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China in the Indian Ocean; By D. S. Rajan

 C3S Paper No. 0054/2016 

Note: The paper “China in the Indian Ocean” was presented by D. S. Rajan at Asian Studies Department, Kean university, New Jersey, USA on April 07-08, 2016.


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not so far come out with a codified Indian Ocean Region (IOR) strategy. The country however has a maritime vision involving the IOR in particular. For the first time in a party congress, the Work Report of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, held in November 2012, defined China as a “maritime power” that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” The report listed following aims- enhancing capacity for exploiting marine resources, developing the marine economy, protecting the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguarding its maritime rights and interests, and building itself into a maritime power.

The aims were included in the Work Report’s report’s  section on protecting resources, signaling  China’s new perception that  the maritime domain concerns both developmental and security interests. It was left subsequently to an authoritative Chinese academician to identify  China’s six-fold legitimate maritime interests: i) reunifying its offshore islands; ii) safeguarding its territorial waters; iii) assuring its exclusive economic zone  for its sole use, reasonably and economically; iv) protecting high sea collaboratively for global legitimate access; v) respecting those legitimate maritime rights of other states as  per relevant international law; vi) resolving maritime disputes with other claimants as peacefully as possible when they may arise, while reserving all means for sovereign purpose[1]. The two- protecting high sea and use of all means on sovereignty matters, are striking in importance.

In a situation marked by no formal declaration of  an IOR strategy, it was thought that the process of content analysis would be appropriate for this study. Under the process,  a total of 22  indicators discerned   in the articulations made by leaders, government personalities and influential think tanks as well as in official documents were examined.

The following are the broad conclusions drawn out of the content analysis done: a) China’s strategic aim is to become a maritime power, which, as it says, is to be achieved by pursuing ‘convergence of interests’ with concerned nations. Its sincerity in this regard will come under a test in the coming years, b) In the next decade, the PRC is likely to concentrate on the Pacific, an area of geopolitical importance to it; however, it may follow a pro- active policy towards the IOR driven by commercial, not by military interests, c) China firmly connects the US “Indo-Asia Pacific” framework with the latter’s rebalancing in Asia Pacific; this is the main reason for Beijing’s reservations on that  framework. In response, China   is  likely to woo the regional nations including in the IOR in order to keep them away from the US influence,  d) In mid-term, the nature of China’s military presence in the IOR is likely to remain limited to protection of sea lanes of communications. Its naval escort missions can be expected to continue. It may  establish more “sea posts” along the sea lanes in addition to the one already set up in Djibouti , for the purpose of providing maintenance and resupplies to the cruising Chinese vessels,  e) China seems to believe that India will maintain its strategic autonomy and  not gang up with the other nations against the interests of the PRC,  f) Given its understanding that  India will continue to  dominate the IOR and the US will always have a strong presence in the region, China may like to follow a future IOR strategy aimed at maximizing the scope of its strategic presence in region; in this regard, cementing  strategic cooperation with IOR littorals can be a priority for the PRC  ,   g) China does not rule out use of force on matters of protection of its core interests including in the maritime domain; chances of its future naval  confrontation with India and the US on choke-points in the IOR may therefore exist,  h) India’s new maritime strategy, reveals the country’s intention to act as a net security provider in the IOR. Its specific areas of priority are likely to be two – completing the Chabahar project in Iran and building the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor,  i) India tends to see China’s “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR)  initiative as unilateral, with political and security implications to it, j) New Delhi may opt for working under a US- Japan – Australia – India  quadrilateral political and security framework, but it will work hard  in convincing Beijing   of its intentions as the latter continues to be suspicious on the motives behind the formation of such quadrilateral relationship and    k) The US strategy towards IOR will mainly centre round the imperative of securing Indian Ocean for international commerce. In this regard, it would continue to take  India as a partner and l) in the long run, an effective regional security mechanism for the IOR is necessary to maintain stability in the IOR. 


There is no need to emphasize the strategic importance for the world of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which provides major sea routes for commerce, connecting East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with Europe and Americas. The IOR is crucial for 70% of world petroleum shipments and   accounts for half the world’s container traffic.  Robert Kaplan pointed out  in his book (“Monsoon- the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power”, November 21, 2010), that in this region, the interests and influence of China, India, and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect and that therefore the IOR is bound to become a centre of 21st century international conflicts and power dynamics.  One has to wait and see on whether this prognosis will come out true.

