China's Indian Ocean Ambitions


Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

On July 11, Beijing dispatched Chinese troops from the port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province with orders to begin "constructing the base at Djibouti." The announcement follows on a previous January 21 announcement of an agreement with Djibouti to host what the Chinese Foreign Ministry termed a "logistics and fast evacuation base."

Widely described in the western media as China's first overseas base, the facility, still in the process of being constructed, stops short of being a full-fledged military base, but is widely interpreted as the first step in a significant build-up of Chinese military power in the Indian Ocean.

Under the agreement with Djibouti, China can station up to 10,000 troops in its facility there, although the initial deployment will fall far short of that number. The new base comes on the heel of a $14 billion, Chinese financed railroad project, which links the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa with Djibouti, as well as an expansion of port facilities in Djibouti. The rail line represents Ethiopia's only direct transportation link to the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese facility is only a few miles away from the U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier. Although the U.S. maintains a range of small outposts and air facilities in Africa, Camp Lemonnier is the only fully operational American base on the African continent. The Chinese facility joins bases operated by Italy, France, Spain and Japan. In addition, Saudi Arabia has announced that it too will build a military base in Djibouti.

Djibouti sits at a strategic location on the horn of Africa overlooking the Straits of Mandeb. Roughly 10 percent of the world's petroleum traffic and 20 percent of global trade traverse those straits. The Straits of Mandeb connect the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean and along with the Suez Canal is an important maritime route linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean.

China's base in Djibouti is part of a broader dual strategy described by Beijing as "String of Pearls" and the "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) that is at the heart of Beijing's aims in the Indian Ocean. The "String of Pearls" relates to China's plans to construct or expand port facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Djibouti is a template for that expansion, one in which Chinese economic aid for the expansion of regional transportation links and port development are potentially the precursor to an expanded Chinese military presence.

The Pakistani port of Gwadar in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, for example, has been largely built and is controlled by Chinese interests. In 2015, Islamabad agreed to lease the port facilities until 2059 to the state-owned China Overseas Port Holding Company.

The port sits on the Arabian Sea, astride the sea lanes that bring oil from the Persian Gulf to China. It is the most visible element of a broader, Chinese financed, $54 billion, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor designed to create transportation infrastructure and promote industrial development in Pakistan and especially in the province of Baluchistan. 

Although both Islamabad and Beijing have announced that there will not be a Chinese military presence in Gwadar, Chinese investment in port facilities in Sri Lanka, Greece, and now Djibouti, have been followed by regular visits of People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels and in the latter case, a long-term military facility.

China has been following the same template elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. In fact, Beijing's String of Pearls is expanding beyond the Indian Ocean to include port development and infrastructure projects in Wavis Bay, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, Darwin, Australia and Piraeus, Greece. Piraeus is one of Europe's largest container ports. In August 2016, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) acquired a 51 percent interest in the Piraeus Port Authority.

In addition, Chinese companies have invested heavily in the expansion of port facilities in Singapore. The three, giant new berths, being financed by Chinese interests, will maintain Singapore's status as the world's second busiest container port after Shanghai.

In 2016, Chinese companies handled 18 percent of all worldwide container traffic, more than any other country. In addition, Chinese companies had varying degrees of ownership interests in 30 of the world's 50 largest container ports. Roughly 65 percent of the world's container traffic moves through ports that are either controlled or have significant investment by Chinese companies.

Beijing's String of Pearls strategy is paralleled by its "One Belt, One Road" strategy. The strategy consists of the "Silk Road Economic Belt" and the "New Maritime Silk Road." The two titles refer to the network of overland trade routes, termed the Silk Road, that once crisscrossed central Asia and the maritime trade routes that historically connected China with the Middle East and Europe.

The One Belt, One Road strategy is a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure development program to build roads, railways, pipelines and ports to connect Eurasia and create a seamless transportation corridor between China's cities and their markets in Asia and Europe. China has already tested the feasibility of rail shipments, via Russia, from China to a variety of European cities.

