China’s Power Projection

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) recently participated in an operation to free the Tuvalu-flagged OS 35 bulk carrier with help from the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden (The Hindu, April 9). The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) 24th task force in the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operation returned in March to its homeport of Qingdao following port calls in four Persian Gulf states (, March 9, 2017). Since 2008, China has significantly increased its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, giving rise to Indian concerns of potential military encirclement and raising questions in American strategic thinking about China’s ultimate objectives. Both the United States and India maintain a much stronger naval presence than China in the Indian Ocean, but the balance is beginning to shift. Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced in 2013 the strategic “One Belt, One Road” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” that stretches from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean to the eastern Mediterranean. This initiative guarantees China will increase its economic and military engagement along Indian Ocean maritime routes. [1] The PLAN’s continuing participation in the anti-piracy operation long after most pirate attacks had ended and the construction of a military base at Djibouti are tangible indications of China’s power projection.
China’s 2015 Military Strategy white paper states clearly that the PLAN will protect the security of strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation so as to build itself “into a maritime power.” The white paper adds that the PLAN will continue to carry out anti-piracy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and gradually intensify its participation in international peacekeeping. The PLAN will also gradually shift to a combination of “offshore waters defense” together with “open seas protection” (Defense White Paper, May 2015).
China’s Naval Expansion in the Western Indian Ocean
The PLAN made its first visit to the Western Indian Ocean in 2000 with port calls in Tanzania and South Africa. In 2002, the PLAN made a round-the-world cruise with two ships passing through the Suez Canal, including a port call in Alexandria, Egypt. Six years passed without any PLAN port calls in the Western Indian Ocean until China began in 2008 participation in the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operation. [2] Since 2008, twenty-five PLAN task forces comprised usually of two combat ships and an oiler have patrolled the Gulf of Aden. [3]These ships have made more than sixty port calls in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Morocco, Mozambique, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. [4]
The initial goal of the PLAN task forces was to protect Chinese shipping from pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. Coordinated suppression of piracy by a number of international navies was successful, and until March 2017, the last successful pirate attack against any commercial vessel occurred in 2012 (Xinhua, March 15, 2017). Pirates did capture a Comoros-flagged fuel tanker off the coast of Somalia in March of this year. In April, a lone Somali gunman boarded and captured an Indian-registered dhow off the Somali coast (Xinhua, April 5, 2017).  Although piracy could return as a serious threat to international (and Chinese) shipping interests, China’s primary goals now are to provide naval support for all Chinese security interests in the region. These include its peacekeeping forces, evacuation of its nationals from conflict zones as it has done in Yemen and Libya, and gaining experience for naval personnel far from China’s shores. China currently has 235 military personnel assigned to nearby UN peacekeeping missions in Darfur in Sudan and 1,063 personnel, including a combat battalion, in South Sudan (UN peacekeeping statistics, February 2017).
In 2014, China deployed for the first time a submarine with the anti-piracy task force and, in 2015 it sent a nuclear-powered submarine to the Gulf of Aden operation. Submarines are not well suited to combat piracy; the operation gave China an opportunity to test its submarines and train its personnel (The Diplomat, April 12, 2015). In 2016, China began construction of a permanent “logistical facility” in Djibouti for the stated purpose of supporting its anti-piracy, humanitarian, and regional peacekeeping efforts. Most non-Chinese observers, including the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, describe the facility as a military base, the first such overseas base for China, and view the decision as part of China’s long-distance power projection strategy (China Brief, January 25, 2016;, March 27, 2017). China also reportedly plans to expand its “Marine Corps” from about 20,000 to 100,000 personnel to protect China’s maritime lifelines and its interests overseas. Some of these personnel are expected to be assigned to China’s facility in Djibouti and at Gwadar in Pakistan (South China Morning Post, March 13, 2017; China Brief, December 3, 2010).
China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has been operating in the South China Sea and has not yet entered the Indian Ocean. Interviewed recently on Indian television, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said there is nothing to prevent the Chinese aircraft carrier battle group from operating in the Indian Ocean. He noted that the Liaoning is unable to maintain the operational tempo of larger U.S. aircraft carriers that conduct operations day and night. Harris added that the Indian Navy has far more expertise in operating aircraft carriers than does the PLAN (NDTV, January 19, 2017). Because of its operational limitations, the Liaoning may be used primarily to show the Chinese flag and project power.
China has been building major commercial ports in Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, and Tanzania. U.S. and Indian experts are debating whether China is pursuing a strategy of building commercial port facilities along the rim of the Indian Ocean that will one day be used for military purposes. [5] Indian Ocean expert David Brewster, argues, however, there is little evidence that China is pursuing a strategy of sea control although it appears to be developing sea denial capabilities. Brewster points to the increasing deployment of submarines in the Indian Ocean and the potential for land-based sea denial capabilities in the region. [6] While China is expanding its naval capacity in the Western Indian Ocean, it is important to understand that the PLAN’s highest priorities remain along China’s coast, the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, and Western Pacific.