With regard to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it has to be admitted that till now its focus continues to be on the Pacific and not on the IOR.  Its   perceptions on the IOR are however becoming  more dynamic gradually  due to its increasing recognition of the crucial nature of the region for the country’s energy security, noting that  more  than three quarters of  its  required  oil transits through the region;  it realizes that for the country’s  energy imports,  protection of  Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCS) along the Indian Ocean, has thus become vital. To help achieving the declared goal of turning the country as a fully modernized one by middle of the century, the PRC has evolved an overall  approach towards procuring much needed resources from all over the world; that  has set demands on China to ensure security of supply routes, both  land and maritime.

There is no official document so far in China defining full  contours of  the country’s  Indian Ocean strategy; there are however  articulations on the Indian Ocean as part of a maritime policy for China, made by leaders,  government personalities and  influential think talks as well as in  government  documents. The following are  22 indicators , given in chronological order, to the evolving China’s thinking about its maritime policy in general and the Indian Ocean in particular.

November 2012:

Party’s maritime view: Explaining   maritime policy,  the Work Report of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, held in November 2012, defined China as a “maritime power” that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” The report listed following aims- enhancing capacity for exploiting marine resources, developing the marine economy, protecting the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguarding its maritime rights and interests, and building itself into a maritime power.

December 2012:

Military view: As a signal  to the developing Indian Ocean perceptions of the PRC, a  statement (Galle, Sri Lanka, December 13, 2012) made by Vice Admiral Su Zhiqian, Commander of the East China Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy,  laid stress on the ‘freedom and safety of the navigation in the Indian Ocean’ acting as a crucial factor in global economy and declared that the Chinese navy will actively maintain the peace and stability of the Indian Ocean through carrying out ‘maritime security cooperation’ with the navies of various countries, especially seeking to establish a maritime security ‘code of conduct’ between them under the ‘premise of respect for each country’s sovereignty and maritime interests[2]

June 2013:

Academic view:Next clue was seen in the Blue Book of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) released in June 2013. It had chapters on India’s “Look East Policy” and the “U.S-India axis of relation in Indian Ocean region”. As a document of an authoritative Chinese think tank, its views assume significance.  The Blue Book observed that “In the past, China’s Indian Ocean strategy was based on ‘moderation’ and ‘maintaining the status quo’, but the changing dynamics of international relations necessitates China play a more proactive role in affairs of the region”. It frankly admitted that Beijing presently is not having any Indian Ocean strategy unlike India and the US who were following a well-defined “Look East” policy and the “pivot” or “rebalancing” strategy respectively. Adding that in absence of a strategy, China’s development prospects would severely be hit, it observed, “With changes in the relations among countries in the Indian Ocean Region and in the international situation, China’s diplomacy should also change, but Beijing’s interests will be driven only by commercial, and not military, objectives”. The document asked China to deepen economic ties with the nations in the IOR while cautioning that if China, United States and India do not constructively engage each other, the Indian Ocean can end up as an ocean of conflict and trouble. As the CASS publication predicted, no single or regional power including Russia, China, Australia and India, can control the Indian Ocean by itself in the future and after jostling among powers, a fragile balance of power might be reached in the region. It acknowledged that the rise of China was worrying the littoral states of IOR, particularly India.

July 2013:

Xi on convergence of interests:On July 30, at a study session with members of the CCP Politburo, General Secretary Xi Jinping called for efforts to build China into a maritime power. He at the same time laid stress on the need for China to pursue “converging interests” with other countries in oceanic development. [3]

August 2013:

Academic view:Dr Shen Dingli, a well connected scholar  of Fudan University said that the  following constitute China’s six-fold legitimate maritime interests: i) reunifying its offshore islands; ii) safeguarding its territorial waters; iii) assuring its exclusive economic zone  for its sole use, reasonably and economically; iv) protecting high sea collaboratively for global legitimate access; v) respecting those legitimate maritime rights of other states as  per relevant international law; vi) resolving maritime disputes with other claimants as peacefully as possible when they may arise, while reserving all means for sovereign purpose[4].

September-October 2013:

OBOR:China’s President Xi Jinping announced “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which is of particular significance to the IOR. The initiative’s twin components – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, formed a development strategy that focuses on economic integration and cooperation among countries primarily in Eurasia. The OBOR also reflects China’s emerged requirement to export production commodities of over capacity such as manufactured steel[5], to the IOR and beyond .A document on the initiative called “Visions and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, issued by the National l Development and Reform Commission  on March 28,2015,  outlined areas of co-operation and co-operation mechanisms with regard to the  OBOR Initiative. The Indian Ocean figures prominently in it. According to the conceptual framework given in the document, the OBOR Initiative aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa along five routes. The Silk Road Economic Belt focuses on: (1) linking China to Europe through Central Asia and Russia; (2) connecting China with the Middle East through Central Asia; and (3) bringing together China and Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, meanwhile, focuses on using Chinese coastal ports to: (4) link China with Europe through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean; and (5) connect China with the South Pacific Ocean through the South China Sea. Focusing on the above five routes, the Belt and Road will take advantage of international transport routes as well as core cities and key ports to further strengthen collaboration and build six international economic co-operation corridors. These have been identified as the New Eurasia Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-West Asia, China-Indochina Peninsula, China-Pakistan, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar[6].

