by Anil Kamboj

The Indian Ocean is India’s backyard, but China wants to control the region and its waters. They are doing that by establishing a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The maritime strategist Alfred Mahan said more than a century ago that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. The destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”. This prophecy is about to come true. The war to control Indian Ocean has begun. India is being challenged in its own backyard by Chinese military, that is People’s Liberation Army. China has dangerous designs to control the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world and covers almost 20% of the water surface. Why does China want to dominate this region? Because its economy depends on it. China needs this ocean to protect its economic interests. Around 80% of its oils are imported through sea routes that is Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait which neither are in China’s control. 95% of its trade with three of its important partners that are West Asia, Africa, and Europe, passes through Indian Ocean. (20% of China’s GDP comes from exports). Strategists call these as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC).West Asia and Africa comprise an essential part of Chairman Xi Jinping’s flagship, Belt and Road Initiative.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been sailing in the Indian Ocean far more frequently in recent years, compounded by fears that Beijing is seeking to establish new naval bases on the periphery of this ocean.

Looking back, a major step for China was its first deployment of warships to the Gulf of Aden to join an international counter-piracy effort. The first trio of warships arrived in December 2008, and a task force has seen a constant presence there ever since. Chinese warships remain despite pirate attacks disappearing almost entirely in the area. Beijing’s 2015 Défense White Paper stated that “with the growth of China’s national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue”.

In fact, three factors affect how China can project power, protect, its SLOCs and keep chokepoints open. Much effort is devoted by PLA to safeguard these disadvantages. First is by the PLAN’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Second is the PLAN’s air defence and anti-submarine warfare capacity. Third is China’s logistics/sustainment infrastructure along the Indian Coastline.

But the concern is more about the Chinese military bases in the Indian Ocean. It is seriously deliberating this idea. In 2020 United States Military and Security Division had put out an assessment which said that “the PRC is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances”.

It further mentions that "Beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics to support naval, air, and ground forces. Beijing has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. In this there are three military bases in Bay of Bengal and in the West of India there are four bases.

In fact, in UAE China was trying to build a military base secretly that is in Khalifa Port. The Americans caught them. The satellite imagery revealed suspicious construction work of multi-storey building inside a container terminal built and operated by Chinese Shipping Corporation, Cosco. The UAE claims that it had no idea about this. With Americans pressure the work of this building had to be stopped. This time the Americans could dictate the terms, but it will not be all the time.

China has many options, and nothing matches the Pakistan’s port at Karachi. Here China can dictate terms. There are many advantages at this port. The Chinese are familiar with Karachi port, as Chinese ships have been visiting this port for decades. The first visit was in 1985, when its ship and a Destroyer docked at this port. Since then, the Chinese have used the facilities to replenish their supplies. In recent years both the countries’ navy have had regular military drills. The second option is Gwadar Port. Chinese say that this is for trade only, but no one believes that. Gwadar is not the Chinese trade but is for Chinese military base. It could readily be repurposed for use as a PLA military facility. It could easily support PLAN’s largest vessels, such as the Type-075 amphibious assault ship, Type 071 landing platform dock, the Type-901 fleet replenishment ship, depending on conditions even aircraft carrier. Therefore, China is keen on Gwadar from where they can operate in Arabian Sea up to Persian Gulf. It can help the commercial ships, exert Chinese pressure in the Indian Ocean region and control the waters. PLA senior officer said that “The food is already on the plate we will eat it whenever we want”.
The other example is Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Kyaukphyu Port in Myanmar for logistic purpose.

The strategy is building a port on the pretext of commerce and then equip it for the Peoples Liberation Army. The term military base is very controversial as it would raise the world’s eyebrows, Beijing knows that. That is why through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) the Dragon is laying a network of such ports that is dual purpose ports, first build ports for commercial trade and use them for military purpose. It wants to weaponize the BRI and dominate the Indian Ocean.

India has already taken a note of this as it knows that its economic power depends on free and open Indian Ocean.