Chinese Defence White Paper notes that the “PLA Navy will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defence’ with ‘open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure”. Further, the PLA Navy will ‘enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime manoeuvres, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support.’
First; although Chinese warships are a common sight in international waters, the sighting of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean is an expression of an aggressive political statement and a tool for signalling coercive intent to a potential contestant. These platforms are also meant for the protection of national shipping against harassment by the other submarines. Given the role of submarines, the PLA Navy would be able to collect enemy electronic signals and sonar data of enemy ships which can be decisive in naval warfare. For instance, in 1994 a Chinese Han class submarine was caught stalking the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Yellow Sea. The Kilo, Yuan and Song class conventional submarines have been tested successfully against the US Navy. In 2006, a Chinese Song class conventional submarine surfaced close to the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. However, the submarines face operational challenges in the Indian Ocean due to lack of adequate information on the underwater topography and hydrographical data for tropical water operations. This is critical given that the Indian Ocean hydrological conditions are notorious for strong variations in salinity, density and temperature gradient which can affect the ability of the Chinese submarines to detect targets particularly the SSBNs of the US, UK, and France and SSKs of India. Further, the Indian Ocean littoral waters witness intense fishing activity which can generate high decibel underwater noise which can complicate target detection.
Second; it is true that China is highly dependent on maritime trade for its economic vitality. According to US Energy Information Administration (EIA), China’s oil import dependency has risen from 30 percent in 2000 to about 57 percent in 2014 and the Persian Gulf region is a major source (52 percent) which is followed by Africa (22 per cent). The safety of Chinese flagged vessels and those ships carrying cargo for China figure prominently in Chinese naval thinking and operational planning.
Third; the 2015 Defence White Paper also notes that the Chinese ‘armed forces will continue to conduct such MOOTWs as emergency rescue and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and stability maintenance, rights and interests protection, guard duty, international peacekeeping, and international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).’Since 2008, China has dispatched 18 task forces and escorted 6,000 Chinese provided the Chinese Navy rich experience of operating in Indian Ocean. The Chinese Navy also undertook expeditionary missions and humanitarian tasks (evacuation of Chinese nationals from Lebanon and Yemen). The search and rescue operation for the ill-fated MH 370 in which 217 Chinese nationals perished, further showcased the PLA Navy’s ability to operate in the Southern Indian Ocean.
Fourth; the Chinese Navy is an important tool for diplomacy and participates in a variety of multilateral maritime forums and naval activities. The 2015 Defence White Paper encourages the Chinese armed forces to ‘participate in multilateral dialogues and cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Jakarta International Defence Dialogue (JIDD) and Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS).’ Similarly, the Chinese armed forces host similar events such as the Xiangshan Forum and strive to ‘establish a new framework for security and cooperation conducive to peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.’
Fifth; one of the more recent Chinese initiatives is the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) to build robust political and economic relations with countries that lie along the route and beyond. The MSR serves as a diplomatic tool to further China’s foreign policy objectives and dispel the omnipresent ‘China threat’ among a number of countries. The economic component of the initiative features building infrastructure to support trade relations. The MSR also has a strategic intent that aims to build outposts for the navy and facilitate operations in the Indian Ocean. It is widely believed that the ports projects related to the MSR are dual-use facilities and are part of the Chinese naval strategy for the Indian Ocean. It also fits into the Chinese sea-lane security strategy that has gained critical salience in China’s economic growth. Interestingly, the Sri Lankan government has contracted the China Harbour Construction Company (CHCC) “ to do a feasibility study on building a naval dockyard at Hambantota‘. This could be the beginning of the overt Chinese naval outpost; besides, China has already obtained access to naval facilities in Djibouti astride the Red Sea.
It is fair to argue that the 2015 Defence White Paper provides the necessary political and strategic rationale for the PLA Navy to engage in operations in any part of the globe. The White paper is a carte blanche for the Chinese naval planners to conceptualise expansive strategic geography in which the PLA Navy is expected to operate in the future in support of national interests. Further, the PLA Navy would develop technical capacity to undertake distant water operations and also obtain access and basing arrangements to facilitate forward deployment to respond to situations which undermine Chinese maritime interests across the globe.