October 2013:

Academic View:Among subsequent commentaries on the IOR made by influential Chinese academicians, the one made on October 2013 by a scholar of a leading state-controlled Chinese think tank[7]  looks important.  The write-up declared that China’s strategic focus is the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean and the PRC lags far behind the US in terms of maritime power and does not enjoy India’s geographic advantages. It asserted that China follows a naval strategy aimed at ensuring a ‘harmonious sea’ through capacity building and international cooperation, viewing the region surrounding the Indian Ocean as a vital energy and trade route, not a battlefield for power struggle. China’s seaward policy is strongly influenced by trade and energy motives, and its open economy is becoming more interdependent with the outside world, particularly the IOR.

The commentary added that Chinese involvement in building infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region littorals is part of the PRC’s economy-oriented ‘Going Global’ strategy. Interpreting India’s views on the Indian Ocean region as a sum-up of senses of crisis and destiny, it says that as for crisis, Indian politicians and strategists pay great attention to the linkages between Indian Ocean and India’s national security and as for destiny, India’s unique geographic location forms the cornerstone of India’s aspiration to dominate Indian Ocean or even to transform Indian Ocean into India’s Ocean. Contrasting India’s position with that of the US , the article found that the US seeks to be a hegemonic maritime power that is not only dominant in the Atlantic or Pacific, but also in the Indian Ocean. Although it stresses the importance of a cooperative maritime strategy, it finds an unfavorable condition in that regard, i.e the US is still trying to maintain its status as a pre-eminent maritime power and seeking to sustain its strong presence in the Indian Ocean. In conclusion, the article said that although confrontations and conflicts between China, US and India have been predicted in this region, particularly with the rise of China’s maritime power, their different strategic goals may lead to different results. It added that given the China’s policy aims, intent and capability, the PRC cannot afford to challenge either the United States or India. But with the rapid growth of its economic and military power, India is likely to adopt a more assertive maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, considering that the US wants to maintain its maritime dominance, an India–US potential power struggle in the Indian Ocean is more likely.

February 2014:

Military view:An influential Chinese military scholar said that “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean- economic gains and the security of SLOCS.[8]

July 2014

View of Chinese strategic experts:Chinese experts [9]gave emphasis to “infrastructure connectivity” as a key element of the OBOR  initiative. They said that port facilities are the foundation for security of SLOCS and therefore China must establish ‘’sea posts’’ ( haishang yizhan)  that can support and resupply Chinese  ships cruising along sea lanes. They added that such sea posts could be newly built by individual countries or could be constructed with help of China or China could lease existing facilities.

October 2014: A Chinese Type 039 song – class submarine ‘Great Wall’ visited Colombo port.

October 2014:

China’s   mixed reaction to the US “Indo- Asia Pacific”proposal : Some criticized the proposal   as an ‘attempt to contain China’ and others  exhibiting caution. (The proposal is aimed at forming a strategic system in Asia based on the perceived  growing economic, geopolitical and security  connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions and the recognition to  the Indian Ocean  having  replaced the Atlantic as the world’s strategically significant  trade corridor. Australian Defense White Paper 2013 was the first to talk about an Indo-Pacific idea which set the stage for the latter’s further development as the US “Indo-Asia Pacific” proposal which is  now   being officially endorsed in the US, India, Japan and Indonesia.  The Joint US-India Statement issued after President Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, mentioned about the important role that both countries can play in “promoting peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions”).  As official Chinese response, Lt Gen Qi Jianguo, China’s Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army  in his article in the Party School  journal ‘Study Times’ ( January 22,  2013) approached the “Indo-Asia Pacific” concept in the context of  the U.S. strategic “rebalancing”; he said that the US  strategy in the next 10 years is to administer the Asia-Pacific in order to create a U.S. “Pacific century” whereby it incorporates the Indian Ocean and South Asian region into the scope of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific[10].A PRC  scholar, wrote that Indo-Asia Pacific  is a recent concept, but one that the region’s strategic planners should note carefully.   If the U.S. military truly had ‘no intention’ of excluding China and is merely ‘looking for opportunities to increase military cooperation,’ then there would be no reason to ignore Chinese presence and interests in the Indian Ocean’.[11] Another Chinese expert[12] said that Japan’s “Indo-Pacific” concept is another platform for containing China.[13] There was yet another article stating that India is key to the US “Indo-Pacific” strategy aimed at containing China and balancing Beijing’s Silk Road push into the Indian Ocean[14].

