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The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 15
July 22, 2010 10:03 PM Age: 4 yrs
Category: China Brief, Home Page, Foreign Policy, Military/Security, China and the Asia-Pacific, South Asia, Middle East

The ongoing debate in China over whether or not to formalize logistical support agreements for Chinese naval forces in the Indian Ocean is a natural outgrowth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) expanding presence in the region. As China continues to maintain a task group of warships off the Horn of Africa to conduct counter-piracy patrols, it is cultivating the commercial and diplomatic ties necessary to sustain its forces along these strategic sea-lanes. While Chinese government officials and academics debate the underlying issues, a supply network of “places” is quietly taking shape [1]. Regardless of whether or not the PLAN develops its support network through a series of formal agreements that guarantee access, or continues to supply its forces as it has been, that network is developing and will in all likelihood continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

Salalah, Oman – At this point, the PLAN ships deployed to the Gulf of Aden have utilized Salalah more than any other port by making a total of 16 port calls through June 2010. The PLAN counter-piracy patrollers began using Salalah during their second rotation, and from June 21 to July 1, 2009 the three ships on duty made individual port visits. According to the mission commander, Rear Admiral Yao Zhilou, the ships of Task Group 167 coordinated their port calls to ensure that five groups of 54 total merchant vessels were still escorted over the 11-day period in which the port visits took place. Since then, the ships of the third anti-piracy rotation called into Salalah in August 2009, the ships of the fourth rotation did the same in January 2010, and lastly, the ships of the fifth rotation called into Salalah in April and June 2010 (China Military Online, August 16, 2009; January 2; April 1; PRC Ministry of National Defense, June 10).


Overall, Oman and China have a stable and positive relationship and China has been the largest importer of Omani oil for several years, with oil accounting for over 90 percent of all bi-lateral trade between China and Oman (People’s Daily Online, April 14, 2008). Given the stable oil trade between Oman and China along with the economic benefits to the host nation of foreign sailors spending time ashore, there is no reason to believe that Oman will discontinue the use of Salalah by the PLAN. In fact, the PLAN’s success during its visits to Salalah is an indicator that its current system for sustaining its forces is sufficient (China Military Online, January 2). At the same time, it should not come as an unexpected development if current arrangements evolve into a formal agreement that guarantees access to Salalah for PLAN ships.  


Aden, Yemen – Aden represents the first port utilized by PLAN ships during their deployment to the Gulf of Aden. The initial port call was from 21-23 February 2009 during the first counter piracy rotation when AOR-887 accepted diesel fuel, fresh water and food stores in order to replenish the task force’s destroyers, and AOR-887 made additional port calls in April and July of 2009 (China Military Online, February 25, 2009; April 27, 2009; July 30, 2009). According to additional press reports, AOR-886 called into Aden in October 2009 and March 2010 during the third and fourth rotations, while AOR-887 made a five-day port call in Aden beginning on 16 May 2010 during the fifth rotation (Xinhua News Agency, October 24, 2009; Chinagate, March 14; May 17).

At first glance, Aden should be an ideal place for the support of PLAN operations in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean, as it is strategically located at the western end of the Gulf of Aden near the Bab-el-Mandeb. However, due to the active presence of al-Qaeda in the area, China likely prefers additional options for locations from which to support PLAN operations. While Senior Captain Yang Weijun, the commanding officer of AOR-887, stated the primary reason for the expansion of Chinese on shore support operations to Salalah was to further explore methods of in port replenishment based on the commercial model, it is likely that concerns over security in Yemen influenced the decision (China Military Online, June 24, 2009).  


The editor of Jianchuan Zhishi (Naval and Merchant Ships) Song Xiaojun has even stated that the Omani Port of Salalah and the Yemeni Port of Aden are both excellent supply points due to their locations and the fact that China and the host nations have formed relationships of mutual trust (International Herald Leader, January 8).  

Djibouti – Unlike Salalah and Aden, it is difficult to call Djibouti an established place for the re-supply of PLAN forces operating in the Gulf of Aden. To date, only two PLAN ships have called into Djibouti, FF-525 on 25 January 2010 and DDG-168 on 3 May 2010 (Xinhua News Agency, January 25; May 4). However, in their public statements on the need for China to setup an overseas supply base to support PLAN forces, PLAN officers Senior Captain Li Jie and Rear Admiral Yin Zhou discussed the importance of Djibouti as a base for naval and air forces operating in the Gulf of Aden, with Senior Captain Li even calling for China to establish a facility somewhere in East Africa (China Review News, May 21, 2009; Beijing China National Radio, December 26, 2009).  


