China’s Quest in the Indian Ocean

September 1, 2021 Updated: September 2, 2021


To make new forays into the Indian Ocean, the Chinese regime has found an alternate route in its new rail line through Burma (also known as Myanmar)—the first to link western China with the Indian Ocean.

With Burma acting as the land bridge, the rail line would allow China to build a strategic network—from Yunnan Province in the southwest through Burma to the Indian Ocean—that provides a secure route to its trade and energy imports. Since 95 percent of its trade and 80 percent of its energy imports pass through the Indian Ocean into the Straits of Malacca, China is anxious over maritime chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. Thus, Beijing wants to add such a maritime dimension to its geopolitical aspirations in order to safeguard its strategic and growing interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The Indian Ocean is the new limit to China’s great power aspirations.

The expansion in China’s maritime quest is founded in its new outlook toward “open seas protection” far from its shores. To that end, China’s “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is aimed to boost maritime connectivity with Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean littoral countries, which fuels Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. What augments this vision is the increased presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean along with port build-ups in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Burma, among other countries. In addition, China has carried out joint naval exercises with its partners in the Indian Ocean. For instance, in December 2019, China, along with Russia and Iran, held four-day joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. In January 2020, China and Pakistan held major joint naval exercises called the “Sea Gardens 2020,” joint training in Karachi, and live-fire drills in northern parts of the Arabian Sea.

Traditionally, Beijing’s strategic focus has mainly centered on the Pacific. However, as the international focus is shifting on the Indian Ocean, so is Beijing’s—this is exemplified by the 2013 “Blue Book” on the Indian Ocean, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Though not as an official policy, the Blue Book marked the very first attempt by Beijing to spell out its emerging interest and strategy in the Indian Ocean. The document mentions that in the past, “China’s Indian Ocean strategy was based on ‘moderation’ and ‘maintaining the status quo,’ but the changing dynamics of international relations necessitates China [to] play a more proactive role in [the] affairs of the region.”

Epoch Times Photo
A U.S. Navy helicopter approaches to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), as the USS Normandy sails in the Bay of Bengal during Exercise Malabar 2015, some 152 miles off the eastern coast of Chennai, India, on Oct. 17, 2015. Naval warships, aircraft carriers, and submarines from the United States, India, and Japan are conducting joint military exercises off India’s east coast, signaling the growing strategic ties between the three navies as they face up to a rising China. (Arun Sankar K./AP Photo)

Beijing’s quest has been further ratified by the 2015 White Paper’s emphasis on the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) need to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection,’” and to build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. This not only suggests Beijing’s greater military activities in the Indian Ocean, but also shows its “blue-water ambitions” to protect its overseas interests and sea lanes in the region.

The focus on the Indian Ocean exhibits Beijing’s new outlook, as the White Paper notes, “[T]he traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” This reflects the broadened scope of China’s security calculus from its internal security and territorial integrity to beyond its borders into the far-seas.

Such a dimensional shift increases the possibility of greater PLAN posturing in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by supplying military equipment to its allies, and building military bases and commercial ports in the littoral states. China’s action plan is seen through its collaboration with its “all-weather ally” Pakistan to build high-tech warships, China’s only overseas military base in Djibouti, and two strategic ports—Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka—that are already docked with Chinese warships and submarines.

Pakistan and Burma are identified as the two gateways for the Chinese entry into the Indian Ocean—with Pakistan providing direct access to the Strait of Hormuz and Burma providing access through the Bay of Bengal. This is exemplified by China’s key Belt and Road projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Mekong sub-regional economic cooperation.

With these advancements at play, China has made fresh forays into the Indian Ocean, significantly upsetting the regional balance of power and stability. But Beijing faces major challenges in safeguarding its vital interests in the region, including India’s strategic geographical presence, U.S. military predominance in the IOR, and above all, the increasing interest among countries to align toward the Indo-Pacific vision as underlined under the Quad framework.

In the Indian Ocean, the Chinese regime will see its great power aspirations fall short as it is not a primary player in the region, compared to other regional actors such as India.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Amrita Jash
Dr. Amrita Jash is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal-India. She has been a Pavate Fellow at the Department of POLIS, University of Cambridge. She holds a Ph.D. in Chinese studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the book “The Concept of Active Defence in China’s Military Strategy” (Pentagon Press, 2021).