Chinese Presence in the Indian Ocean

Original published: “Not India’s Ocean: Perceptions of Chinese Presence in the Indian Ocean,” Paper, Asia Centre Conference Series, Centre d’études Asie (Paris), 22 October 2009.

Extract: It is important to start with that oft-repeated statement made by a Chinese admiral, “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean of the Indians.”[1] Apart from a sense of nationalist hurt that Indian reactions to the statement portrayed and continue to portray, the statement succeeded also in evoking a realization hitherto largely ignored or even suppressed that the Indian Ocean which had long ago ceased to be India’s ocean – traversed by international shipping, crisscrossed by US and Soviet naval vessels – was now also viewed as a legitimate area of interest by not just the superpowers of the world, that India had in reality, little capacity to influence events on the high seas.


Another expression that animates security-related discussions on the Indian Ocean is that of the ‘string of pearls,’[2] originally put forward by American naval strategists. Together, these two expressions have provided the epistemological basis for India’s energetic drive in recent years towards asserting itself in “its” ocean in a multiplicity of ways.

China’s Strategy in the Indian Ocean

Clearly, the Indian Ocean through which almost all of China’s oil supplies pass is too important a strategic space for Beijing to leave unattended; hence, its efforts beginning in Pakistan and Myanmar to build naval outposts, to be upgraded eventually, to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean region. With time, the Chinese presence it was observed had extended to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even the Maldives and perceived to form the so-called ‘string of pearls.’ There are several problems with such a simplistic perception of the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.


One, China was not the only nation that was shipping the majority of its oil supplies and a good deal of its trade through the Indian Ocean, most Southeast Asian nations and Japan and South Korea were in a similar position. While China had especial concerns from the less than friendly attitudes of the world’s only superpower that guaranteed the safety of the shipping of the other nations mentioned, these concerns were perhaps exaggerated or overstated by the then Chinese leadership. The fact was that China’s oil imports and its trade were also tying it ever more closely into the international trading system at the heart of which were the US and its European allies. As such, there was and is little to be gained by the US from militarily threatening Chinese maritime interests. American or European threats are far more feasible and effective when they come in the form of trade-related measures such as sanctions, tariffs or the continued withholding of the market-economy status for China.


Two, while the PLA Navy has received the larger share of China’s military budget since the 1990s,[3] it still has a long way to go to in matching up to even any of the regional navies, leave alone the US Navy. Therefore, a naval expansion of the kind that would allow China set up substantial assets overseas is also likely a long way off. Two related facts also need to be considered when talking of the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. First, China’s primary maritime security threats originate from its east, from the US presence in the Pacific, in Japan and in South Korea and from the continuing separate status of Taiwan. Thus, most of the PLAN’s attention and resources have been focused here rather than elsewhere. Second, setting up foreign military bases in a third country is not the easiest of endeavours even for a country with overwhelming international clout like the US, no matter whether the host country has an authoritarian dispensation or is a democracy. Most US bases originated in the wake of the Second World War and during the Cold War. Post-Cold War, and it has often found it difficult to justify its military presence abroad both domestically as well as to its host governments; one needs to look no further than the constant controversy that dogs American presence in Japan and South Korea. Under the circumstances, China is unlikely to be given anywhere near the same free hand that the Americans had, even by regimes that consider China their closest ally – and this includes Pakistan – for a number of reasons ranging from simply the fact that the Chinese simply do not have the same degree of political and monetary clout that the Americans have to national sovereignty issues, something that the Chinese themselves are extremely sensitive to.


Three, China main concerns in the Indian Ocean might not be military ones as much as they are economic ones and these are the only concerns that can allow it to overcome the two limitations mentioned above. If one were to view the so-called pearls in the string as commercial enterprises, this would allow, first, investment and resources that can be generated from the both Chinese and international sources and next, the rationale for a substantial Chinese presence on foreign soil that is acceptable both internationally and to the host government. Indeed, the biggest ‘pearl,’ namely, Gwadar in Pakistan, can be viewed precisely through such a commercial prism. The port was built with substantial Chinese investments[4] but has been managed by the Port of Singapore Authority since it was opened in 2007.[5] Gwadar’s commercial aspect was premised on it serving as a strategic hub for the transport of oil from West Asia overland through Pakistan into western China. Similar interpretations are possible about the other ‘pearls’ in question. Hambantota in Sri Lanka which to all intents and purposes is a case of expansion of a commercial port while there are several inconsistencies and likely exaggerations about the whole issue of Chinese listening posts/naval bases in Myanmar.[6]


Returning to Gwadar, the question can be legitimately asked – how feasible a commercial enterprise was this port ever going to be? The Chinese must surely have had a military angle to this endeavour, as part of the close Sino-Pak partnership that was aimed against India. This is perhaps true but it is also perhaps not the only truth. As mentioned above, the Chinese leadership probably had an exaggerated view of the threats posed to its energy supplies and SLOCs from being exposed for so long through the Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists probably sought to insure their supplies and trade by diverting them through a steadfast ally. It is difficult to state just how much of a military component there was to the plan, whether geostrategic concerns justified the economics or whether, the plan was purely an economic endeavour to start with.


Whatever the case, from an economic point of view, once the decision had been taken, there were certain gains to be made… Read more

[1] Quoted in Yossef Bodansky, “Beijing’s Surge for the Strait of Malacca,” Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, 1995. Bodansky however, provides no sources for his quote, other than saying it is from a top-secret Chinese memorandum.

[2] For a detailed exposition, see Christopher J Pehrson, “String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral,” Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, July 2006. The expression however, is much older.

[3] “China’s Defense Budget,”, 20 April 2009,

[4] By the China Harbour Engineering Company, funded with a US$198m Chinese loan. See Stephen Marks, “Understanding China’s Strategy: Beyond ‘Non- Interference’,” Global Policy Forum, 5 November 2008.

[5] “Gwadar port opens today,” Dawn, 20 March 2007. See also Saleem Shahid, “Gwadar port accord to be reviewed, says Gabol,” Dawn, 21 December 2008.

[6] See Andrew Selth, “Chinese Military Bases in Burma: The Explosion of a Myth,” Regional Outlook Paper, No. 10, Griffith Asia Institute, 2007 and Andrew Selth, “Burma’s Coco Islands: rumours and realities in the Indian Ocean,” Working Paper Series, No. 101, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong, November 2008.


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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