A recent study published by the US Army War College looks at how geography constrained the Soviet military presence in the Indian Ocean and the lessons that can be drawn for China’s efforts to become an Indian Ocean power.
Geography has a big impact on the strategic dynamics of the Indian Ocean. It is largely enclosed on three sides with few maritime entry points. The Himalayas also cut off much of the Eurasian hinterland from access to the sea. This makes it hard for militaries to get access.
The semi-enclosed geography of the Indian Ocean creates a premium for naval powers that control the maritime chokepoints and the limited number of deep-water ports for essential logistical support.
There are similar constraints in projecting airpower. Aircraft can access Indian Ocean airspace from, say, Chinese territory only by flying over other countries. Within the region, the sheer size of the Indian Ocean makes it essential to have a network of local airfields for staging and support.
In the Cold War, the Soviets struggled to overcome these constraints. The Soviet Union had no direct access to the Indian Ocean by sea or air and few reliable regional partners. Its navy had to deploy to the Indian Ocean mostly from the Pacific, transiting the straits through Southeast Asia where vessels were subject to interdiction and tracking.
This had a significant impact on the Soviet naval presence. The long transit from Vladivostok to the Arabian Gulf meant that keeping one vessel on station required ships to spend around a third of their time in transit. Long transits also limited the deployment of smaller vessels. Logistical requirements meant that a majority of deployed Soviet vessels were support and other auxiliary vessels.
“The geographic constraints faced by China in the Indian Ocean mirror those faced by the Soviet Union.”
There were strong imperatives to obtain local bases. The Soviet Navy developed several facilities around the Horn of Africa, and where onshore support wasn’t available, they relied on floating bases in international waters. The quest for bases was pursued opportunistically and often meant relying on politically unstable partners. Access was far from guaranteed and they were evicted from several bases.
Although Soviet ships often outnumbered the US Navy’s in the Indian Ocean, the Soviet Navy didn’t achieve meaningful or lasting naval superiority across the region. The naval balance in favour of the Soviets was quickly reversed in times of crisis. The composition of the Soviet fleet also differed considerably from the US’s with a large number of auxiliary vessels, including intelligence and research ships.
The Soviet air presence developed with several years’ lag. Operational access was also geographically constrained. Flight distances into the region were long, and aircraft operating from Soviet territory had to fly over other countries. This created a premium for access to local air bases.
The geographic constraints faced by China in the Indian Ocean mirror those faced by the Soviet Union. For China, the Indian Ocean has secondary importance compared with the Pacific. But Beijing still has several strategic imperatives or missions in the Indian Ocean, starting with the protection of its crucial ocean supply lines for energy. But other missions are just as important in influencing the composition, size and locations of the Chinese military presence. These include protecting Chinese citizens and investments, bolstering soft-power influence, countering terrorism, collecting intelligence, supporting coercive diplomacy towards small countries, and enabling operations in a conflict environment. The People’s Liberation Army must be capable of responding to a range of contingencies.
The PLA Navy has a leading role in the PLA’s Indian Ocean presence, reflecting the imperatives of protecting supply lines and the political advantages of a relatively transient naval footprint.
The size and composition of Chinese naval deployments to the Indian Ocean have evolved. They now include an antipiracy taskforce, hydrographic-survey and intelligence-collection vessels, and submarines. But, although the presence has grown, China has so far been relatively incremental in its approach.
It’s possible that the PLA Navy’s presence could come to resemble the US Navy’s, if Beijing wants to protect the entirety of its Indian Ocean supply lines. That would be a major undertaking, requiring the sustained deployment of large numbers of vessels, including aircraft carriers and submarines, as well as land-based aircraft. It would require multiple naval and air bases in the region.
But Beijing may judge that protecting its supply lines against the US and India is impracticable. It may choose to focus on the Pacific while pursuing limited objectives in the Indian Ocean.
“Many Chinese needs could be satisfied by relying on a ‘places not bases’ approach of using commercial facilities while minimising the need for dedicated bases.”
The PLA Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean over the past decade has focused overwhelmingly on antipiracy, intelligence and naval diplomacy. These will likely continue to be a major focus and might evolve to include limited, coercive diplomacy (for example, disputes over fishing rights), as has been the case elsewhere. PLA Navy assets might be supplemented by vessels from other maritime agencies.
China may also develop additional capabilities to create local superiority; respond to a limited distant blockade; provide support for local interventions; or undertake limited sea-denial operations. All of these missions would be broadly analogous to the Soviet Union’s Indian Ocean strategy. These could provide options to respond to certain contingencies at a fraction of the cost of a full sea-control strategy.
As with the Soviets, constraints on China’s access create imperatives for local support facilities. But the nature and extent of China’s basing requirements would also depend on its overall strategy. Many needs could be satisfied by relying on a “places not bases” approach of using commercial facilities while minimising the need for dedicated bases. But any significant and sustained Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean would likely require dedicated support facilities comparable to traditional bases.
China’s approach to securing local facilities is much more deliberate and comprehensive compared with the Soviet approach. China may be seeking to build what some analysts call strategic strong points as part of a network of supply, logistics and intelligence hubs across the Indian Ocean. But whether that would yield assured access to support facilities under wartime conditions is uncertain. Despite many “feelers” for facilities in the Indian Ocean region, no potential host country has offered permanent facilities to the PLA Navy (with the exception of Djibouti). Indeed, several potential hosts have pushed back on proposed port developments.
The port at Gwadar, Pakistan, is often identified as the most likely location of another Chinese naval base in the northwestern Indian Ocean (although it has not been used by the PLA). But any comprehensive Chinese naval presence would likely also require assured access to facilities in the southwestern, central and eastern Indian Ocean.
China also needs to develop its regional airpower capabilities. Support for sustained naval operations would require substantial airpower, including maritime surveillance and strike aircraft. But the PLA Air Force doesn’t have assured airfield access in the Indian Ocean, although it could potentially use the new 3,400-metre airfield at Dara Sakor, Cambodia. China’s lack of air capabilities in the Indian Ocean places it at a major tactical disadvantage. That could become a bottleneck limiting the PLA’s strategic power projection.
One clear lesson from the Cold War is that securing local bases can be costly and uncertain. China’s relationships with Pakistan and Sri Lanka demonstrate how much Beijing has to spend, even without securing assured access. Like the Soviet Union, China may find that relationships with some countries—particularly, corrupt and autocratic regimes—are less than reliable. The Soviet experience also suggests that the size and composition of the PLA in the Indian Ocean will principally be a function of China’s unique interests in the region. It should not be assumed that China’s future military presence and security relationships will necessarily resemble those of the US.
Dr David Brewster is with the National Security College at the Australian National University, where he specialises in South Asian and Indian Ocean strategic affairs. He is also a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute. His previous career was as a corporate lawyer working on complex cross-border transactions and he practiced for almost two decades in the United States, England, France and Australia.