Maritime Multilateralism: China’s Strategy for the Indian Ocean

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 22

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been tirelessly working to dispel the ‘China threat’ perception, which appears to be increasing concomitantly with the country’s rapid economic and military rise. Beijing argues that China’s growing initiatives in the Indian Ocean are for ‘peaceful purposes’ (China.org.cn., June 3). Yet, in recent years, many China watchers in India have captured another side of Beijing’s foray that depicts China carving into the Indian Ocean’s security architecture by regular incursions into the region and the recent naval deployment in the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy. These initiatives appear based on a strategy that pivots on energy sea-lane security, which can be broadly characterized by the ‘string of pearls’ theory, ‘Malacca dilemma’, sale of military hardware at friendly prices to Indian Ocean littorals, maritime infrastructure developments in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), road/energy pipeline networks and electronic surveillance installations in Myanmar (Burma). The thrust of these traditional security and economic initiatives are complemented by naval diplomacy involving maritime multilateralism with Indian Ocean littorals, which Chinese leaders believe can facilitate the regional perceptions that China’s intent in the region is benign. Indeed, these goodwill visits and naval exercises by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are an important tool to further China’s attempts to portray its presence in the Indian Ocean as benign. It has effectively created conditions to develop a broad and substantive agenda for building relations with other nations. In some cases, these initiatives have the potential to translate into strategic partnerships that would consolidate its presence and expand its engagements with the Indian Ocean littorals.

Multinational Naval Exercises

China’s forays in the Indian Ocean date back to 1985 when the PLAN made port calls to South Asian ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka [1]. Pakistan emerged as an important partner in South Asia for China and today their cooperation covers a wide spectrum of political, economic and strategic issues including the sale and joint development of military hardware and nuclear cooperation. Both sides have also engaged in bilateral/multilateral naval exercises. Commenting on the first ever joint exercise with the Pakistani Navy held off the coast of Shanghai in 2003, Rear Admiral Xiu Ji, a Chinese navy official observed that the exercises were ‘the first [for China] with any foreign country’ (Defencetalk.com, October 21, 2003). Two years later, the second bilateral exercise was held in the Arabian Sea in November 2005 (Voanews.com, November 24, 2005). In 2007, Pakistan hosted a multinational naval exercise, Aman 2007 (Peace 2007), off Karachi and invited the PLAN to join the exercises. Beside the Pakistani Navy ships, warships from Bangladesh, China, France, Italy, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and the United States engaged in maneuvers in the Arabian Sea (Xinhua News Agency, March 9, 2007). Interestingly, the Commander of the Chinese flotilla Luo Xianlin was designated as the tactical commander for the joint maritime rescue exercise and the PLAN missile frigate ‘Lianyungang’ was entrusted with the coordination of the exercise (Chinaview.cn, March 10, 2007). The exercises were significant since it provided the PLAN with the opportunity to coordinate complex maneuvers with other naval forces. In 2009, the PLAN once again participated in Aman 2009, which was held in the Arabian Sea, and this time it carried out exercises along with 19 foreign naval ships (Theasiandefence.com, March 17).

Although the PLAN has engaged in bilateral and multinational naval exercises, it is important to point out that deployments for multinational operations are relatively different and more complex. Conducting multinational operations involves structured communication procedures, synergy among different operational doctrines, establishing mutually agreed rules of engagement (RoE), helicopter controlling actions, and common search and rescue procedures, which the PLAN is still developing.

Shifting Geography of Peace Mission

A close partnership between China and Russia is evident in the maritime domain and rests on joint naval exercises, Chinese acquisition of Russian naval hardware including ships, submarines and aircraft and high-level naval exchanges [2]. In 1999, the two navies conducted a joint naval exercise that involved the Russian Pacific Fleet and the PLAN’s Eastern Fleet (China Daily, July 8, 2004) and the 2001 joint exercises included Russian strategic bombers. Peace Mission 2005, another naval exercise involving the PLA Navy and the Russian Navy was conducted under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the six-nation security group. The exercises were conducted off the East Russian coast-Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China (News.bbc.co.uk, August 18, 2005). Peace Mission 2007 focused on counter-terrorism and was conducted on land (En.rian.ru July 24, 2007).   

Interestingly, the two sides utilized their presence in the Gulf of Aden and conducted Blue Peace Shield 2009, a joint exercise involving counter piracy operations, replenishment-at-sea, and live firing (Defencetalk.com, September 18; Taiwan News, September 17). The exercise showcased Chinese intention to be more transparent in its deployment, test interoperability with foreign navies and the PLAN’s ability to engage in a range of operations in distant waters.

Engaging Straits of Malacca Littorals

China has adopted diplomacy as a tool to ally apprehensions among the Straits of Malacca littorals thus setting aside their fears that Beijing may deploy its navy in times of crisis to escort Chinese flagged vessels transiting through the Strait. Further, China is averse to any extra regional attempts to deploy naval vessels in the Strait for the safety of merchant traffic transiting. For instance, in 2000, it strongly objected to Japanese attempts to deploy vessels to patrol the Straits of Malacca where shipping had been threatened by piracy (Sspconline.org, April 11, 2005). Instead, it has offered financial and technological assistance to improve the safety and security of merchant traffic transiting the Strait of Malacca. In 2005, during the International Maritime Organization (IMO) meeting in Jakarta, China reiterated its position of supporting the littoral states in enhancing safety and security in the Strait (Xinhua News Agency, September 7, 2005; China Brief, April 12, 2006). In 2005, China offered to finance the project for the replacement of navigational aids damaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the estimated cost for the project is pegged at $276,000 [3].