Djibouti would make an excellent choice as a place for the PLAN and it should not come as a surprise if PLAN ships begin to make port calls to the East African nation on at least a semi-regular basis. Given Beijing’s sensitivities over appearing to be too forward leaning with regard to its military operations in the Indian Ocean, establishing a presence in Djibouti would provide a useful foil to Beijing’s critics for the simple fact that other major powers have already secured access to Djibouti’s facilities. France and the United States both maintain substantial forces in the former French colony and in April 2009, Japan signed a status of forces agreement with Djibouti that provides for the support of Japanese warships deployed to the Gulf of Aden as well as permitting Japan to base P-3C patrol aircraft at Djibouti for the counter piracy mission (Japan Times Online, March 15, 2009). Conversely, despite its advantages, it is possible Djibouti will not become a regular re-supply port for PLAN forces operating in the Gulf of Aden beyond the occasional port call. The large foreign naval presence in Djibouti could make the PLAN uncomfortable with one Chinese commentator stating, “They have built military bases with the existence of armed forces. A Chinese supply point would only be a hotel-style peaceful presence. There is no need to be grouped together with them” (International Herald Leader, January 8).    


Karachi, Pakistan – While China’s investment in the construction of the Port of Gwadar in Western Pakistan has for almost a decade fueled speculation that Beijing’s ultimate goal is to turn the port into a Chinese version of Gibraltar (The Newspaper Today, May 21, 2001), it is far more likely that Beijing would send its warships to Karachi if it were to seek a facility in Pakistan to support its forces. With seven port calls including three in the past three years, Karachi is the single most visited port by the PLAN during its 25 years of conducting overseas goodwill cruises and exercises with foreign navies. The PLAN is also now a regular participant in the Pakistani sponsored multi-lateral AMAN exercises, having sent warships to AMAN-07 and AMAN-09. Additionally, substantial ship construction and repair facilities are available at the Pakistan Naval Dockyard and the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works. Karachi is also where the Pakistani Navy is basing its three Chinese built F22P frigates, while the fourth, which will also be based at Karachi, is being built in Pakistan with Chinese assistance [2]. These warships, which most likely enjoy some level of parts-commonality with PLAN frigates, along with the extensive repair facilities available in Karachi, make Karachi a strong candidate for a friendly port where China could repair any ships damaged while operating in the Indian Ocean. The possibility of PLAN ships conducting repairs at Karachi was stated as fact by Senior Captain Xie Dongpei, a staff officer at PLAN Headquarters in June 2009 (The Straits Times Online, June 24, 2009).  

Colombo, Sri-Lanka – China’s relationship with Sri-Lanka has received a great deal of attention recently due to Chinese financing of the construction of the Sri-Lankan port of Hambantota and Chinese military aid to Sri-Lanka during its fight against the Tamil Tigers, including the early 2008 delivery of six F-7G fighter aircraft (Times Online, May 2, 2009).  While it is unlikely that Hambantota will be developed into a naval base, the PLAN is not a stranger to Sri-Lanka, and Sri-Lanka’s largest port and primary naval base at Colombo is becoming a popular mid-Indian Ocean refueling stop for PLAN warships (The Straits Times Online, June 24, 2009). In 1985, during the PLAN’s first foray into the Indian Ocean, Colombo was one of the first ports of call. More recently, in March 2007, the two PLAN frigates that sailed to Pakistan for AMAN-07, the first multilateral exercise the PLAN participated in, stopped in Colombo to refuel during the voyage to Karachi (China Military Online, 2 March 2007; People’s Daily Online, February 28, 2007). In March 2009, DDG-168 also stopped in Colombo to refuel during its voyage to Pakistan for the AMAN-09 exercise as well as on its return voyage to China (China Military Online, March 2, 2009; March 27, 2009). Finally, in January 2010, FF-526 made a three-day port call in Colombo after escorting the merchant ship DEXINHAI, which had recently been freed from pirates off the coast of Somalia (China Military Online, January 11).

Overall, Beijing will probably not seek a formal agreement with Sri-Lanka for the use of Colombo as a place to replenish its naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean. It is more likely that PLAN ships transiting the Indian Ocean will leverage Beijing’s stable and friendly relationship with Sri-Lanka in order to continue using Colombo as a refueling location in order to establish a presence along key shipping lanes and helping to ensure positive relations with key regional ally. This approach would support PLAN operations without needlessly inflaming China’s already complicated relations with India.  

