Image Courtesy: SCMP
Article Courtesy: 9dashline.com
Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the United States Navy’s foremost strategic thinkers once wrote: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is key to the seven seas in the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters!“.
As per Mahan’s logic of sea power, the key to a nation’s security is the control of vital maritime regions which means assuming command, political control and military access in that order. If one were to translate this into an elementary level, it is a cycle in which commerce generates wealth, the generated revenue from commerce funds the navy, which in turn protects trade and commerce. The same logic can be seen in Sun Tsu’s works as well.
The above theory now holds trues in the case of the strategy adopted by the People’s Republic of China. The Indian Ocean and its various sea lanes account for between 75 and 80% of China’s total imported crude, with current estimates placing total Chinese oil consumption at over 10 million barrels per day. Considering the importance of this region to China’s economic growth, the strategy undertaken by Beijing has been to build duel use infrastructure, capable of hosting both civilian and military vessels at different locations across the Indian Ocean region. This has been termed by naval strategists as China’s String of Pearls.
The vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits has been known to be Beijing’s Achilles Heel for decades, owing to the natural choke point at which the straits sit. In order to overcome the inevitable blockade that would come in the event of a naval battle between great power navies, China is pursuing a comprehensive strategy to secure the Indian Ocean Region by increasing the presence of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) units in this vital maritime space. This is in addition and supplementary to a permanent anti-piracy flotilla to counter activity off the Somali coast.
This article aims to study the effectiveness of the String of Pearls concept from a military/geopolitical perspective and its relevance in today’s context. The String of Chinese facilities comprises of the following projects which have either been completed or are now in the pipeline. It is notable that part of the string is located within the confines of the South China Sea, which serve to support Chinese operations in their theatre of interests in the IOR.
Located close to the Chinese mainland, Hainan Island is the home of the PLAN’s Yulin Naval base located along the southern coast. This base has a cavern of facilities for basing twenty strategic nuclear submarines and a large that harbour can accommodate two aircraft carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships.
The island faces the South China Sea over which Bejing has historic claims such as the infamous nine-dash line which encompasses nearly all of this maritime zone. The submarine base is strategically located as it is 50 nautical miles from China’s continental shelf, which makes it most suitable for the quick and rapid deployment of fast attack submarines. Another PLAN submarine base is located at Longpo on the island’s southeastern tip. It is a deepwater port complete with submarine piers and an underground submarine facility with tunnel access. It also features long piers designed for surface combatants, making it a multipurpose base for the PLAN.
The advanced nature of the submarine and surface warship facilities at Hainan island indicates that this island will play an increasingly important role in Chinese fleet operations in the coming years. It can be seen as a potential SSBN bastion for the undersea leg of China s nuclear deterrent in which attack submarines, fast attack ships and a surface fleet are geared towards providing a protective cover for the deployment of SSBN’s designed for a second strike capability.
On the other hand, this naval build up at Hainan could be construed in more offensive terms, with the mission of these bases to magnify China’s sea control, for greater power projection operations in the Indian Ocean Region or more likely geared up for operations in strategic locations close to the mainland, like the dispute laden South China Sea. It is difficult to predict which interpretation of China s naval activities on Hainan Island is correct and it is possible that both approaches are being pursued simultaneously.
The largest such island of the Paracel island chain, Woody Island is strategically located and features, as of writing, an upgraded airstrip that houses a division level of PLAN and PLAAF troops that oversee the Chinese claim of the Spratlys and Paracel Islands. China has deployed J -11 fighter aircraft to Woody island thereby extending China’s reach by an additional 360 kilometers into the South China Sea from the PLAN base located on Hainan island. The new location could prove troublesome for US air surveillance efforts and FONOPs as well as claimant states abilities to enforce their own respective claims. Farther to the south of Woody Island, China is also building additional bases and port facilities in the Spratly island chain but Woody Island itself is, for now, Beijing’s primary pearl amongst its South China Sea island holdings.
Not operational but without question an important pearl in China’s string and major signal of Beijing’s ambitions is the proposed Kra Isthmus canal. Located in the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula, Kra Isthmus is a joint project between Thailand and China that involves the construction of a large channel which, when completed, will allow commercial shipping to bypass the Strait of Malacca completely. The two-way canal at 102 kilometers length, 400 meters wide and 25 meters in depth would cut short the transit distance for oil shipments to Japan and China by 1200 kilometers. The project was shelved initially but the Thai Government has taken a relook at Kra Isthmus in January of this year by commissioning a study on its viability and China has shown a willingness to integrate the mega-project it into the Belt and Road Initiative.
Hambantota first caught the world’s attention in 2010. A largely Beijing funded commercial port, Hambantota is located along the southern edge of Sri Lanka. There are no known plans currently for the port to become a military base and the security of the port itself, is for now at least, formally under the Southern Naval Command HQ of Sri Lankan Navy. In December 2017, struggling to meet payments and facing rising debt, Sri Lanka handed the port over and 15,000 acres to China for 99 years.