November 2014:

Chinese base at Namibia?:China-Namibia high level talks were reportedly held on construction of a naval maintenance and supply base for the PLA Navy at Walvis Bay.

January 2015:

Government’s view:Interesting  have been the remarks of the spokesperson of China’s ministry of National Defense admitting[15] on January 29, 2015 that China has plans to conduct escort missions of the naval ships in the Indian Ocean. The PRC in this way seems to justify its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, after being asked a question on the naval submarine movements in the Indian Ocean, tried to downplay Chinese naval activities in the region, characterizing them as “normal” and emphasizing that “there is no need to read too much into them.” He added, “China has sent various kinds of naval ships to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast to conduct escort missions since 2008. And in the process, we have notified relevant countries of the escort missions of the PLA naval ships, including the submarines. In future, the Chinese military will send different kinds of naval ships to take part in the naval escort missions in accordance with the situation and the requirement to fulfill the task.” It may be recalled that until 2008, the Chinese Navy did not operate in the Indian Ocean. In 2008, marking the first such instance outside the Asia- Pacific region, a squadron of 3 ships led by Type 052C Luyang II class guided missile destroyer Haikou 171 took part in Somali counter piracy operations. Now, the PRC’s rotational task groups are making regular good will visits to Indian Ocean nations including Kenya, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. 

May2015: A Chinese submarine reportedly docked at Karachi port.

May 2015:

Defence White Paper 2015: As corollary to the situation under which protecting maritime rights and interests are becoming areas of policy priority, China’s military intentions in the IOR are becoming visible. The PRC’s naval objectives have undergone a shift – from that of conducting coastal defense activities to offshore defense and ultimately to far sea defense. China’s Defense White paper for 2015, called “China’s Military Strategy” (May 26, 2015)   observed that the “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests.” It  envisaged ‘gradual’ shift of China’s naval focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” and  “open seas protection” and stressed  on building a ‘modern maritime military force structure commensurate with the country’s  national security and development interests’ and on preparing for a Maritime Military Struggle (Maritime PMS) .

In elaboration, Chinese officials[16]  have argued  that “ as China continues to rise, it has enormous interests around the globe that need protection, including investments, trade, energy, imports and the surging presence of Chinese living abroad  and that “ Open Seas Protection” is a sign of China’s spreading economic and diplomatic footprint abroad. The 2015 document alleged that “some external countries” for “meddling in South China Sea”, implying that China’s naval strategy will concentrate on resisting US naval domination in the region.

July 2015:

Military view:A spokesperson of the Chinese Navy said that China had no strategic design to confront India in the Indian Ocean. China is neither a hegemon nor a significant military power in the Indian Ocean  and  the visits of its ships and submarines to countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka  were no threat to India’s security interests. He also warned India against any treatment by the latter of the IOR as its ‘backyard’. [17]

July 2015: A Chinese scholar  [18]  alleged that India attempts to play the role of net provider of regional security of the Indian Ocean and create an Indian maritime defence chain under its leadership.

August 2015:

New fleet in Sanya?:Close to China’s admission of its plans to dispatch of naval escort ships to the IOR, unconfirmed reports [19]appeared  that  the PRC will soon be adding one additional fleet to the three existing ones (the North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea Fleets) it currently operates. This new fleet could be   headquartered in Sanya on Hainan Island and project Chinese naval power into the Indian Ocean. If true, this development is bound to have security implications for the IOR. Catching attention is a revealing signed article (August 4, 2015) in the flagship news paper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Daily. Entitled “The reasons behind China’s decision to build Second aircraft carrier base in Hainan”[20] , it quoted the Chinese language Kanwa Defense Review of Canada as saying (July 2015) that the construction of the 700 meters long base, marking the longest carrier berths in the world, was completed in November 2014 and that it can dock large ships on both sides. From this, one gets a sense that the Sanya base at the same time can accommodate two carriers.

The article reproduced   three reasons given by a scholar in China for the decision of authorities to build the country’s   second aircraft carrier base in Hainan Island- Hainan’s strategic location, its defense facilities and the effectiveness of deploying guided missile nuclear submarines.  Explaining the first, the scholar pointed out that Hainan navy base is comparatively close to the three strategically important straits — Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait and Sunda Strait, making it easier for composition of China’s naval fleet and that the base can protect China’s comparatively weak oil passage to ensure its economic development. Should Japan and the United States blockade the “first island chain” (stretching from Okinawa to Taiwan), China’s ships could still reach the Indian Ocean and southern Pacific via the South China Sea.

