Dragon in the Indian Ocean - Vice Admiral Anup Singh

Dragon in the Indian Ocean - Vice Admiral Anup Singh

Since the beginning of the last decade, China has been seen offering its services for creation of maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean. The attractiveness in these initiatives lay in the offer of majority financing (grants, long term soft loans etc.) for maritime projects, which became hard to refuse for the potential client states in the Indian Ocean. The first point of focus was Gwadar – then an undeveloped port in Pakistan. Then followed Hambantota, Colombo South Port, a number of East African ports, and a couple of terminals in Bangladesh and Myanmar. All this was summarised in 2005, by a US Consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, as China’s grand plan to weave a string of pearls from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. With most of the “pearls” being in the Indian Ocean, this strategy was seen as a clever way of using excess money and excess capacity in China, to “win” friends for a give-and-take game – where the ‘take’ would translate in to use of ports and other infrastructure for the Chinese Navy [PLA (N)], as well as for Chinese trade, under ‘special arrangements’.

Prophesies of analysts in India and the West started becoming true from the end of the last decade. But first of all, it is important to note that the incidence of piracy in the Gulf of Aden was a godsend for Chinese naval thinkers. The PLA (N) started stationing an anti-piracy Task Force in the Gulf of Aden from Jan 2009. Composed of a Logistics ship (tanker) and two combat ships (destroyers/frigates), this Task Force was the largest grouping sent by any navy to fight piracy!

*Vice Admiral (Retd) Anup Singh, PVSM, AVSM, NM is a former C-in-C, Eastern Naval Command. Currently, he is Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group (DPG).

The Chinese have benefitted enormously by turning around their ships every three months, and are now refusing to vacate their station despite the decline of piracy, to almost negligible levels, since 2012. Chinese warships from each Task Force hrave been visiting different countries in Asia and Africa, on their inbound as well as outbound journeys. This exercise has earned them the art of practicing “maritime diplomacy” which is aimed at acquiring influence and making new friends through offers of training and hardware. Currently (Oct 2016), the 24th Task Force is on station. Looking at the benefits of presence, they have acquired a large piece of territory on lease, in Djibouti port, where construction is ongoing in full swing, to create the first ever Chinese overseas base. The ostensible reason: to provide logistical support to PLA (N) warships deployed in the Task Force, as well as to those transiting the area for any other deployment. The real reason, however, is very clear: to establish a permanent foothold in the Indian Ocean through a base from where power can be projected within the Indian Ocean and even beyond.

Emboldened by the confidence in sustaining a flotilla in the Gulf of Aden, the PLA (N) started operational forays to this ocean. The first declared entry was a surprise move by a nuclear powered attack submarine in Dec 2013. The surprising element was the fact that while no nation has ever unveiled its nuclear submarines’ tracks, China sent a diplomatic note to six countries including India, saying a nuke would be moving in to the Indian Ocean – for a period of two months. The message to the world was clear: catch me if you can! And the purpose of this visit was also clear: a bold move to scan the shipping routes and gather intelligence on potential adversary(ies). The next incident took place in Feb 2014, when a flotilla of three ships including an expeditionary platform, a destroyer and a frigate which came down the Sunda Strait, came close to Australia’s Christmas Island, and returned through the Lombok Strait. And the third conspicuous foray was made by a conventional (diesel-electric) submarine, along with its support ship in Sep 2014, when they docked at the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) which was built by China with 85% financing under a BOT format. The submarine sailed out within a week, only to return to the same port in Nov 2014. When asked about the purpose of that visit, the Chinese gave an illogical reasoning: the submarine was on a two month sortie to support the anti-piracy Task Force in the Gulf of Aden. Since when have expensive and secretive platforms been found useful in catching pirates on surface, is not known to anyone. What everyone knows is the fact that submarines are deployed on stealthy missions to gather intelligence on potential adversaries, as they remain unseen close to others’ harbours and operating zones. This intelligence – in the form of ship (identity) signatures – is used to form a data base for any future conflict.

After 2014, some more submarine movements have been detected by the Indian Navy. On a few occasions these boats have even visited Karachi in Pakistan, only to strengthen their all-weather friendship – mostly aimed against India. China has recently concluded a contract to sell eight conventional submarines to Pakistan.  

It is not just ports in this ocean where China has invested. In 2011, a big piece of the ocean, measuring 10,000 sq. km area in the South West Indian Ocean Ridge (SWIOR) was allocated to China, for exploration and production of polymetallic sulphides. This deal has provided one more reason for legitimizing the PLA (N)’s forays in to the Indian Ocean.

Now, the pieces in the jigsaw are clearly falling in place. The Chinese strategy for presence in the Indian Ocean was scripted more than a decade ago and is already visible in large measure.

In so far as India’s response and remedial measures are concerned, at one level India has made it clear to the Chinese that these forays do not inspire confidence in Chinese efforts to improve relations; at another level, India has further strengthened its efforts to monitor all movements of PLA (N) platforms. It has also spruced up its force levels in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, to constantly monitor Chinese naval activities as PLA (N) platforms emerge from the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits. The Government is also reviewing budgetary allocations so as to ensure adequate funding for capital procurements. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Modi unveiled his Indian Ocean vision under the acronym SAGAR which stands for “Security And Growth for All in the Region”. This vision, unveiled at Mauritius in Mar 2015, clearly laid out a road map for India and other littorals – particularly the Island states in this ocean, specifying that we all need to ensure peace and tranquility in the region through cooperation against forces that may harbour evil designs. Multilateral mechanisms in the Indian Ocean Region are the tools for achieving positives in cooperation and rooting out threats to peace in the Indian Ocean.

Vice Admiral Anup Singh is a former Commander-in-Chief of India's Eastern Naval Command.  He is Director (Strategic Studies) at the Society for Indian Ocean Studies (SIOS); Member Executive Council, IDSA. He can be contacted at anupsingh51@gmail.com