Singapore – In all of the speculation about future Chinese facilities in the Indian Ocean, Singapore has been largely ignored by pundits and military analysts. This is somewhat puzzling given Singapore’s friendly relations with Beijing and its strategic position in the Strait of Malacca, which Chinese strategists consider a critical gateway to the Indian Ocean. PLAN vessels have made four port calls to Changi Naval Base, including the May 2007 participation of a PLAN frigate in the multilateral exercise IMDEX-07 and a December 2009 visit by FFG-529 during its transit home from patrol duty in the Gulf of Aden (China Military Online, May 24, 2007; PRC Ministry of National Defense, December 8, 2009). Beijing also signed a defense agreement between China and Singapore in January 2008 that calls for increases in exchanges, educational opportunities and port calls and in July 2010, China’s defense minister pledged to further the development of military relations between China and Singapore (The Straits Times Online, January 8, 2008; Xinhua News Agency, July 14).  

Yet, given Singapore’s close relations with both China and the United States, the island nation is in a delicate position. The littoral states of the Strait of Malacca – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – are also sensitive to foreign military operations in the vital waterways of the strait. Offers from the United States, Japan, India and most recently China to assist with naval patrols in the area have been rebuffed (The Straits Times Online, November 13, 2009). Thus, it is unlikely that there will be a formal agreement between Beijing and Singapore along the lines of the U.S.-Singapore Memorandum of Understanding that guarantees the use of Changi Naval Base, as such a move would alarm Washington. However, at the same time there is no reason for Singapore to deny increased use of its facilities to PLAN ships that are transiting the area either on their way to the Indian Ocean or while on patrol in the South China Sea, and it is likely PLAN will make increased port calls to Singapore through a combination of goodwill visits, bilateral and multilateral exercises, and refueling stops.  

Conclusion

The ongoing debate in China and statements from public officials and academics regarding the need for shore based logistical support for PLAN forces have generated a great deal of attention as well as confusion. China’s investment in the construction of commercial port facilities in locations such as Gwadar and Hambantota is presented as evidence that it is seeking to build naval bases in the Indian Ocean. Yet, converting these facilities into the naval bases would require billions of dollars worth of military equipment and infrastructure in order to ensure their viability in wartime. Even then, the exposed position of these facilities makes their wartime utility dubious against an enemy equipped with long-range precision strike capability.  

However, China is in the process of developing a network of what the U.S. military refers to as “places” in the Indian Ocean in order to support forces deployed for non-traditional security missions such as the counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. In most instances, these locations will be places on an informal basis where the PLAN relies on commercial methods to support its forces as it has been doing now for over a year. Arguably, any port along the Indian Ocean littoral where China enjoys stable and positive relations is a potential place, although factors such as location, internal stability and recreational opportunities for sailors on liberty will certainly influence decisions on where and how often PLAN ships visit. The recent visit to Abu Dhabi by FF-525 and AOR-886, the first visit by PLAN warships to the United Arab Emirates is evidence of this sort of approach (Xinhua News Agency, March 25).  
Ports that are particularly important to the PLAN’s missions and overall posture in the Indian Ocean, such as Salalah, Aden, and possibly Karachi, could see the establishment of formal agreements that guarantee access and support to PLAN forces operating in and transiting the Indian Ocean in order to provide a secure and regular source of rest and supply. The development of a support network by China for its naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean represents a natural outgrowth of the ongoing counter-piracy mission and the PLAN’s tentative yet very real steps away from home waters into the global maritime domain (See “PLAN Shapes International Perception of Evolving Capabilities,” China Brief, February 4). Beijing’s official policy of non-interference is ostensibly an obstacle to the signing of any formal agreements providing for the logistics support to PLAN ships in the Indian Ocean. Yet, an appropriate level of legal nuance will likely be included in any agreement in order to ensure consistency with official policy as Beijing strives to achieve a balance between maintaining its policies and principles while adjusting to its growing place in the world.

Notes

1. The term "place" as opposed to a "base" was used by then Commander USPACOM, Admiral Thomas B. Fargo during a March 31, 2004 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, www.pacom.mil/speeches/sst2004/040331housearmedsvcscomm.shtml.
2. PRC Embassy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, "First F-22P Frigate Handed Over to Pakistan,” pk.chineseembassy.org/eng/zbgx/t576099.htm," July 30, 2009.


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