November 2015:

Djibouti base:Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson of the Chinese Defense Ministry, said at the ministry’s monthly routine press conference on November 26 that China and Djibouti were negotiating the construction of support facilities in Djibouti. Such facilities will ensure better support for the Chinese military in carrying out UN peacekeeping operations, escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. [21]

December 2015: Professor Liang Fang of China’s National Defense University stated in a CCTV interview that the construction of support facilities in Djibouti is out of consideration for China’s national strategy. In her opinion, it aims to better safeguard China’s overseas interests as well as maintain regional peace and stability   China’s military  supply points is for military operations  other than war, for better safeguarding  China’s  overseas interests  and maintaining regional peace and stability[22]

January 2016: The PRC foreign ministry highlighted that China and Djibouti reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable Chinese troops to better fulfill escort missions in Gulf of Aden and waters off Somali coast.[23]

March 2016:

Academic view:On March 8, Fudan University’s Shen Dingli, said that his country could decide on dispatch of aircraft career task forces to the Indian Ocean to hurt India. If India joins a seafaring league alongside the US and its allies, “of course we can put the navy at (India’s) doorstep”.[24]

In the absence of a codified Indian Ocean strategy on the part of the PRC government, the signals listed above could be indicative of the current thinking   in China on the IOR; its broad characteristics which deserve close consideration of the stake  holders  in the IOR, especially India and the US , could be the following:

  1. China’s strategic aim is to become a maritime power. Judging by what President Xi Jinping has said, the PRC would pursue this aim, including with regard to IOR, by seeking ‘convergence of interests’ with other countries; China’s sincerity in this regard will come under a test in the coming years.

  2. In the next decade, China is very likely to continue concentrate on the Pacific, an area of geo-political importance to it. It may however follow a pro-active ‘harmonious’ policy towards the IOR, driven by commercial, not by military interests. Its objective will be to secure maritime cooperation with other concerned nations in the IOR.

  3. China’s pursuit of soft power diplomacy towards the IOR is likely to intensify. Some in China suspect that the Indo-Asia Pacific framework of the US which in part concerns the IOR, is meant for containing the PRC. Officially, the PRC tends to disapprove  the framework seeing it in the context of US rebalancing in the Asia Pacific, perceived as targeting China. In response, the PRC is very likely to woo the regional nations, including in the IOR,  through economic and other means so as to keep them away from the US influence. It has already extended to these countries   loans on beneficial terms and invested in major infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, dams, ports, power plants, and railways, besides offering military assistance; this process can further accelerate under China’s OBOR initiative aimed at creating regional connectivity. China’s economic and diplomatic footprint in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the IOR, is thus likely to expand in the coming years.

  4. In midterm, the nature of China’s military presence in the IOR is likely to remain limited to protection of SLOCS. For this purpose, it is attempting  to build  a network of  agreements to establish bases, officially being called ‘sea posts’,  with countries along the SLOCS from Hainan Island to Africa: Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  China may try to set up more “sea posts” like the one already finalized in Djibouti, meant for providing maintenance and resupply facilities to Chinese vessels and naval ships on escort missions.  China terms such efforts as part of its Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW).  It may realize that building permanent naval bases in the IOR would require more capacity building, be time consuming and costly. Overall, for the time being,an assertive role by China’s navy in the IOR, as the one being noticed in the South China Sea, is not likely due to two constraints of strategic nature perceived by it – unlikely end to the US naval and maritime domination and India’s geographic advantages in the IOR.

  5. China is very likely to continue wooing India at least for some time, as it seems to believe that the latter will always maintain its strategic autonomy and will not gang up with other nations, particularly the US, against the PRC’s interests. The PRC’s “Look West” strategy accords primacy to and rebalancing of ties with India (this idea is being publicized through highly placed Chinese scholars like Wang Jisi).

  6. China’s future Indian Ocean Strategy will be determined on how it perceives the likely situation in the IOR in the long run. The country, under perceived conditions of the long time geographic domination of India and the US strong presence in the IOR, may intend to maximize its strategic presence in the IOR; it is likely to cement  its strategic cooperation with IOR littorals so as to create a power balance favorable to it in the In a military sense, one cannot rule out the possibility of pro-active involvement of China’s Navy in the IOR in a long term .To facilitate the same,  the PRC has begun to increase  its naval capabilities. The fact that   Chinese submarines are getting involved in patrolling along the IOR, indicate the PRC’s intentions to attain capabilities for conducting long range naval missions in far seas. China is upgrading its destroyers and frigates to range further; it has tested 056 stealth frigates and brought into service of China’s first air craft carrier; the second one is now coming up in Sanya base, speculated by some as having the IOR as target. It is developing Anti- Ship Ballistic Missiles, Anti-Ship cruise missiles, submarines, both conventional and nuclear, amphibious ships, and maritime surveillance capabilities.

