In current scenario, Indo-Pacific Region (IOR) has become very important region for countries such as India, China, the United States, and all countries located in the Indo-Pacific region to have ‘strategic leverage’ in order to expand their geopolitical influence and thereby transform the discourse of international politics. Main reason to have strategic advantage in this region is that it encompasses three out of eight major oil and gas reserves of the world. Approximately, 70% of the total oil and gas reserve of the world are situated in IOR region.
Trade volume between China and these five regions of the IOR have doubled from USD 47 billion to USD 86.63 billion that enhances its strategic significance to the China.
According to Cuiping Zhu, deputy director of Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies (RIIO), Yunnan University, China – “Resources are always a logical starting point of geopolitics and thus the source and transportation of oil, which is a strategic resource to any modern economy, is a crucial security imperative.”
More importantly, in addition to oil and gas reserves, IOR littorals states like Africa comprises abundant resources of strategic raw materials like uranium, gold, diamonds, tin, coal, iron ore, tungsten, and manganese that are also strategic resources for propelling the Chinese economy that is poised to surpass the US economy in a very near future.
Another very critically important reason that matters most to all nations especially China is that IOR littorals states have certain geographical features that act as choke points at the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombak Straits along Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) along which China import sits oil from West Asia and North Africa and exports its manufacturing products to many countries located in IOR. Energy security for China is vital since its whole economy is dependent on it. Similarly, The Persian Gulf region in north-western part of IOR is the world’s largest oil producer and supplier comprising one-third of the total global oil production. Through the Strait of Hormuz, this oil is transported out of this region. The Strait of Hormuz accounts for 45% of the world’s total export volume.
Through these straits, China is connected to the West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Countries situated in these zones are the main markets for Chinese manufactured goods. Trade volume between China and these five regions of the IOR have doubled from USD 47 billion to USD 86.63 billion that enhances its strategic significance to the China.
Most importantly, terrorists’ attacks, strategic competition among world’s leading powers, non-traditional threats such as piracy are the other factors that have become a high point of concern to all countries regarding the maritime security of Indo-Pacific region. By recognizing the strategic importance of this region, since ancient times, China is relentlessly making a lot of efforts to have geopolitical influence over this region.
Evolution of Chinese Maritime Power
Robert Kaplanin his book “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” enunciates that – empires are often not sought consciously. Instead as states become stronger, their needs and insecurities drive them to expand their influence into fresh territories in an organic fashion. Since the days of Song and early Ming dynasties (late tenth to early fifteen century) China earned the recognition of high sea power.
Border confrontation with India and its rivalry with Kuomintang ruled Taiwan dictated China to focus intensely on its coastal cities’ defence…
During this era, Chinese Admiral Zheng He carried out his legendary expeditions that extended its geopolitical and commercial influence across the whole Indo-Pacific with deep rooted presence in key littoral regions like Bengal, Sri Lanka, Hormuz, and Mogadishu. Since 1949, under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s maritime interests are growing aggressively by considering IOR region as a very crucial component of Chinese national security.
Border confrontation with India and its rivalry with Kuomintang ruled Taiwan dictated China to focus intensely on its coastal cities’ defence that are very important from geopolitical and economic point of view that are located along with its18,000 km long coastline. In its strategy titled ‘Near-Coast Defence Strategy’, People Liberation of Army Navy’s (PLAN) priority was to safeguarding its three straits of Bohai, Taiwan, and Qionzhou situated along the Chinese coasts.
Subsequently, the reforms conceptualized by Deng Xiaoping resulted into the Chinese economy which is fully dependent upon the import of oil from West Asia that is transported through IOR. In fact, China has become the largest importer of the oil from West Asia.
By realizing the strategic significance of maritime security of IOR, Deng Xiaoping devised ‘Near Seas Active Defence’ that requires the modernization of the operational capabilities of PLAN to make it highly capable to operate both near its coasts and its adjoining seas that act as strategic approaches to mainland China. Again, China’s Military Strategy,2015 paid more attention to transforming its ‘Near Sea Approach’ into ‘Far Sea Approach’ to safeguarding these choke points and sea lines of communications (SLOCs) that are the lifeline of Chinese economy.
Biggest insecurity of the Chinese leadership is that – in the event of the conflicts its potential adversaries, India and US, have a strategic advantage due to their unique geographical location that enables them to deny and disrupt SLOCs and various choke points through which China connects to its strategic energy resources and to the emerging markets that have huge potential of Chinese manufactured goods to boost its economy that is surpassing US economy in near future.
China is projecting its power and military might under the disguise of expressing itself as a sole and Net-Security Provider of the entire IOR.
Geographical advantageous position of India in Andaman and Nicobar Islands that is located in close proximity to the Strait of Malacca proffers a strategic leverage to interfere on this route in the event of the conflict. On the other hand, US has military base in Diego Garcia that enables the US to disrupt or block the maritime shipping of China in case of a potential conflict scenario. On account of aforementioned strategic calculus, Chinese leadership has calibrated a very comprehensive strategy comprising political, strategic, economic, and military facets to enhance its hegemonic strategic presence and control over entire IOR and Asia-Pacific region.
To attain this objective, China is projecting its power and military might under the disguise of expressing itself as a sole and Net-Security Provider of the entire IOR. According to Cuiping Zhu and Wang Rong editor of the Annual Report on the Development of the Indian Ocean Region – ‘building defence capabilities is an integral part of China’s vision for enabling peaceful development of IOR’. These geostrategic designs are embedded in Chinese President Xi Jinping’ grandiose flagship project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, according to China, is an infrastructural program for progressively integrating the nations located along the historic silk route.
Twin strategies namely, 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SERB) are the integral components of this megaproject BRI. More than sixty countries located in Indo-Pacific region and across different continents in which cumulative anticipated investment of USD 4-8 trillions has been designed in a highly strategic manner that enables China to safeguarding its energy resources and the expansion of the reach of its export-oriented economy.
Land based developmental projects spanning six corridors namely New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor (NELBEC), China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC), China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC), China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CCWAEC), Bangladesh- China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC), and most importantly China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are the components of land based Silk Road Economic Belt.
While the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) comprises the connectivity of China with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Indonesia, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Egypt, and Europe by maintaining hegemonic presence in South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. In addition to securing its strategic resources in IOR, China, through BRI, is aiming to develop supplementary reserve channel by creating pipelines such as Sino-Myanmar gas pipeline connecting its Yunnan province to Myanmar’s deep- water port in the Bay of Bengal.
Securing its strategic resources and effectively checking the non-traditional threats like piracy has offered sufficient ground to Chinese PLAN to initiate its forays into Indo-Pacific and deploying its destroyers…
Through BRI, China is registering its constantly growing geopolitical and economic presence in IOR. It also enables China to use the infrastructure built by it on many strategic locations for dual purpose. As per Robert Kaplan, the author of “Monsoon :The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power”, China, as a potential adversary to India and the US, has very high trust deficits, and therefore, it cannot rely fully on both India and the US for security of this IOR region upon which whole Chinese economy is grounded. He further enunciates about the grand ambition of China to become the global power by concentrating on both oceans IOR and Western Pacific by projecting its power around the whole navigable Eurasian Rimland.
Securing its strategic resources and effectively checking the non-traditional threats like piracy has offered sufficient ground to Chinese PLAN to initiate its forays into Indo-Pacific and deploying its destroyers, frigates, and even submarines across entire Indo-Pacific under the pretext of anti-piracy operations.
As per Research Fellow at MP-IDSA, Abhay Singh – increasing deployment of PLAN assets in the IOR facilitates avenues for military expansion and enhancement of naval capability which in turn safeguards trade. To move forward on its strategic ambitions, China has developed its first overseas military base at Djibouti which is located at crucial juncture in Horn of Africa at the Gulf of Aden acting as a gateway to the IOR. Presence of China at this strategic geographical location places it at the crossroads of a crucial maritime pathway that connects Europe with the IOR.
More importantly, China is developing commercial port facilities in many countries located in IOR such as Gawadar Port in Pakistan, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar, Bagamoyo Port in Tanzania, and its base in Djibouti for dual purpose. The most important aspect of these commercial ports that causes high concern is that these ports have the docking facilities of PLAN’s assets including warships and submarines.
Most importantly, these facilities have been designed as replenishment sites for extending and improving the operational capabilities of the PLAN. This kind of strategic designing with aggressive and assertive strategic posturing across IOR and Western Pacific and frequent skirmishes across LAC is raising high concerns for various stakeholders such as India and the US in Indo-Pacific region.
