The start of Chinese patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden is intended to extend China’s naval role and presence far from its shores while demonstrating, under United Nations rules of engagement, a capability to conduct complex operations in distant waters.
Today, taking on pirates under the placard of internationalism offers China a welcome opportunity to add force to its global power ambitions. The antipiracy plank earlier made it handy for Beijing to agree to joint patrols with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea and extend cooperation to ASEAN. Another Chinese objective is to chip away at India’s maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean — a theater critical to fashioning a Sino-centric Asia. If China can assert naval power in the Indian Ocean to expand its influence over the regional waterways and states, it will emerge as the preeminent Asian power.
The geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean today is beginning to rival that of the Pacific. Much of the global oil-export supply passes through the Indian Ocean rim region, particularly through two constricted passageways — the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman, and the piracy-plagued Strait of Malacca.
In addition, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the nuclear standoff with Iran undergird the critical importance of the Indian Ocean region. Asserting naval presence in the Indian Ocean and expanding maritime power in the Pacific are part of the high-stakes game of maritime chess China is now ready to play. Its buildup of naval forces directly challenges Japan and India and impinges on U.S. interests.
China, undergirding its larger geostrategic motives, says it is “seriously considering” adding to its navy fleet a first aircraft carrier — a symbol of “a nation’s comprehensive power,” as a military spokesperson put it.
Now, with Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly calling for rapid naval modernization and the last defense White Paper disclosing that “the Navy aims to gradually extend its strategic depth,” naval expansion and greater missile prowess are clearly at the core of China’s force modernization. Since 2000 alone, China has built at least 60 warships. Its navy now has a fleet of 860 vessels, including at least 60 submarines.
There is a clear strategic shift under way in China on force planning. Historically a major land power, China is now putting the accent on building long-range maritime power to help underpin geopolitical interests, including winning new allies and safeguarding its energy and economic investments in distant lands. China has been in the lead in avariciously acquiring energy and mineral assets in Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela, Burma, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and other states that have a record of showing scant respect for international contracts. Through naval power-projection force capability, Beijing intends to dissuade such states from reasserting control over Chinese-held assets.
More significantly, rising naval power arms China with the heft to pursue mercantilist efforts to lock up long-term energy supplies, assert control over transport routes, and assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the great trade arteries.
Just as China’s land-combat strategy has evolved from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory to help garrote them) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight the enemy on enemy territory, including through the use of forces stationed in neighboring lands or seas), a shift in its sea-warfare posture has emerged, with the emphasis on greater reach and depth and expeditionary capability.
And just as Beijing has used its energy investments in Central Asia as justification to set up at least two offensively configured, armor-heavy mechanized corps — with Xinjiang as their springboard — to fight deep inside adversarial territory and secure strategic assets, China’s growing oil imports from the Persian Gulf and Africa have come handy to rationalize its growing emphasis on the seas.
Chinese naval power is set to grow exponentially. This will become evident as Beijing accelerates its construction of warships and begins to deploy naval assets far from its exclusive economic zone. In fact, Chinese warships inducted in recent years have already been geared for blue-sea fleet operations. China is on track to deploy a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (known as SSBNs). It has already developed its new Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN prototype, with satellite pictures showing one such submarine berthed at the huge new Chinese naval base at Sanya, on the southern coast of Hainan Island. Within the next 25 years, China could have more nuclear assets at sea than Russia.
Against that background, it is no surprise that the Chinese Navy is extending its operations to a crucial international passageway — the Indian Ocean. China indeed has aggressively moved in recent years to build ports in the Indian Ocean rim, including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma. Besides eyeing Pakistan’s Chinese-built port of Gwadar as a naval anchor, Beijing has sought naval links with the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.
India, with its enormous strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, is in a position to pursue a sea-denial strategy, if it were to adopt a more forward-thinking naval policy designed to forestall the emergence of a Beijing-oriented Asia. It has to start exerting naval power at critical chokepoints, in concert with the Japanese, U.S. and other friendly navies. In essence, that entails guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean. More broadly, Japanese-Indian naval cooperation and collaboration have become inescapable.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”