  7. China’s future pro-active approach towards  the IOR,  may  involve chances of its military confrontation on the maritime choke points, say with India and the US.  In this regard, the PRC’s policy of making no compromises and not ruling out use of force on matters of protection of its core-interests is notable. According to viewpoints from influential scholars in China, while the country would like to resolve maritime disputes with other claimants as peacefully as possible, it reserves “all means for sovereign purpose” [25].

  8. The reservations on the Chinese OBOR initiative of India, Japan and the US may not disappear soon; the three nations would remain concerned about the likely negative impact of the initiative on their respective strategic interests in the regions involved including in the IOR. The OBOR is being seen by the analysts in the world as China’s response to the more exclusive mega-economic blocks in the making under the US leadership: the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or T-TIP. It is being  believed  that the  apparent objective behind the OBOR initiative is to provide  an alternate  economic architecture led by China; in the background of the contrast between the US and Chinese formulae, what is likely is a Washington-Beijing rivalry  on the question of such a structure.

Likely Response from India:How India will respond to China’s evolving approach towards the IOR? Recognizing that the IOR has become vital for its energy security in view of transit of more than 70% of its liquefied energy supplies through that region, India is now opting for a more coherently defined maritime policy in the IOR. A firm signal in this regard is the finalization of its new maritime strategy[26] called “Ensuring Secure Seas:  Indian Maritime Security Strategy” (New Delhi, October 2015). The strategy unambiguously declares India’s intent to be a Net Security Provider” in its areas of interest. Significantly, it expands India’s areas of interest southwards and westwards, by bringing in the southwest Indian Ocean and Red Sea within it’s ‘’primary area.’’ It incorporates a “secondary area” of interest , included in which are  the western coast of Africa, Mediterranean Sea and  other areas of national interests  based on considerations of  Indian Diaspora, overseas investment and political reasons. The strategy retains the importance given in its past versions to international shipping lanes and maritime choke points of the IOR by including them in the primary area category. It however adds additional choke points in that category – the Mozambique Channel and Ombai Wetar straits which are strategically located at the far end of the south western and south eastern Indian Ocean respectively. The new strategy provides a direction to the Indian Navy to play the role of an effective instrument to implement the country’s pro-active foreign policy. It echoes the call of Prime Minister Modi to pursue a doctrine of “Security and Growth to All nations in the Indian Ocean Region (SAGAR).

It would be natural that India takes more and more cognizance from now on of China’s plans to involve its Navy in “open seas protection”. The IOR is certain to emerge as one of the key areas for China’s securing of its ‘overseas interests’; it  already figures prominently in President Xi JInping’s  OBOR  initiative which looks to address  China’s quest for energy security and regional integration. With China in mind, India has announced a stand in support of declaring the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.[27] While feeling the need for a cooperative approach towards achieving regional connectivity, it tends to see in the OBOR initiative a unilateral approach of China[28] . India especially disapproves the PRC   proposal to include China-Pakistan Economic corridor which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in its OBOR initiative. The corridor is important for India as Pakistan’s Gwadar port is  one of the points where the Road and Belt intersect. Broadly speaking, India  is becoming  wary of China’s attempts to deploy the country’s composite national strength to carve out that space across the Eurasian landmass and in the maritime Indo-Pacific. India views [29] that the OBOR brings obvious political and security implications for it.  China on the other hand rejects allegations that the OBOR is its exclusive initiative.[30]