In short term, the port is still struggling to find a role but in the long run, this port, located close to the world’s busiest sea lanes may be suitable for the replenishment of PLAN naval units conducting peacetime missions in the Indian Ocean. Viewed from its geographical proximity to India, any government in Sri Lanka will largely think twice before permitting China to build up military infrastructure at this location. Furthermore, the supply chain to maintain the facility is too long considering the distance from the Chinese mainland to sustain the base in the event of any hostilities with a major naval power like India or the United States.
China has provided funding for the building of a large container shipping facility at this port. The government of Bangladesh has indicated that this is purely a commercial facility and as in Sri Lanka, there is no evidence yet to suggest a Chinese military buildup will be permitted by the government in Dhaka. Even if China were to find favour from an inclined government to do so, the location is far too vulnerable considering the reach of India’s air and sea power and thus like Hambantota would likely fall victim to attack in the event of great power hostilities.
The Chinese build up in the Coco islands has been notable, is located 300 kilometres from the mainland of Myanmar. The rising activity looks, to this writer at least, more like an observation post for intelligence purposes rather than an outright military pearl. The mission of Chinese forces on Coco Island is to keep an eye on the east coast of India which hosts a missile test launch facility, as well as key naval bases for India’s Eastern Fleet. Considering its isolated position, this island’s location and its widely known role as an intelligence base for Beijing, the Coco islands are vulnerable to the air and sea power of India.
Myanmar has a key role to play in securing Beijing’s strategic position in relation to Southeast Asia, as well as boosting China’s influence in the Indian Ocean. China has built two major pipelines to transport oil & gas. One from Kyaukphyu in Myanmar to Kumming runs the length of 771 kilometers and the other to Guizhou & Guangxi which runs the length 2806 kilometers respectively. Strategically these pipelines as with the proposed Kra Isthmus canal serves the purpose of bypassing the Malacca Straits. In the event of a large disruption in commercial traffic or an outright economic blockade in the Straits of Malacca orchestrated by the US and its allies, these two pipelines are of vital importance to Beijing.
Some observers have indicated that the Marao Atoll, leased to China by the Maldives is another potential location for a Chinese military base in the Indian Ocean. However, there is no confirmation of any Chinese build up though there are several reports of a monitoring station being placed there. As with other Indian Ocean fixtures, the scenario of an outright PLAN military base is very unlikely due to once again its vulnerability and security to a counter force strike by India or the United States.
Gwadar is indeed a strategic pearl for China and arguably it is most important as it can be developed and re-purposed quickly for military operations in the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean in the very near future. The strategic location serves multiple objectives for China. It rests on the Iranian border and overlooks the Strait of Hormuz, giving China both an alternative option to securing its energy requirements as well as a rapid deployment capability in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf. Also, it is located in a strategic vantage point to monitor Indian naval activity in the Arabian Sea and potentially offers Beijing a location to coordinate operations with Pakistan’s navy also.
More important than the obvious military purposes the base serves, Gwadar gives China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative the much required access to the Middle East’s strategic oil and gas reserves, giving Beijing the option of completely taking its oil vital imports out off the Indian Ocean and overland via Pakistan in the event of a head on conflict with India.
The base has its fair share of vulnerabilities however which must be noted. Gwadar has suffered repeated attacks from insurgent groups located in Balochistan, likewise, its geographic proximity to India puts it at risk.
Obock Naval Base
The move by China to take over and develop the Obock Naval base at Djibouti is a significant feat by China. This base, its first true base in Africa, would be of immense logistical value for their naval and marine units operating in the Indian Ocean region as it is designed to host a wide array of ships, including aircraft carriers at the berthing, maintenance facilities and dry dock located there. It is however too early to comment on its strategic value during a wartime scenario as it is located close to the US, French and Japanese bases on the Horn of Africa.
The author’s view is that the String of Pearls policy that China has followed in the last decade has definitely increased her reach in the nations of South and Southeast Asia and increased the economic gains made by Beijing via engaging with countries in the Indian Ocean Region. The recipient countries have also benefited from Chinese investment.
On the other hand, the question of how China can effectively utilize the hold that it has achieved in the region to further its military ambitions remain a large question mark. At present, the bases and facilities outlined above serve as logistics and intelligence hubs for Chinese naval assets on deployment in the IOR. The process of transforming them into outright military bases however runs simply too many risks. Firstly, the Indian Ocean is simply too far from the Chinese mainland and it would be a herculean task for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, even with two operational aircraft carriers, to sustain logistics support at these locations. Secondly, it is highly unlikely that the Indian Ocean countries would be amenable to any request from China to utilize their sovereign territory for military usage due to regional and political constraints. Hence from India’s strategic vantage point China’s growing naval reach into the Indian Ocean is unlikely to shift the major power dynamics in the region for the foreseeable future.
(Commodore V Venugopal IN (Retd) enjoyed a 30-year career with the Indian Navy during which time he held various appointments including commands at sea. He is an alumni of DKI Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, College of Naval Warfare, Mumbai and Defense Services Staff College, Wellington and Member, C3S. His areas of interests include maritime security in Indian Ocean & Indo-Pacific Region, Maritime piracy and Counter terrorism. The views expressed are personal. )