Sea Logistics

Indian Ocean: Keeping The Chinese At Bay

According to the 2020 China Military Power Report by the Department of Defence, USA, the Chinese Navy (PLAN) is today the largest Navy, globally. If its likely future trajectory is to be analysed, it’s going in for an Indian Ocean fleet, to keep its logistics lifeline through the Indian Ocean, open and safe. In fact, the capability to keep this vital artery open is a requirement that closely influences any substantial operations it can attempt across the Taiwan Straits.

In the Indian Ocean, it routinely maintains a presence of six to eight warships, ostensibly for anti-piracy tasks. Apart from warships, Chinese survey ships scouting the depths of the Indian Ocean have been common. Naval News reported in January 2021 of Chinese ships undertaking sea bed mapping, useful for submarine operations, These ships have also been deploying submersible Sea Wing gliders to map the ocean bed.

Other media reports state that four to five Chinese hydrographic ships are always out in IOR to find the best operational routes for their underwater assets. Chinese submarines have also been traversing in the northern Indian Ocean. They have made port calls in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the past.

It would be prudent to also take stock of Chinese bases and control over strategic ports along with the Chinese concept of the Maritime Silk Road. Writing in the context of Chinese investment and control on strategic ports in her book ‘Balochistan In the Crosshairs of History’, Sandhya Jain includes the ports of Melaka Gateway on Malacca Straits, Port of Tanjun Priok, Sunda Strait, Indonesia. Other ports listed by Jain include Kuantan, Malaysia; Kyaukpyu, Myanmar; Jakarta and Batam Island, Indonesia; Colombo and Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; Djibouti; Mombasa, Kenya; and Piraeus, Greece. According to the Edge Markets, Malaysian edition of 17 July 2017, the Chinese have also invested in the Malaysian ports of Kuala Linggi and Penang. They have leased 17 Maldivian islands and are building a marine observatory also.

Notwithstanding the Chinese preparation for an Indian Ocean fleet to operate in the IOR, there have been enough exercises conducted in the IOR by the Indians and Navies of countries with whom India has stronger bonds in the works. While the fact of the Indian Ocean not being India’s ocean is acknowledged, India remains the best pivot for stability, west of Malacca Straits. A few such naval exercises provide strong indicators of a growing coalition of powers to contest unabated Chinese aggressive manoeuvres.

In July 2020 the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group was in the South China Sea along with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. The two US Strike Groups exercised jointly in the South China Sea (SCS). Thereafter, Nimitz led its ships through the Malacca Straits into the area of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. By this time, the Indians had lost 20 men in Eastern Ladakh, while assessments of Chinese casualties ranged between 40 and over 100. The two navies exercising together was definitely an audible signal for the Chinese in Eastern Ladakh.
Off the A&N Islands, Nimitz was joined by four ships of the Indian Navy (IN) to conduct what’s generally termed as a passage exercise (PASSEX). PASSEX are common, especially with COVID 19 raging across the globe, inhibiting major exercises.
A month before the PASSEX with the Nimitz Group, the IN had conducted a similar exercise with the Japanese (a Quad partner) in June 2020. A destroyer and a Missile Corvette of the IN and two Japanese ships were involved in that exercise.

Exercise Indra Navy 2020 was run from 4 to 5 September with the Russians. The platforms that concentrated in the Bay of Bengal included Indian ships Ranvijay and Sahyadri, along with a fleet tanker, while the Russian fielded two destroyers and a logistics ship.

The most important exercise held in the IOR in the last six months is of course the Malabar 2020. Australia participated in the exercise after 13 years….

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