The sighting of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has unnerved India. A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Song-class conventional submarine along with Changxing Dao, a Type 925 submarine support ship, docked at the Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) in Sri Lanka last September (China Military Online, September 24, 2014). The two vessels made a stopover in Colombo harbor for refueling as well as rest and recuperation for the crew before heading to the Gulf of Aden in support of international efforts to fight piracy (Times of India, November 2, 2014). A few weeks later, a submarine (presumably the same submarine) and the Changxing Dao were again docked in Colombo harbor (Colombo Mirror, November 3, 2014). Reports on the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean are not new. According to an Indian media report, during December 2013 and February 2014, a Chinese nuclear submarine was deployed in the Indian Ocean on patrol for two months in the (India Today, March 21, 2014). Although details of the submarine deployment are not known, apparently, the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense had informed India of plans to send a submarine in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia were also told of the planned PLA visit (India Today, March 21, 2014). It has now emerged that a Chinese nuclear submarine completed a two-month escort mission in the Gulf of Aden and returned to Qingdao, its home port (South China Morning Post, May 3).
The Indian government and analytic community were completely surprised by the presence of Chinese submarines in Colombo harbor, as Indian analysts had predicted Chinese submarines would first dock in Pakistan. The issue came up for clarification by way of a question in the Indian parliament, there were sharp comments from Indian analysts and the Indian media “played up” the visit through public debate on television.
The Minister of State for External Affairs informed the Upper House of the Indian Parliament that a Chinese submarine visited Colombo for “replenishment purposes” and the Sri Lankan government had assured Delhi that it would not do “anything against the security interests of India.”  The Indian Navy chief announced that Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean were being continuously monitored and his force was “ready to face any challenge” (Times of India, September 25, 2014). However, the Indian strategic community warned that China was testing the Modi government’s resolve not only on land but also at sea (Times of India, September 28, 2014). Although not connected to his visit, days before President Xi Jinping’s arrival in India, there was a stand-off between the PLA and the Indian Army in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh in the Himalayas, where the two sides have a boundary dispute (Hindustan Times, September 16, 2014). A few weeks later, in November 2014, the PLA made a two-pronged incursion into Indian territory in the Himalayas—Chinese boats crossed into Indian waters in the Pangong lake and PLA trucks carrying troops were intercepted five kilometers into Indian territory through the land route in the same area (The Indian Express, November 3, 2014).
These developments generated a public narrative of a heightened “China Threat,” particularly at sea, and Indian TV channels spent more time than normal addressing China issues by hosting a number of strategic and naval experts during prime time (a time of high viewership in India). In response, the Chinese media accused the Indian media of repeatedly trumpeting the submarine threat based on “conjectures” and being “devoid of facts,” which could potentially create more friction between the two countries and “cause unnecessary trouble to the normal military exchanges between China and India” (China Military Online; December 10, 2014).
Response by China
The Chinese riposte to the high-decibel Indian concerns was quick, as a Ministry of National Defense spokesman clarified that the submarine visit to Colombo was a “routine port call” (China Daily, September 26, 2014). China’s foreign ministry spokesperson stated that it is an international practice for warships to call at ports across the globe and resupply (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA], March 2). Also, the port call by the submarine was a “normal and transparent” activity and had the approval of the Sri Lankan government. Further, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson observed that it was her understanding that the “Sri Lankan government holds a policy of supporting international anti-piracy campaign [sic] and welcoming the docking of vessels from any friendly country in its ports” and it welcomes warships from friendly countries, including China (MFA, March 2).
Sri Lanka Engages in Damage Control
The Sri Lankan government defended the submarine visit and stated that 230 foreign warships had called at Colombo port for refueling and crew recuperation since 2010 (Xinhua, November 3, 2014). The Sri Lankan Navy chief denied that there was any Chinese military presence in his country and said they “will never compromise on the national security of India” (The Sunday Times; October 27, 2014). The Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority dismissed Indian unease and stated that the Chinese submarine docked at the CICT because the berth had the required depth of 18 meters unlike other berths, which are only 14.7 meters deep (The Sunday Times, October 19, 2014).
In March, just prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Colombo, the Sri Lankan cabinet decided to suspend the controversial $1.4 billion CICT project; but a few days later, President Maithripala Sirisena met with President Xi Jinping in Beijing and clarified that the “problem does not lie with Chinese side and hoped to continue with the project after things are sorted out.” (DNA, March 26). Sri Lanka is caught between the two rising Asian powers—India, a neighbor with whom it has strong civilizational ties; and China, an all-weather friend, strategic partner and a major investor in the country—and appears to exercise autonomy in the conduct of its foreign policy (Caixin, March 10).
Why Were Chinese Submarines in the Indian Ocean?
