Gwadar: China’s Pivot into the Indian Ocean?


2015-06-12  By Gulshan Luthra and Cmde Ranjit Rai (Retd)

Singapore. The sea is a dangerous place, getting miniaturized due to the ever-growing number of naval and merchant vessels, factors that mandate internationally cooperative efforts to maintain the peace and stability of the established Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) as well as neutrality of the waters.

This was an important observation made at seminars on the sidelines of naval exhibition IMDEX in May, particularly by Prof Geoffrey Till, a respected naval historian based here with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He observed, quite emphatically, that China’s interest in the Indian Ocean along with the rapid expansion of its naval capabilities cannot be taken lightly.

Notably, there are strong military ties between Beijing and Islamabad, and China has provided and paid for the development of Gwadar port, next to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, and not far away from Indian shores.

China’s intent to claim much of the South China Sea by establishing artificial islands is already troubling this part of the Pacific. Further movement of its nuclear and non-nuclear vessels, including submarines, westwards into the Indian Ocean should be worrying not only for India but other countries as well.

Prof Till wasn’t the only one to express this concern. Everyone except the Chinese in fact said so. The Americans were emphatic, and top to bottom, officers simply said they didn’t care about China’s synthetic claims, echoing what Admiral Harry Harris Jr, Commander of the US Pacific Command, has often said (and declared repeatedly by successive US Secretaries of Defense, including the newly-appointed Ashton Carter).

Japanese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Akitaka Saika has observed that China had violated Japanese waters more than 130 times, and Japan has warned them off “in Chinese” without trying to provoke hostilities.

Beijing’s apparent aim is to control virtually the entire South China Sea, a position not acceptable to any one.

Why does China create ripples with nearly all its neighbors?

Admiral Michelle Howard, US Navy’s first four-star distinguished lady officer, serving as Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), categorically demanded: I think it is now time for China to talk about what the reclamation of land means. There is a purpose to it and I think in terms of helping everybody, who lives in this part of the world to understand the Why, it would be helpful for China to explain it.”

She discounted any chances of any conflict with Chinese forces though, saying there was an established mechanism to prevent a clash.

China has steadily warned US ships and aircraft to keep off its newly created-and-claimed areas while the US Navy continues to go where it wishes to “in the international waters.” In fact, soon after the Singapore show, the US Navy sent a P8-A Poseidon maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the area being reclaimed by China.

This “string of pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties includes the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma, electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, funding construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military agreement with Cambodia and building up of forces in the South China Sea, Credit: Japan Focus
This “string of pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties includes the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma, electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, funding construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military agreement with Cambodia and building up of forces in the South China Sea, Credit: Japan Focus

Nonetheless, China has declared that it would continue to build the islands as well as defensive and offensive air, naval and land capabilities.

It will also build lighthouses and defenses in the disputed Spratly islands, which are claimed also by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Singapore is a beautiful city, a good host, and many countries from the Pacific and elsewhere were invited to IMDEX, the region’s International Maritime Defence Exhibition. There were delegations from India, China, Vietnam, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Germany, France, Sweden, US, Italy, Bahrain, Oman, Spain, Israel and Pakistan. Many countries displayed their ships at the Changi Naval Base with India showcasing INS Satpura, a multirole stealth ship, and INS Kamorta, an anti-submarine corvette.

Rear Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh, Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet (FOCEF), was there to congratulate his hosts on the 50th Anniversary of Indo-Singapore diplomatic relations, and to coordinate the annual naval exercise with the Singapore Navy (Simbex – 15, or Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise).

Additional Director General and Indian Coast Guard Commander (West) Surinder Pal Singh Basra was also invited by the Singapore Navy.

To recall, operational interaction between the Indian Navy and Royal Singapore Navy commenced with ASW training exercises in 1994, and formalized as an annual bilateral exercise in 1999.

Over 20 years, SIMBEX has grown in tactical and operational complexity, transcending from the traditional emphasis on ASW to more complex maritime exercises involving various facets of Naval operations such as Air Defence, Air and Surface Practice Firing, Maritime Security and Search and Rescue.

In 2014, Simbex-14 was conducted May 22-28 off Port Blair in which RSN ships Valour and Independence participated, while the Indian Navy was represented by Guided Missile Corvettes Karmuk, Kuthar and Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) Dornier.

This year, RSN ship Supreme and submarine Archer along with MPA and fighter aircraft took part, and the Indian Navy brought in its Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Anti Submarine (LRMR-ASW) aircraft P 8I, which is now well integrated into its force structure.

