By Commodore RS Vasan IN Retd*
The PLA-Navy continues to be in the news as China is determined to add to its growing maritime capability to build a blue water navy of form and substance. The addition of a new assets to the PLA on a regular basis provides a power projection capability not just within the confines of the South China Sea where it has territorial claims contested by other littorals in the region., but also in the in the Indian Ocean. The recent assertive maneuvers by the US Navy in consonance with the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) has not been a source of comfort for China. Likewise, the efforts of Philippines to internationalise the South China Dispute by taking the case to ICJ has not endeared it to China which did not want any embarrassment.
China on its part in a process to consolidate its position , has engaged in assiduously reinforcing its claims over reefs and Islands with in the nine dash line by building artificial Islands by enormous dredging around the disputed rocks/reefs to reinforce its territorial claims. There is no surprise that these Islands today have Runways, military garrisons, communication networks and other support infrastructure to help China to mount a credible C4ISR structure using the developed Islands which will act as links and hubs. This will also extend the reach of the PLA Navy and Air force elements. It is only a matter of time before these Islands are converted in to full-fledged forward posts in South China Sea. The fact that it also declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) some three years ago in certain areas which were contested has only complicated the air situation and safety aspects.
Acquisition of Amphibious Vessels
The recent acquisition of four big amphibians (also called Air Cushioned Landing Craft or LCAC) from Ukraine( order placed in 2009) and another outright purchase of four more from Greece add a new capability to PLA Navy particularly in the context of exercising control in the disputed areas. The order of four from Ukraine also included the order for building two in China at the Huangpu shipyard. As per the reports the second PLAN Zubr class LCAC was commissioned on 21st December last year. Knowing the capability of the Chinese to adapt to new technology and reverse engineering there will be no surprises if more of these are built locally in China itself. According to another report in the Chinese Defence blog it was indicated that the blue prints of the product have already been given to the Chinese. The ability to transport troops, Tanks and equipment to some of these Islands where conventional craft may not be supportable adds a new dimension to the capabilities of PLA Navy in South China Sea.
According to published sources, it can carry three main battle tanks (up to 150 tonnes), or ten armoured vehicles with 140 troops (up to 131 tonnes), or 8 armoured personnel carriers of total mass up to 115 tonnes, or 8 amphibious tanks or up to 500 troops (with 360 troops in the cargo compartment).The craft have been designed to withstand sea states up to four and travel with speeds up to 60 knots .Even the armament carried impressive as it has AK 630s, two stabilized multiple Rocket launchers and a capability to mine enemy areas. With such a capability, the ACVs of the Chinese Navy would allow for insertion of troops in areas that cannot be used by conventional craft.
It is clear that even Taiwan would not be comfortable with this new acquisition and a capability as it adds to the surprise element in the Taiwan Straits. With the recent deployment of Surface to Air Missiles on the Woody Island in South China Sea, the tensions are growing in the region.The newly elected Government in Taiwan is known to be not particularly friendly to the Chinese Government in the mainland. It is not out of context to mention that Indian Navy does not possess any ACVs though it has conventional amphibious ships. The post Tsunami lessons compelled Indian Navy to acquire a mothballed amphibian USS Trenton from USA which is operating today as INS Jalashwa. It is time for the Indian Navy to think seriously about acquiring high end ACVS for its own use both in A&N and also in the L&M group of Islands. At the moment, the Indian Coast Guard does possess the smaller version of ACVs for coastal patrol and for other CG missions. The first lot of six ACVs was inducted in 2002 when this author was the Regional Commander of the Coast Guard Region East. Eight more have been ordered from Griffin UK and will be added to the fleet of Coast Guard.
Forays in the Indian Ocean
The Chinese Navy was quick to respond to the increased number of piracy incidences off Somalia which peaked between 2005 and 2009. In addition to protecting its seaborne trade with anti-piracy missions, it utilized the opportunity very well to understand the environment in the Indian Ocean in general and off the African coast in particular. The fact that PLA Navy maintained an active patrol of two front line ships since 2008 bears testimony to the resolve of the leadership to participate in Anti-Piracy patrols . Through this process the PLA- N also derived maximum benefit in terms of understanding the maritime environment and building up of data bases regarding shipping patterns, presence of units from other navies, the bathymetric and atmospheric conditions, the Electromagnetic environment etc., The passages to and from South China Sea through the sensitive Malacca Straits and operation close to the other choke points has famililarised the officers and sailors of PLA Navy with the Indian Ocean. It may also be recollected that the Chinese Navy submarines were berthed in Colombo on the eve of the visit of Xi Jinping to New Delhi raising the heckles of the naval planners in Delhi. The Chinese suggested that the submarines were in fact being used for anti-piracy patrol, which as a concept was beyond comprehension. The submarine is most unsuited for anti-piracy missions with the limitations of speed, communications and other limitations against high speed skiffs and pirate vessels. The news of nuclear submarines operating in the Bay of Bengal again indicated the intention of PLA- Navy to test the waters literally and figuratively.
Naval/commercial bases in Indian Ocean
The continuous engagement in anti-piracy missions off the Somalia coast would have compelled the PLA Navy to look for creation of a full-fledged naval base to meet its long term needs. One can easily draw parallel with the Diego Garcia Island which serves the need of the US Navy in the Indian Ocean Region. For a long time there was speculation that China is scouting for naval bases in the Indian Ocean to protect its maritime interests. When it funded the Hambanathotta deep water port in Southern Sri Lanka, it was indicated that it was purely a commercial venture. The fact that such a facility can be used easily for turning round of Chinese vessels and providing of logistic support, rest and recreation for crew on long voyages did not escape the attention of naval observers in India. As for as Gwadar is concerned, this has provided another base close to the choke point Strait of Hormuz from which PLA Navy units can launch surveillance missions to protect ships carrying energy goods to China and merchandise from China in to the lucrative ( and even dependent ) markets of the west. Pakistan considers China as its all-weather friend and vice versa, and this would make it easier for China to use the deep sea water port of Gwadar without any restrictions as and when warranted.