The OBOR initiative would encompass 60 nations that collectively have more than 4.4 billion people and that economically represent about 40 percent of global Gross Domestic Product. In 2016, the China Development Bank extended loans amounting to 160 billion dollars to countries involved in OBOR related infrastructure projects. On May 13 and 14, 2017 Beijing hosted a two-day summit, "The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation."

This was the first multilateral meeting on the OBOR initiative organized by China. Over 130 countries and 1,500 delegates, including 29 hears of states, attended the conference.

Among the world leaders in attendance were Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Both the EU countries and the U.S. sent delegates, although these not include any ranking members of their respective governments. The U.S., for example, sent Matt Pottinger, a Special Assistant to President Donald Trump, but no cabinet level or elected officials.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the summit produced "270 signed deliverables for policy coordination, infrastructure, trade, investment and people to people exchanges." At the Summit, Chinese President Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an additional $124 billion in funding for the OBOR initiative, including loans, grants and $8.7 billion in assistance to developing countries.

Beijing claims that approximately one trillion dollars has already been invested or committed to the OBOR program, with several trillion additional dollars planned to be invested over the next decade.

The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road are designed to both complement one another and potentially serve as alternative routes for Chinese goods to world markets. By developing transportation infrastructure between Asia's interior and various Chinese funded ports along the Indian Ocean littoral, Beijing will be better able to funnel its trade, both exports and imports, to central Asia as well as to European and Middle Eastern markets.

Alternatively, if China's maritime trade routes are interdicted, the overland trade routes can still serve as an alternative transportation corridor.

There is also a significant military aspect to the OBOR initiative. There is no question that the infrastructure development, especially the expansion and creation of new port facilities in the Indian Ocean, will enhance Beijing's ability to project its military power in the region. Moreover, the trillions of dollars that China claims it will ultimately invest in the OBOR initiative will also underscore's Beijing's determination to protect its new investments.

Historically, the People's Liberation Army, has been, in terms of manpower, the world's largest army. It represented a significant force and allowed China to project considerable military power along its periphery. A capability underscored by America's experience during the Korean War and by Vietnam several decades later. China's ability to project military power beyond its landward periphery, even across the roughly 100-mile-wide Taiwan straits, was limited however.

Currently, the PLA has 2.3 million personnel. This is down from its peak of 6.3 million in 1951. Since the 1980s, the PLA has been progressively reduced in favor of building up the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Recently, Beijing announced the downsizing of the PLA to under one million personnel by 2022. The reduction was designed to free up funds for new military technologies as well as to further increase the size of the PLAN and PLAAF.

The changes signal a shift in the role of the PLA away from large scale, conventional ground warfare in favor of developing a broader reliance on stand-off weapons and precision munitions. In addition, it signals an expansion of the Chinese military's role beyond territorial defense and homeland security to include a broader mandate to protect China's citizens, assets and interests abroad, and especially those associated with the One Belt, One Road initiative.

As part of this realignment of Chinese military forces, the PLAN's function has been expanded beyond costal defense to include the ability to project military power across the world's oceans, with particular emphasis on the Indian Ocean. In addition, China's military is shifting to a more integrated command structure that will have one overall commander in each theater with authority over all the branches of the PLA.

Historically China focused on defending itself against land-based invasions, usually from the north and west. In 2015, however, Beijing signalled a significant policy change when it released an official white paper on military strategy that called for a big shift from land based forces to maritime capabilities.

"The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests," the document noted. It went on to emphasize that the Chinese navy should guarantee "the security of sea lanes of communication and overseas interests".

Over the last several decades, China's military has undergone a significant modernization. Defense spending has soared, reaching over 200 billion dollars in 2016 and just under two percent of GNP. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, however, China's defense budget is the equivalent of between 300 and 350 billion dollars, roughly two-thirds or more of U.S. defense spending.

Since the 1980s, China has also developed a sophisticated military-industrial capability that has not only speeded up Beijing's military modernization but has also turned China into a leading exporter of sophisticated weaponry. Today, China has the largest warship building capability in Asia. It manages sophisticated weapons platforms that allow it to design and build state of the art tanks, aircraft, drones and guns.