Benefits of Multinational Exercises for PLAN

Multinational naval operations are fast gaining higher priority in the PLAN’s strategic thinking. There are at least three reasons. The first relates to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the international disaster relief operations in Southeast Asia-South Asia. PLAN’s conspicuous absence in the operations had exposed the limitation of a rising power and its navy. As a result, China was excluded from the core group comprising the United States, Australia and India who quickly deployed their ships for relief efforts. The Chinese Navy’s absence might also be attributed to its lack of experience in working with multinational forces.

The second reason for participation in multinational exercises is prospects for interoperability with international navies. Further, these operations assist the PLAN in identifying international trends in naval weaponry, gathering information on operating procedures and gaining a better understanding of the changing nature of naval warfare. The third reason is that multinational exercises help China showcase to the international naval community its military industrial prowess and PLAN technological sophistication.

Yet, China embraces selective maritime multilateralism. For instance, China did not participate in the U.S. Naval War College’s International Sea Power Symposium in Newport (Bernama [Malaysia], October 1). This year’s event is the 40th anniversary and provides an occasion for the heads of the world’s navies and coast guards to discuss issues of mutual interest (Navy.mil, October 8). The 2009 Symposium focused on common maritime challenges and explored prospects for enhancing maritime security cooperation, including combating piracy.

Impediments to Chinese Maritime Multilateralism

Several Chinese initiatives in the Indian Ocean have stirred considerable unease among some regional powers, particularly India, which has a tendency to perceive every Chinese move in the region as a step toward its ‘strategic encirclement.’ Indian strategists have often argued that China’s naval capability is fast growing and would soon be capable of conducting sustained operations in the Indian Ocean supported by the maritime infrastructure being built in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). Indian fears are accentuated by a suggestion by a Chinese admiral to Admiral Timothy J. Keating, then-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) of dividing the Indo-Pacific region into two areas of responsibility between the United States and China (Navyseals.com, May 6, 2007).

According to the Indian press, the Chinese naval officer stated, “You, the United States, take Hawaii East and we, China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. Then you will not need to come to the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and we will not need to go to the Eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, you can let us know and if something happens here, we will let you know” (Indian Express, May 15).

New Delhi has not been receptive to Chinese requests to join Indian Ocean multilateral maritime security initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the trilateral grouping of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA), which has a significant maritime component in its interactions. IONS is an initiative by 33 Indian Ocean littorals wherein their navies or the principal maritime security agencies discuss issues of maritime security, including Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster-Relief (HADR) throughout the Indian Ocean Region (Indiannavy.nic.in, February 15, 2008). The PLAN had approached the Indian Navy to ‘explore ways to accommodate Beijing as either an observer or associate member’; however, New Delhi turned down the request because, in its perspective, there was ‘no strategic rationale to let China be associated with IONS as it was strictly restricted to littoral states of the Indian Ocean’ (Indian Express, April 21).

The IBSA trilateral grouping is an offshoot of the broader South-South cooperation started in 2003. Although cooperation in the security domain was not envisaged at its inception, maritime security issues (sailing regatta, trilateral naval exercises IBSAMAR, and high-level naval exchanges) have gradually gained momentum in the discussions. China has been exploring the possibility of joining IBSA, but the fact that “IBSA’s common identity is based on values such as democracy, personal freedoms and human rights” preclude its membership (The Wall Street Journal, April 7).

In response, China craftily has attempted to dent the IBSA architecture and wean some of the actors away through bilateral political-military engagements much to the consternation of other partners. Beijing has adopted a sophisticated strategy to build-up bilateral military relations with Brazil, and Brasilia has offered to help train Chinese naval pilots on NAe São Paulo, which is a Clemenceau class aircraft carrier (China Brief, June 12). According to discussions (August 2009) that this author had with some Indian naval analysts, there are fears that the above collaboration could well be the springboard for reciprocity involving the training of Brazilian naval officers in nuclear submarine operations by the PLAN and joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. Further, these initiatives would add to China’s power projection capability and could be the catalyst for frequent forays in the Indian Ocean.

Although the Chinese strategy of maritime multilateralism is premised on cooperative engagements, Beijing is leveraging its naval power for strategic purposes. The development of military maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean would provide China access and a basing facility for conducting sustained operations and emerge as a stakeholder in Indian Ocean security architecture. Maritime multilateralism has so far produced positive gains for China and would be the preferred strategy for conduct of its international relations in the future, particularly with the Indian Ocean littorals.

[The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Indian Council of World Affairs.]

Notes

1.  John W. Garver, "China’s Approaches to South Asia and the Former Soviet States" U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission, available at
http://www.uscc.gov/hearings/2005hearings/written_testimonies/05_07_21_22wrts/garver_john_wrts.pdf.
2. Richard Weitz, “China-Russia Security Relations: Strategic Parallelism without Partnership or Passion?” available at http://www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil/.
3. Hasjim Djalal, “The Development of Cooperation on the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” available at
http://www.nippon-foundation.or.jp/eng/current/malacca_sympo/6.doc.