Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 18, 2020
China’s energy interests, constant pursuit for natural resources, expanding commercial interests combined with a quickly growing diaspora in the Indian Ocean Region will guarantee that PLAN’s presence continues to develop in power.
Vital sea lanes of communications as a core interest for China: Inferences for India’s national security

China’s meteoric rise has significant implications for India given its historically complicated bilateral relations, current asymmetric power disadvantage and increasingly competitive aspirational future between both countries. China has been gradually enhancing its strategic influence in India’s neighbourhood. The recent boundary standoff in Ladakh over territorial claims has accompanied parallel cartographic claims by Nepal and Pakistan with possible prodding from China. Territorial claims are matters of a country’s core interest that is non-negotiable and it is prepared to use force to have control. While Pakistan and Nepal’s territorial claims may not prove to be serious challenges given India’s comprehensive national power vis-à-vis these countries, there are evident trends emerging from China’s pronouncements of its core interests that have implications for India’s National Security particularly in its immediate neighbourhood.

Evident trends

First, China has always stated its core interests broadly providing it the flexibility to highlight specific issues as they become salient. The inclusion of ‘national security’ in Dai Bingguo’s enunciation of core interests in 2009 and in China’s first official listing of core interests in the 2011 white paper provides its leadership with a wide canvas to include any issue citing national security reasons in the future. Second, with enhancing military capabilities and growing economic leverages, China will not dilute or scale back pursuing its core interests. It will, instead, continue to expand alongside China’s growing comprehensive national power and also remain flexible to reflect changing priorities. Third, China’s leadership has placed the responsibility of safeguarding core interests firmly on the Chinese armed forces. It has also announced its desire to create an efficient military force particularly in the maritime domain to fight a short duration, high intensity regional informatised war.

Inferences for India

Historically, China has relied on maritime routes having been a significant trading nation, which has only increased considerably in recent times. China’s shipping, at nearly 15 per cent, accounts the largest share of the world’s shipping fleet. During the past two decades, China has understood the criticality of IOR due to multiple factors. In the next 30 years, it is expected to consume twice its energy requirements, which in turn will increase its dependence on imports for meeting these requirements indicating that its trade route is likely to remain similar. 75–80 per cent of its energy imports transported by sea, will have to transit through the IOR. The geographical contour of the Maritime Silk Road initiative, connecting with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Gwadar port, is besides the East to West shipping route that intersects the Indian Ocean and is China’s primary channel for energy supplies.

Second, its 13th Five Year Plan (FYP), framed in March 2016, focuses on projects for developing high-end equipment and systems for deep-sea investigation, ocean drilling, seafloor resources assessment and development, and marine tasks support. Chinese deep-sea exploration vessels, like its manned submersible Jiaolong in February 2017, are already undertaking research in the Indian Ocean. The International Seabed Authority has also awarded it a contract for seabed exploration for polymetallic sulphides in the region. Such exercises also enable generating data and information, which can be used for achieving military objectives including for underwater actions.

The geographical contour of the Maritime Silk Road initiative, connecting with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Gwadar port, is besides the East to West shipping route that intersects the Indian Ocean and is China’s primary channel for energy supplies.

Third, China is strengthening economic engagement including increasing exports, FDI flows under the BRI, selling military equipments and depending for various natural resources on IOR littoral countries. It has invested heavily in Africa on ports along the Eastern coast and has established its first military base in Djibouti in 2017. It is also constructing a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, constructing the CPEC and Gwadar port in Pakistan, constructing the Colombo port and operating the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. There are increased FDI flows to countries like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles and exports to IOR countries are amounting to 7-8% of its total trade and growing at 10% annually. China is also dependent on South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand for numerous natural resources like metals, ores, minerals and also for agricultural raw materials like natural rubber, raw cotton and various fibers.

Perceived vulnerability

The sea routes through the Indian Ocean, that China has to use for various purposes as above, contain key geographical choke points like the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca Straits, Lombok Straits and Sunda Straits. China’s naval presence to nullify perceived challenges along these SLOCs is insufficient presently. At least theoretically speaking, Chinese ships are vulnerable to interception by a hostile rival in a possible conflict or even potential aggressive action in international waters. The PLAN has been forced to alter its “focus from offshore waters defense to the combination of offshore waters defence with open seas protection” by such a scenario.


The Indian Ocean figures prominently in China’s strategic thought. The 13th FYP, which outlines the overarching objectives to be completed for 2016-2020, prominently includes developing China into a strong maritime country. One of the important objectives identified is to protect and expand its maritime rights and interests. China is also aiming to participate actively in establishing and protecting international and regional maritime order, which is a clear revelation that it does not accept the prevailing status quo.

The Indian Ocean figures prominently in China’s strategic thought.

President Xi Jinping has avowed, in July 2013, that China would “never abandon its legitimate maritime rights and interests; furthermore, it will never sacrifice its core national interests.” The Defence White Paper 2013 states that: “The seas and oceans provide immense space and abundant resources for China’s sustainable development, and thus, are of vital importance to the people’s well-being and China’s future.” The White Paper on Military Strategy 2015 observes that — “With the growth of China’s national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic SLOCs has become an imminent issue.”

Increasing presence in the IOR 

Before 2008, PLAN operated primarily in its coastal waters and the Western Pacific. Post 2008, PLAN has taken steps towards enabling this capability through one, anti-piracy missions along the Somalia coast and in the Gulf of Aden providing ample opportunity especially after the UNSC resolution in December 2008. It was initially involved in only escorting merchant vessels carrying humanitarian relief material for international organisations before subsequently expanding ambit to include escort of other nations ships. Second, PLAN ships have been also deployed for conducting exercises in the region and visiting countries including India. Its anti-piracy task forces have conducted workouts with other navies including the Royal Australian Navy and the Pakistan Navy in the IOR. Its naval personnel are now training and providing support in operating newly acquired platforms in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran and many African countries. Third, Chinese intelligence gathering ships are frequently visible observing movement and producing operational data in the IOR. Fourth, a submarine was deployed apparently for anti-piracy in end 2013; another submarine reportedly docked at Colombo port for refueling in 2014 and a submarine was reported at Gwadar in November 2016. Fifth, PLAN has also assisted in evacuating its citizens and other foreign nationals, for the first time, in Libya in 2011 and in Yemen in 2015. Then Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lamba stated in 2019 that the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean at any juncture is reckoned to be six to eight vessels, besides the submarines.


These regular deployments and joint exercises in the IOR have enabled PLAN to ensure a high degree of interoperability, achieve primary experience of the operating environment, necessary exposure to create scenarios for future conflict and develop proficiency in efficiently supporting extended far-off operations over lengthy durations.

Access to the critical IOR SLOCs will remain a matter of vital importance to China in the future. China’s energy interests, constant pursuit for natural resources, expanding commercial interests combined with a quickly growing diaspora in the IOR will guarantee that PLAN’s presence continues to develop in power. Consequently, it will remain noticeably in all strategic thought and dominate maritime and military policy. Although, officially, China’s interests or plan in the IOR has not been outlined yet, there is a possibility that it will include the protection of vital SLOCs, under which IOR could be categorised, as part of its core interests in the future. This has significant implications for India’s ability to operate freely in the region.

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L. Venkateswaran

L. Venkateswaran

L. Venkateswaran is a Global Fellow with the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars Washington DC. He has previously worked with ...

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