     India is likely to become more proactive in the IOR in the coming years   and play its role of Net Security provider to littorals by its own presence and assistance. India’s concentration is likely to be on two fronts- completing the Chabahar project in Iran’s southeastern coast, as the same would strategically benefit New Delhi in getting a sea-land access route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan and building the Bangladesh -China- India- Myanmar corridor, designed to connect Yunnan province with other three countries. By attending to the two fronts, India seems to ensure that it is not excluded from the connectivity structure that is implied in China’s OBOR. [31] Notably, India has already taken certain diplomatic and security initiatives which are likely to get intensified from now on.   In 2015, Indian External Affairs Minister visited   Maldives and the UAE and the Indian Prime Minister went to Sri Lanka and Maldives.  Prime Minister Modi paid a visit to Fiji in the far reaches of the Pacific signifying India’s realization of the importance of its integration in the Indo-Pacific region.  India and Sri Lanka under President Sirisena have reached an agreement to expand their cooperation on defense and security issues. Getting focus now is their maritime security cooperation, including in the trilateral format with Maldives. India is keen to strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In the military field, apparently to counter the likely Chinese challenges in the Indian Ocean, India is considering plans to build seven frigates equipped with stealth features and six nuclear-powered submarines[32]. At a time when China is modernizing its navy as a blue water force and is reportedly planning to supply Pakistan 8 submarines, 4 F-22P frigates and type 022 missile boats, India’s priority can be on building anti-access capabilities in the Indian Ocean region. The country may also opt for holding more maritime exercises with US, Japan and Australia, with China’s challenge in mind.

     It would be important to note the political meaning of India’s willingness  now to involve the US, Japan and Australia on issues relating to regional integration and maritime interests. The first trilateral India-US-Japan talks at the level of foreign ministers (New York, September 2015) may signify convergence of India’s Act East policy, Japan’s stand on freedom of navigation in South China Sea and the US line of Asia-Pacific rebalance. India’s growing maritime thrust was visible during the country’s dispatch in May 2015 of four war ships deployed for a long term in the Indian Ocean, to hold joint exercises with Singapore with port calls at Jakarta, Freemantle in Australia,  Kuandan in Malaysia, Sattahip in Thailand and Sihanoukville in Cambodia and its   joint naval drill with Australia held in September 2015 . India has already given patrol vessels to some island nations in the IOR and imparted naval and coast guard training to several regional nations. In September 2015, , the Indian Navy held operational exchanges with the Royal Australian Navy  in the Bay of Bengal;  it was followed by the six day India-Japan-the US  Malabar 2015 exercise (October 2015).  Unmistakable are emerging signs towards formation of a US- Australia- India- Japan security quad system to achieve the common goal of setting up a maritime power balance in the Indo-Asia Pacific region.

China’s thinking on India:The PRC, on its part,  feels that any India-US-Australia- Japan  quad system which is also being seen as ‘alliance of democracies’ will be  anti-China. China seems to believe that India’s independent foreign policy will provide for no ganging up by it with other powers against China. The State-run Global Times said that “India’s policies and strategies are based on its national interests. It has been proved that over the past decades, India has stuck to independent foreign policies and never wants to be part of any coalition to contain China. Given the border disputes between China and India, and geopolitical rivalry as well, mutual distrust is slow to dissolve, and India is vigilant against China’s rise. This creates opportunities for other countries to drive a wedge between Beijing and New Delhi. But China and India have reached a solid consensus that continued growth in bilateral relations should not be thwarted by divergences”.[33]

The US strategy towards the IOR: The US strategy will centre round three imperatives – securing Indian Ocean for international commerce, avoiding regional conflict on issues of strategic choke points in the IOR- Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca strait, and dealing with Sino-Indian competition in the IOR[34]. The Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) 2010 of the US Department of Defense had the goals of ensuring open access to the IOR to be achieved through a more integrated approach across civil and military organizations. The Department’s document “ Strategic Choices and Management Review” ( July 2013) stressed the need for US to develop an Indian Ocean policy on the basis of building coalitions with regional allies like Australia, Japan and the Philippines and partners like Vietnam and India. The QDR for 2014 has said that the US will support India’s rise as an increasingly capable actor in the region, and deepen strategic partnership with it including through the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. It added that “the US will continue efforts to help stabilize Central and Southwest Asia and deepen its engagement in the Indian Ocean region to bolster US rebalance to Asia”. The US National Security Strategy for 2015 has supported India’s role as regional provider of security and its expanded participation in critical regional institutions. What is important is that the US connects its   engagement in the IOR with its rebalance to Asia   which reflects the essence of Washington’s Indo-Asia Pacific vision.  The current views of the US are that Asia is Indo-Pacific in character and that India’s eastward strategic and diplomatic engagement is integral to Asia’s future. Confirming them is the US- India Joint statement on strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region (January, 2015) which expressed the affirmation of the roles of the two sides “in promoting peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian ocean region.[35]

China’s fears of US Indo-Pacific idea: For China, the Indo-Asia Pacific concept of the US looks  both positive and negative. It may recognize that the concept links Indian and Pacific Oceans both of which are crucial in transporting much-needed resources for the PRC. But it is suspicious of US intentions to use the concept for containing China.[36]  It may note with concern the developments regarding formation of a US-Japan-Australia- India quadrilateral political and naval grouping. [37] China may have reasons to worry about the anti-China potentials of US efforts to get closer to India. Chinese opinions have in particular not positively viewed the above mentioned joint US- India vision statement. Also, despite Indian denials, the Chinese state media remain touchy about   reports on a plan for US-India joint patrolling in the South China Sea[38].