China’s Interests in the Indian Ocean
Currently the world’s largest oil importer, China obtains about 52 percent of its imported crude from the Middle East and 22 percent from Africa. About 82 percent of China’s imported oil transits the Strait of Malacca and 40 percent travels through the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. [7] Almost 40 percent of China’s foreign trade crosses the Indian Ocean. [8]
Zhou Bo, a fellow at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, wrote in 2014, before China began constructing a military facility in Djibouti, that “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of sea lines of communication” (China-US Focus, February 11, 2014). He added that China is interested in access—and not bases—in the Indian Ocean. However, the facility under construction at Djibouti begs a discussion of wider Chinese military engagement in the region. Jérôme Henry, lieutenant commander in the French Navy, argues that China’s naval deployments in the Gulf of Aden are motivated by “power-projection capability, acquiring operational experience in a real operational environment, protecting Chinese interests abroad, and improving China’s image on the international stage.” [9]
Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu, deputy director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at China’s National Defense University, said China’s principal security interests in the Indian Ocean are access to SLOCs, good relations with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, general stability in the region, and protecting Chinese interests and citizens. Xu Qiyu added that protecting these interests requires that China counter the threat of piracy and terrorism, take into account Indian and American influence, and be prepared for threats from other major powers. [10]
State-owned COSCO, China’s largest shipping company, invested $186 million in a joint venture to operate and manage the Suez Canal Container Terminal in Port Said at the northern end of the canal. The state-owned China Harbor Engineering Company subsequently invested $219 million to construct a quay there and another $1 billion to build a quay in al-Adabiya at the southern entrance to the canal. The goal is to secure reliable access for Chinese commercial shipping from the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea (China Brief, October 10, 2014; China Policy Institute: Analysis, February 2016). This includes access to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; COSCO ships already call at Gwadar port (Xinhua, November 16, 2016).
China has an additional interest in the Western Indian Ocean that is seldom mentioned. In 2011, it signed a 15-year contract with the International Seabed Authority to prospect for seabed polymetallic sulfides in a 10,000 square kilometer zone just south of Madagascar. In 2015, China’s deep-sea manned submersible Jiaolong and research vessel Dayang Yihao both conducted missions in the Indian Ocean, underscoring China’s interest in the underwater resources (China Daily, May 7, 2015; South China Morning Post, October 6, 2016).
Other Naval Actors in the Western Indian Ocean
The U.S. Navy projects more power in the Indian Ocean than any other country. The 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and monitors the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Arabian Sea. Elements of the Pacific-based 7th Fleet routinely visit the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia is a major U.S. naval and air support base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The United States has a counterterrorism facility at Djibouti with more than 4,000 personnel and a variety of land-based forces operating in the Gulf States and northeast Africa.
India, due to its geographical proximity, has the largest number of mostly coastal combatant ships that could be arrayed on short notice and has a huge naval advantage over China in the Indian Ocean. India has expanded its antisubmarine warfare facilities in the Andaman Islands to monitor Chinese submarines passing through the Strait of Malacca. France has a modest naval facility on Réunion, a French départment southwest of Mauritius, ground forces on Mayotte, another départment in the Mozambique Channel, and forces at Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. Japan has significant shipping interests in the Indian Ocean, and it established a modest military base in Djibouti in 2011.
Naval Competition or Cooperation in the Western Indian Ocean?
Both the United States and India want to ensure that China does not pursue hegemonic goals in the region. In addition, India, Pakistan, and China are developing naval nuclear forces and they all have nuclear weapons. China is assisting Pakistan in this effort. All three may eventually deploy nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean. [11] This development would contribute to greater regional instability and would not be in the interest of the United States.
There seems little doubt that China is strengthening its ability to protect Chinese interests in the Western Indian Ocean region and setting the stage for power projection even further into the Mediterranean and around South Africa. So far, China’s policy has not raised serious concerns in Western Indian Ocean littoral states with the important exception of India. But China’s strategy is raising increasing questions among U.S. analysts in addition to those from India.
A strong case can be made for maximizing U.S. cooperation with India in the Indian Ocean region while, at the same time, identifying areas where Washington and New Delhi can bring China into the picture in an effort to minimize future conflict among the three parties and enhance regional stability. [12] Potential areas for cooperation include joint training exercises, intelligence sharing, coordinating humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-piracy and, conceivably, more sensitive ones such as counterterrorism, combatting drug and arms trafficking, preventing illegal fishing, and minimizing seaborne environmental threats. [13]

David H. Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He served for 37 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, including as ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. He is co-author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement.