Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

China's Navy Extends Its Combat Reach to the Indian Ocean *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

China's Navy Extends Its Combat Reach to the Indian Ocean *

Article excerpt

U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

In early 2014, a Chinese surface action group (SAG) carried out a sophisticated training exercise spanning the South China Sea (SCS), eastern Indian Ocean, and Philippine Sea. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy used the 23-day deployment to improve operational proficiencies for antisubmarine warfare, air defense, electronic warfare, and expeditionary logistics; train to seize disputed islands and reefs in the SCS; enhance its ability to conduct integrated and multi-disciplinary operations; and demonstrate to the Indo-Pacific region that China's combat reach now extends to the eastern Indian Ocean.1 Although the PLA Navy in the near term likely will not seek to develop the ability to establish sea control or sustain combat operations in the Indian Ocean against a modern navy, PLA Navy operations within weapons range of U.S. bases and operating areas in the region probably will become more frequent as China expands and modernizes its fleet of submarines and surface combatants.

The SAG consisted of the Changbaishan YUZHAO-class amphibious transport dock (LPD), the Wuhan LUYANG I-class guided-missile destroyer (DDG), and the Haikou LUYANG II-class DDG. At approximately 20,000 tons, the YUZHAO LPD is China's largest indigenously-built ship class. During the deployment, the Changbaishan embarked China's only operational YUYI air-cushion landing craft (LCUA),[dagger] three helicopters, and one company of marines. The LUYANG I DDG and LUYANG II DDG are two of China's most capable multirole destroyers. The Wuhan and Haikou participated in China's first counterpiracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden in 2009 as well China's first- and second-ever joint naval exercises with Russia in 2012 and 2013,2 signifying Beijing's confidence in these particular ships as well as its desire to use modern, domestically-produced vessels for high-profile missions to highlight the PLA Navy's modernization.

CHINA EXPANDING PRESENCE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN

The SAG deployment marks the first time the PLA Navy has conducted what official Chinese sources refer to as a "combat readiness patrol," or "blue-water training," in the Indian Ocean. Although the PLA Navy has made forays into the region since at least 1985,3 its presence there has increased considerably over the last five years.

· Since January 2009, the PLA Navy has sustained counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to protect Chinese commercial shipping interests. The inaugural counterpiracy patrol represented China's first operational deployment of naval forces outside of China's regional waters aside from naval diplomacy.4

· In 2012, the PLA Navy for the first time began to deploy maritime intelligence collection ships to the Indian Ocean.15F 5 These ships likely have equipment enabling them to collect signals and electronic intelligence, map the ocean floor, and gather bathymetric data,6 suggesting the PLA Navy may be building the foundation for more routine naval operations in the region in the near term.

· Over the last few years, China has played a large role in financing and constructing civilian port infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, including the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka,7 the Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka,8 and Gwadar Port in Pakistan.9 Furthermore, PLA Navy counterpiracy task groups have made port calls in at least 12 regional countries for resupply and replenishment and military-to-military engagements.10 Chinese investments in commercial ports in the Indian Ocean and Chinese naval diplomacy with countries in the region probably will improve the PLA Navy's ability to replenish using regional ports and could lay the groundwork for future logistics hubs in the Indian Ocean.

The PLA Navy's growing operations in the Indian Ocean almost certainly reflect China's desire to improve its ability to combat perceived threats to sea routes vital to its economic development. Most of China's energy and raw material imports travel through the Indian Ocean, including over 80 percent of China's crude oil imports. …

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