In the short term, India and Russia are the two countries that, strategically, are the most affected by China's OBOR strategy and its related military expansion. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the String of Pearls, should they ultimately come to host a Chinese military presence, will effectively function as a containment of Indian military forces, especially, naval power, in the Indian Ocean.

Combined with China's long-standing ties and support for Pakistan, as well as its own frontier region in India's northeast, the String of Pearls effectively encircles India.

Although the Kremlin has outwardly been supportive of the OBOR initiative and although Vladimir Putin was prominently present at the OBOR Summit in Beijing, the Chinese initiative poses a significant threat to Russian interests in Central Asia. Over the last two decades, the Kremlin has attempted to rebuild Russian influence and control in the region it terms the near abroad, those countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or satellite states.

Notwithstanding, Moscow's attempts at intimidation, that strategy has largely failed. All its former East European satellite states have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So too have the former Soviet Baltic Republics, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Ukraine, a key component of Russia's historic strategy of defense in depth, has, at least for now, aligned itself with the West. Although, it has stopped short of either joining the EU or NATO.

Moreover, Moscow's attempts to upend the status quo in Kiev has resulted in the imposition of punishing economic sanctions on Russia by the US and the EU which have severely crippled the Russian economy.

In Central Asia, in the hydrocarbon rich "Stans" of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Moscow has attempted to bind them economically and militarily to Russia via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

At issue is the Kremlin's attempts to control the export of natural gas from the region to ensure that it does not compete or undermine Russia's political leverage from its own gas sales to Europe. The Chinese OBOR initiative would potentially divert Central Asia's economic activity and its hydrocarbon exports south to the string of Indian Ocean ports or east back to the Chinese heartland.

Moreover, the OBOR transportation infrastructure will largely bypass Russia, meaning that potentially it paves the way for access to the European marketplace for the "Stans" that is not dependent on the availability of Russian transportation facilities or pipelines. If the OBOR initiative is successful, China will largely replace Russia's political and economic role in Central Asia. Not good news for the Kremlin.

In the long run, Chinese naval expansion will prove to be a strategic challenge for the United States as well. China has recently deployed its first aircraft carrier and has a second one under construction. Currently, there are 17 aircraft carriers deployed among the world's navies. The United States has 10 of those carriers, with an additional one in reserve.

Italy is the only other country that has more than one carrier deployed, two smallish carriers -- the Cavour and the Garibaldi. Both Russia and China have second carriers that they are building as does Great Britain. India has two carriers under construction to add to its existing carrier.

The U.S. also has three additional, Ford class, carriers under construction. The Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) was delivered to the US Navy on May 31st. Although it will require several more years of additional work before it is fully operational. The John F Kennedy (CVN 79) is currently under construction. The initial structural fabrication work for the third carrier, Enterprise (CVN 80) has just started.

China is a long way from posing a challenge to American naval supremacy on the world's oceans. For now, the expansion of Chinese naval power, combined with land based missiles and air forces functions to extend coastal defense zones, provide defense in depth, to create broader area denial zones for U.S. naval forces as well as to intimidate China's neighbors in the East and South China Sea.

Given that the U.S. has mutual defense agreements with many of these countries, Chinese capabilities, even if still modest, can't be ignored. What is also clear is that the Indian Ocean will likely be the first theater where Sino-American naval rivalry will be played out.

Long-term, it is likely that India will need to develop the same kind of long-term security strategy with the U.S. that has characterized U.S.-Japanese military cooperation. In September 2016, The US and Indian governments announced that they had signed a Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) that will allow the US to use Indian military facilities.

According to the text of the agreement "the US Airforce and navy can use Indian naval and air bases for logistics support, refueling and services on a regular basis." In addition, "the US armed forces can utilize Indian military bases while conducting military operations in third countries." A remarkable turnaround for a country that once saw itself as the leader of the nonaligned movement.

In a broad sense, China's growing political, economic and military role in the Indian Ocean and central Asia is nothing more than the reassertion of China's traditional posture in the region. Still, it is a posture that China has not been able to exert for the last two centuries. It's revival, while not historically unprecedented, will lead to dramatic shifts in the region's geopolitical alignments and pose new challenges to American foreign and military policy.

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