Besides protecting its economic interests, another significant concern that motivates China is that – the desire to have complete command and control of the oceanic spaces.
Current Maritime Security Strategies of China
Information always plays a very crucial role in strategizing the whole plan needed to expand the geopolitical influence or even in warfare activities. Real-time information gathered through effective intelligence is the key for states to take quick, appropriate, and effective decisions and making security strategies to have decisive strategic advantage over their potential adversaries. Accordingly, China is augmenting its intelligence gathering apparatus that comprises command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
In addition, 21st century has brought forward the naval technological advancements in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, Unmanned Missiles Vessels (UMVs) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), and Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) which use radio frequency for information gathering and transferring it to the relevant parties. In furtherance, contemporary era is also forwarding various technological advancements in maritime technology in the underwater acoustic system that enables states for wireless information transmission to complete multiple strategic operations very effectively. China is using these advanced technologies for modernizing its maritime security apparatus.
Underwater acoustic system is a networked system of sensors, nodes, robots, modems, and batteries deployed over the surface and submerged, transmitting gathered information through wireless signaling. Deploying an underwater network allows states to get real-time information through monitoring of different maritime zones, and makes remote configuration possible. It enables the connectivity of offshore deployed UMVs with onshore human operators. Besides protecting its economic interests, another significant concern that motivates China is that – the desire to have complete command and control of the oceanic spaces.
Through ‘informatisation’, a concept that lies at Chinese PLAN’s modernization plan, China is relentlessly augmenting its warfare capabilities that enhances its capacity to utilize crucial information in both war and peace scenario. According to the Kartik Bommakanti, Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF),informatisation is – “gaining information superiority over the adversary in the maritime arena and in naval operations” where the information spectrum is quite wide and intense because of China’s hyper spectral imaging satellite that incorporates – command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) that has the capability to ‘support ballistic, cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missile (ABSM) for precision strike on moving targets in the Indo-Pacific region.
China is utilizing its culture and philosophy as soft power to acquire political dividends for China.
To counter ‘First Hook Technology’ which is the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) of the US in Indo-Pacific region, China is deploying its ‘Underwater Great Wall’ project as an effective means for underwater warfare which is getting aggressively advance day by day. China is constantly working on its unmanned systems for improving their capabilities of striking, surveillance, and suppressing the enemy. For improving UUVs and USVs, Chinese PLA has established 15 research teams at different universities with massive funding from the Chinese government.
China’s indigenously developed unmanned maritime surface vehicle is JARI-USV meant for multiple tasks. It is a ‘multi-domain/lethal autonomous swarming for China and attaches great importance to multi-purpose capabilities, adopts a modular designs, can carry air defense, sea facing, anti-submarine, and other mission load, and can launch missiles and torpedoes. It can also perform all-round task such as anti-submarine operations, air-to-air operations, and sea-to sea operations’.
Apart from this, significant versions of UAVs like ASN-209 tactical UAV system, strategic UAVs like BZK-005 have been deployed by the PLAN across IOR. Furthermore, unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) systems have been deployed by China to carry weaponry. In addition to military use, UMVs are used for peaceful purposes like – oceanographic data collection, pollution monitoring, offshore explorations, disaster prevention, assisted navigation, and tactical surveillance applications.
Rapid modernization of Chinese PLAN and its highly active defense policy in addition to its BRI project and growing economic, social, and political engagements of China is posing serious challenge to the status-quo and supremacy of the US all over the world in general and in the Indo-Pacific region in particular .Most importantly, China – “is meddling in the internal affairs of various countries like India to shaping the whole political discourse according to its hegemonic agenda”. To fulfill their infrastructural development and security needs, many smaller countries located in Indo-Pacific region are getting trapped in its BRI project. Furthermore, China is utilizing its culture and philosophy as soft power to acquire political dividends for China.
In accordance with the above mentioned dynamics and avoiding overt conflict with China, other crucial stakeholder countries in Indo-Pacific regions like India, the US, Japan, and Australia are making strategic alliances like QUAD for countering the aggressive and assertive behavior of China and safeguarding their strategic priorities and interests that is the need of the hour to maintain global peace, stability, and security around the world that is the necessary and sufficient condition for advancing the global economy in a progressive direction.
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