The above narrative merits an important question—what prompts China to deploy submarines in the Indian Ocean? At the strategic level, it helps China to showcase its blue water capability. Since 2008, the PLAN has dispatched 20 task forces to the Gulf of Aden in support of antipiracy patrols, comprising of destroyers, frigates, replenishment ships and, occasionally, amphibious vessels. Beijing’s naval forces have escorted 6,000 Chinese and foreign ships (China Daily, January 16). These deployments tested the PLAN’s ability to undertake sustained far seas operations, expeditionary missions and humanitarian tasks, such as the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya and Yemen (see China Brief, April 3). The search-and-rescue operation for the ill-fated flight MH 370, in which 217 Chinese nationals perished, further showcased the Navy’s ability to operate in the Southern Indian Ocean. Chinese scholars have argued that the PLAN is in the Indian Ocean for safeguarding national interests and performing its international duties as well as to to “ensure freedom of navigation, a fundamental principle of international law” (China Military Online, April 10).
There are mixed reports about the quality and stealth of Chinese submarines. The Han-class submarines are reported to be noisy and “unlikely to pose any real threat” to other submarines (South China Morning Post, May 3). For instance, in 1994, a Chinese Han-class submarine was caught stalking the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Yellow Sea (see China Brief, November 22, 2006). The Kilo-, Yuan- and Song-class conventional submarines are stated to be quiet. However, the PLAN has tested its submarines against the U.S. Navy and appears to have been quite successful. In 2006, a Chinese Song-class conventional submarine surfaced close to the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.
It is also important to recall a 2009 incident involving the PLAN (destroyers Haikou and Wuhan) and an Indian submarine. According to the Chinese media, an Indian submarine trailed the Chinese ships as they entered the Indian Ocean on their way to the Gulf of Aden, but they were successful in forcing the Indian submarine to surface, after which it left (South China Morning Post, February 4, 2009). However, the Indian Navy denied that any of its submarines had “surfaced in the Gulf of Aden region as reported in a section of the Chinese media” (The Hindu, February 4, 2009). This February, a Chinese military official stated that China will continue to send “different kinds of naval ships to take part in escort missions in accordance with the situation and need” (Want China Times, February 3).
Where Else Will Chinese Submarines Dock in the Indian Ocean Region?
Unlike the Han-class nuclear submarines, Chinese conventional submarines would necessarily require logistic and technological support in the Indian Ocean, and Indian analysts assess that the most likely countries in the region to support Chinese submarines are Pakistan and Iran. China has supplied to Pakistan a number of naval platforms and transferred technology for building frigates and missile vessels. Pakistan has had regular exchanges of high-level delegations, and the PLAN has provided training to Pakistani naval personnel (China News, March 26). Further, the PLAN has participated in joint and multilateral naval exercises, such as the annual Aman series held since 2007 in the Arabian Sea (Xinhua, March 12, 2007).
During the visit to China this March by Muhammad Zakaullah, the chief of Pakistan’s navy, General Fan Changlong, the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, urged both sides to “enhance coordination and cooperation” on regional security issues. He also assured that China was willing “to deepen cooperation with Pakistan in anti-terrorism, maritime security and military technology” (Economic Times, March 26).
Pakistan was originally interested in buying Chinese submarines, but it acquired three Agosta-90B submarines between 1999 and2006 from France due to a number of technological considerations. There was speculation that President Xi might announce the sale of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan during his visit last month; however, a Pakistan foreign ministry spokeswoman did not confirm if discussions on the submarine sale took place (Bloomberg, April 18). Interestingly, India is unlikely to be deterred if Pakistan acquires Chinese submarines, as the Indian defense minister has stated that by the time France supplies the submarines to Islamabad, India would have built 15 to 20 submarines (The Hindu, April 18).
Iran is another possible candidate to support Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. The Iranian Navy operates three Kilo-class submarines acquired from Russia, and it also has indigenous capability to build submarines. Iran can offer both logistic and technical assistance for the repair and maintenance for the Chinese submarines operating in the Indian Ocean. Their navies engaged in naval exercises during the visit by two ships of the 17th escort taskforce in September 2014 (China Military Online, September 23, 2014).
Since the sighting of the Chinese submarines in Colombo, the Indian strategic community has upped the ante and argued that China has successfully challenged Indian naval supremacy in its backyard. The Indian Navy has closely followed the Chinese submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean. It is already building newer conventional and nuclear attack, and the construction of anti-submarine warfare ships is being sped up. The newly acquired P-8I maritime patrol aircraft (similar to the US Navy P-8A) are fitted with a number of modern sensors and anti-submarine weapons that should allow India to counter China’s growing naval presence in the IOR (Times of India, May 18). These developments have significantly augmented the Indian Navy’s maritime surveillance, reconnaissance and combat capabilities to detect Chinese submarines. In light of these events, Chinese submarines will continue to make forays into the IOR and expand the PLAN’s operational environment, which is certain to cause further alarm in India.
[The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the National Maritime Foundation.]
- Rajya Sabha, Unstarred Question No. 516, “Chinese submarines docked in Sri Lankan port,” November 27, 2014.
- Vijay Sakhuja, “Submarines in Pakistan’s Naval Strategy,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, February 8, 2010.