By all accounts, this year has started on a good note for China as it was able to seal a deal with Djibouti for commencing construction of a naval base this year itself. Djibouti the capital of Djibouti located in the Bab Al Mandeb strait is a vital link between Europe, Horn of Africa, Straits of Hormuz and the Far East. The place has enormous strategic significance for China which has found an ally in the leadership of Djibouti.
China will not lose any time in creating naval facilities for deploying its vessels keeping its long term interests in view. PLA- Navy units will be regularly seen in the African waters by using Djibouti as a base. This will also allow China to keep a watch on the activities of other navies including USA, India and other Extra Regional Players who routinely operate in the west Arabian Sea. The entry in to Djibouti will also open up new investment opportunities for China which is willing to loosen its purse strings to get a foot hold in the Red Sea. Commercially, it will also be a link on the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and promote China’s commercial interests in Africa and beyond. Djibouti is looking for investments up to some 12.6 billion US dollars between 2015 and 2020 which should enable Djibouti to achieve a GDP of six percent. While there have been no incidents of piracy in recent years, under the excuse of not lowering the guard, many navies will continue to keep a presence in the area. Djibouti will serve the needs of PLA Navy units engaged in both anti-piracy patrol and shipping protection along the Sea Lines of Communication. It will also enable PLA- Navy to keep an eye on the happenings along the African Coast and also in the Indian Ocean. Both US and France have naval facilities in the port of Djibouti and the Chinese presence to certain extent has upset the planners in America as it is felt that their counter terrorism operations launched from Djibouti could be compromised as it has invested heavily in building up of intelligence gathering mechanisms and infrastructure. As per reports, it is spending up to 1.4 billion US dollars to upgrade the existing intelligence gathering facilities. Camp Lemonnaire which is the only American military base in Africa which houses about 4500 American combatants launches missions in Yemen and Somalia using its special forces, fighters, drones etc.,
Japan’s Entry and New Power Equations in Indian Ocean
While China has an ambitious plan to develop the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) scheme, there have been certain setbacks to this initiative which was launched in September 2013 by Xi Jinping. The efforts of China to develop a port in Sonadia (near Coxs Bazaar) at a cost of more than 8 billion US dollars in Bangladesh suffered a jolt last year as Japan through its Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) came out with better financial and technical options for Bangladesh by willing to offer up to 80 percent of the project cost at just 0.1 percent spread over 30 years with a ten year moratorium. The new location Matarbari just 25 kilometers from Sonadia will be developed by Japan which also will build power plants and a deep water port. The proposed Chinese investment in Indonesia for improving the railway infrastructure for high speed trains also is doubtful as Japan again has been able to offer better terms and outbid China. In some way this also is an indication of another power play developing not just between India and China but also an assertive Japan under Abe which is willing to increase its stakes in this region.
That India wanted to engage Japan in more ways than one was evident when Prime Minister Modi made Japan as the first foreign country to be visited after taking over. This signaled India’s intent to enhance the level of engagement and cooperation with this Pacific power which could act as a countervailing force against China. While the growth of trade has been slow the signs are that both sides are keen to improve their economic, cultural and military ties in the coming years. India which was increasingly feeling suffocated by the Chinese advances in the region on its part would be quite happy with the developments in the region as it enjoys excellent relations with Japan. So Japan will now be the new player of importance in the Indian Ocean. The participation of Japan in the Exercise Malabar last year and the visit of the Japanese Self Defence Ship for a joint Coast Guard Exercise in the Bay of Bengal this year are indicative of the willingness of Japan to play a bigger economic and strategic role in the region. Japan has expressed its willingness to supply military hardware to India. India is on the lookout for a Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft to augment its surveillance capability and also to replace the ageing Dornier aircraft.
Discussions have been underway for many years now about the acquisition of an amphibious aircraft US2 from Japan and it could well be a reality given the desire on both sides to improve military ties. China would not be too pleased with this development as it has a rival now in Indian Ocean and the economic assistance through the Overseas Development Agency(ODA) of Japan at competitive rates to other ASEAN and Asian countries will come in the way of the grandiose plans such as the OBOR and the MSR.
By way of inducting of Zubr LCACs, China has added a new potent amphibious capability. It would be only a matter of time before they are mass produced to meet the increasing challenges in the South and East China Sea. This new capability would be unnerving for the countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
As for as the establishment of a naval base at Djibouti is concerned, the presence of China another Extra Regional Power, in the Indian Ocean and also in Africa is now a reality. India a dominant regional naval power would need to factor the presence of PLA-Navy in Indian Ocean in general and West Arabian Sea in particular in its maritime calculus.
As for as the ambitious OBOR and MSR initiatives of China are concerned, the entry of Japan again through economic routes will to certain extent make it challenging for China to achieve success in the time frames envisaged. The establishment of a naval base in Djibouti, entry of Japan in a big way through economic assistance and ODA, heralds a new power play equation in the Indian Ocean which despite clarion calls for being maintained as a Zone of Peace will continue to be a Zone of Competition and power play in the coming decades.
*The author who is presently the Director of Chennai Centre of China Studies and Head of Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies
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