What are Chinese attack submarines doing in the Indian Ocean, far from China’s maritime backyard, in what is the furthest deployment of the Chinese Navy in 600 years? Two Chinese subs docked last fall at the new Chinese-built and -owned container terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And recently a Chinese Yuan-class sub showed up at the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
The assertive way China has gone about staking its territorial claims in the South and East China seas has obscured its growing interest in the Indian Ocean. This ocean has become the new global center of trade and energy flows, accounting for half the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of its petroleum shipments.
China’s newly released defense white paper, while outlining regional hegemony aspirations, has emphasized a greater focus on the seas, including an expanded naval role beyond its maritime backyard. The white paper says that, as part of China’s effort to establish itself as a major maritime power, its navy will shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection” — a move that helps explain its new focus on the Indian Ocean, with the Maritime Silk Road initiative at the vanguard of the Chinese grand strategy. To create a blue water force and expand its naval role, China is investing heavily in submarines and warships, and working on a second aircraft carrier.
President Xi Jinping’s pet project is about expanding and securing maritime routes to the Middle East and beyond through the Indian Ocean, which is the bridge between Asia and Europe. Xi’s dual Silk Road initiatives — officially labeled the “One Belt, One Road” — constitute a westward strategic push to expand China’s power reach. Indeed, Xi’s Indian Ocean plans draw strength from his more assertive push for Chinese dominance in the South and East China seas.
The Chinese maneuvering in the Indian Ocean — part of China’s larger plan to project power in the Middle East, Africa and Europe — aims to challenge America’s sway and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. Xi has sought to carve out an important role for China in the Indian Ocean through his Maritime Silk Road initiative, while his overland Silk Road is designed to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and Europe.
The common link between the two mega Silk Road projects is Pakistan, which stands out for simultaneously being a client state of China, Saudi Arabia and the United States — a unique status.
During a visit to Pakistan in April, Xi officially launched the project to connect China’s restive Xinjiang region with the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through a 3,000 km overland transportation corridor extending to the Chinese-built Pakistani port of Gwadar. This project makes Pakistan the central link between the maritime and overland Silk Roads. The Xi-launched corridor to Gwadar through Pakistan-held Kashmir — running in parallel to India’s Japanese-financed New Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor — will hook up the two Silk Roads.
Indeed, a stable Pakistan has become so critical to the ever-increasing Chinese strategic investments in that country that Beijing has started brokering peace talks between the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban and Kabul. This effort has been undertaken with the backing not just of Pakistan but also of the U.S., thus underscoring the growing convergence of Chinese and American interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
More broadly, with China’s officially disclosed defense budget soaring from $35 billion in 2006 to $141 billion in 2015, Xi has not only emphasized “active defense” but also articulated a more expansive role for his country than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong. His maritime goal is to redraw the larger geopolitical map by bringing within China’s orbit regional countries, especially those in the Indian Ocean Rim, which extends from Australia to the Middle East and Southern Africa. This region has the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest concentration of fragile or failing states.
The Maritime Silk Road initiative, with its emphasis on high-visibility infrastructure projects, targets key littoral states located along the great trade arteries. At a time of slowing economic growth in China, infrastructure exports are also designed to address the problem of overproduction at home.
By presenting commercial penetration as benevolent investment and credit as aid, Beijing is winning lucrative overseas contracts for its state-run companies, with the aim of turning economic weight into strategic clout. Through its Maritime Silk Road — a catchy new name for its “string of pearls” strategy — China is already challenging the existing balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
Beijing, while seeking to co-opt strategically located states in an economic and security alliance led by it, is working specifically to acquire naval-access outposts through agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest and maintenance. Its efforts also involve gaining port projects along vital sea lanes of communication, securing new supplies of natural resources, and building energy and transportation corridors to China through Myanmar and Pakistan.
One example of how China has sought to win influence in the Indian Ocean Rim is Sri Lanka. It signed major contracts with Sri Lanka’s now-ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to turn that country — located along major shipping lanes — into a major stop on the Chinese nautical “road.” The country’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, said on the election-campaign trail earlier this year that the Chinese projects were ensnaring Sri Lanka in a debt tap, with the risk that “our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.”
Another example is China’s current effort to set up a naval base in Djibouti, which overlooks the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits. This channel, separating Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and constituting one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, leads into the Red Sea and north to the Mediterranean.
In February 2014, Beijing signed a military accord with Djibouti allowing the Chinese Navy to use facilities there, a move that angered the U.S., which already has a military base in that tiny Horn of Africa nation. Now, according to the county’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, China wants to establish its own naval base at Obock, Djibouti’s northern port city.
Beijing is also interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives. Xi has toured several of the key countries in the Indian Ocean Rim that China is seeking to court, including the Maldives, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.
From China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea to its ongoing negotiations for a naval base in Djibouti, the maritime domain has become central to Xi’s great-power ambitions. Yet it is far from certain that he will be able to realize his strategic aims in the Indian Ocean Rim, given the lurking suspicions about China’s motives and the precarious security situation in some regional states.
One thing is clear though: China wants to be the leader, with its own alliances and multilateral institutions, not a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-created architecture of global governance. It is building naval power to assert sovereignty over disputed areas and to project power in distant lands. Determined to take the sea route to secure global power status and challenge the U.S.-led order, China is likely to step up its strategic role in the Indian Ocean — the world’s new center of geopolitical gravity.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist, author and long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.