To sum up, a jostling for power in the Indian Ocean among India, the US and China  is likely to be witnessed in future. The need of the hour is creation of effective regional security architecture capable of addressing the IOR’s diverse challenges.



[1]Managing China’s maritime interests,  Aug 20, 2013,

[2] Chinese Navy to actively maintain peace and stability of Indian Ocean, China Military online, December 15,2012


[4]Managing China’s maritime interests,  Aug 20, 2013,



[7] “Power Politics in the Indian Ocean: Don’t Exaggerate the China Threat”, 24 October 2013, Chun Hao Lou, Assistant Director at the Institute of Maritime Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations –CICIR,…

[8] China-US Focus, February  11,2014, as reported in  China Brief, Volume 15 issue 6, March 19, 2015

[9] – ibid- ,  Liu Cigui, Developing Maritime Cooperative Partnerships: Reflections on building the 21st century Maritime Silk road, International Studies, No.4 issue, 2014.

[10] Article by Lt.Gen. Qi Jianguo,  China’s Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army,James A. Bellacqua and Daniel M. Hartnett, http;//

10 Kui Jing, Welcoming the US into the Indo-Asia-Pacific, March 24, 2013,

11 Zhao Minghao, research fellow at the China Centre for Contemporary World Studies, the think tank of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, June 4,2013,

[13] Lu Yaodong, Global Times, October 13,2014,  http;//

[14] Times of India, January 25, 2015, http;//times of –report/articleshow/

[15] Franz-Stefan Gady, China’s Navy to send more ships to the Indian ocean, http://the more-ships-to-the-indian-ocean

15  Andrew Jacobs,  New York Times, May 26,2015,  “ China updating military strategy, puts focus on projecting naval power”, quoting Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and now a senior counselor with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.…

[17] China: the Indian Ocean  cannot be India’s  backyard, Business Insider, Press Trust of India, July 2, 2015

[18] Lan jianxue, ind dipcy under modi govce ans s-I relns, ciics, july 1 2015, http;//

18   Franz- Stefan Gady, “China’s Ghost Fleet in the Indian Ocean”, the Diplomat, 7.2.2015,

[20]  Rong Liu, “The reasons behind China’s decision to build 2nd aircraft carrier base in Hainan”, August 4, 2015,

[21] China builds overseas support facilities for peaceful purpose, December 10, 2015,

[22] ibid

[23] Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Honglei’s press conference, January 21, 2016

[24] James Holmes, Get Ready, India: China’s Navy Is Pushing West, March 8, 2016,

[25]Managing China’s maritime interests,  Aug 20, 2013,

[26] Net Security Provider’ Defined: An Analysis of India’s New Maritime Strategy-2015, December 4,2015

[27] Ajit Doval, Indian Ocean has to remain a zone of peace, the Hindu, December 1,2014,    asia/indian-ocean-has-to-remain-a-zone-of-peace-ajit-doval/article6651325.ece

[28] Raisina Dialogue, Connectivity plans not unilateral:Sushma, the Hindu, March 4 , 2016.

[29] Shyam Saran, The Wire, October 9, 2015, what China’s OBOR strategy means for India and the world

[30] Raisina Dialogue, Connectivity plans not unilateral: Sushma, the Hindu, March 4 2016,   quoting former PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

[31] Nirupama Rao, New strong and clear approach, the Hindu, March 4,2016

[32]  Sanjeev Miglani, “ India clears $8 billion warships project to counter Chinese navy”, Times of India, February 18, 2015

[33] Yu Jincui, Concurrent India drills spark unnecessary speculation , Global Times, October 14,2015

[34]  Dr Satoru Nagao, Ocean Policy Research Foundation,  2012,

[35]  The Washington office of Vice President, ,remarks by Joe Biden,   on Asia Pacific   policy ,George Washington University, Washington DC,July 19, 2013

[36]  “Different Visions of the Indo-Pacific”, January 9, 2014, ,…

[37] Us proposes reviving naval coalition to balance China expansion, New York Times, March 2, 2016,   http;//

[38] Reuters, February 10, 2016.

( The above is the full text of paper on the subject,  submitted by D.S.Rajan, Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India, at an International conference on  “China  in the world “,  organized by the Asian Studies  and History Department of KEAN University, New Jersey, USA, on April 7- 8, 2016. Email:

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