The US displayed its latest Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Fort Worth with one manned and one unmanned helicopters , and significantly, for the first time in aviation history, the same pilot can fly either of the two aircraft, up in the air or from the control station on the ship. Appropriately, the squadron of these pilots is called Magicians. The machines on board were Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin MH 60R Seahawks and Northrop Grumman’s MQ 8 Fire Scout, both of which are on offer to India.

All the countries including Singapore, India, Malaysia, Australia, US and others allowed the media to visit their ships, some 20 of them all.

There was one exception, the Chinese ship, Jiangkai class frigate Yulin (569) with C 803 Missile and Harbin Z-9 helicopter (copy of French Dauphin) was kept away from the prying eyes of newsmen.

The event was apparently a show of capabilities, and as far as intent was concerned, China insisted the growth of its naval power was just for peace and stability.


Rear Admiral Shen Jinlong, who exchanged courtesy visits onboard some of the participating ships, including INS Satpura, told India Strategic that China wanted good relations with everyone. He warned the US to keep out, and in reply to a question, said India had no locus standi in the region.

Addressing a seminar, he had claimed that China’s policy is “defensive in nature, actively developing friendly relations with the rest of the world.”

Admiral Jinlong, who is commander of the Chinese navy’s South China Fleet – that operates in the area where China is reclaiming 2000 acres of sea by artificially building islands – also said: A new security concept should be unfolded; keep yourself safe while making others safe and jointly build a harmonious and stable environment…. We should adhere to solve maritime disputes in a peaceful way, reduce suspicions, understand each other, control risks, avoid conflict and strive for win-win situations.”

He said that any dispute in the region should be left to the countries in the region to resolve, an argument not accepted by others as China is not talking about its established waters but outside them to claim what it shares with most of its neighbors, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam etc.

Prof Till said that China has to understand that the South China Sea does not belong to China just as the Indian Ocean does not belong to India. The established maritime boundaries must not be disturbed, and the freedom of navigation should continue to be there for all nations as has been historically so.

All the countries, from Australia to the US, are members of the international community, and should be free to operate in South China Sea or the Indian Ocean or the Pacific.

That should include both India and China.

But does China accept this?

Apparently NO.

It is the observation of these writers that China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean should be a big worry for India, particularly the creation of a Chinese naval base at Gwadar.

China and Pakistan are military allies, and Pakistan continues to needle India in every way, fair or foul, military or terrorism notwithstanding its own dissipation due to internal troubles.

It may be recalled that while India sought Soviet technical support in building the Visakhapatnam naval base, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was firm in not accepting Soviet funds, for that would have made it difficult for her to say a NO to Moscow in permitting a Soviet naval base there.

Soviet technicians were allowed only to help maintain the submarines and vessels that India bought, and their mess deck – staying place at the base – was named Kremlin. That was all.

The Kremlin is still there, and interestingly, Mr. Carter, who is the first US Secretary of Defense to visit an Indian naval base on June 2, would have passed by it. It is not known if anybody drew his attention to this building, located very near the entry gate of the Eastern Naval Command.

Mr. Carter is continuing with US efforts to draw India into a rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific region, and cooperation against China is one of the items on his agenda. India may or may not get drawn into it, but a lot will depend upon what China does in the Indian Ocean.

In the case of Pakistan, China has paid for the development of the Gwadar port, and much more. It is logical that it will begin with commercial vessels and then gradually station and service its warship and submarines there. China is also giving Pakistan eight submarines, and Chinese maintenance personnel, engineers, and apparently others, will come there as part of the initial package. Islamabad will not hesitate in helping Beijing, particularly as China has now become the source of a substantial largesse – US$ 46 billion in addition to whatever is already given.


Pakistan has always depended on doles from the US, and even used terrorism to demand more. Post the 9/11 terror attacks on the US; equations between Washington and Islamabad are bound to wither over time. The entry of China as a one-way generous friend in terms of money, is a welcome opportunity for Pakistan.

With nearly 70 submarines, a few aircraft carriers in the making, large amphibious aircraft and other seaborne capabilities, the Chinese navy seems ready to venture out.

China will not explain to the Americans the Why of their build-up in the South China Sea, or their increasing naval forays into the Indian Ocean. But China is there in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, it has systematically been creating surface links from there to Gwadar.

China has also been challenging India on its Himalayan border.

Or for that matter, challenging all its neighbors as well.

Watch out, Dear World, there is trouble ahead.

China has the will, money, capability, and intent to throw new challenges on the horizon.

Gwadar, built by it, paid for by it, and maintained by it, will be the pivot of its naval strategy in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Reprinted with permission of our strategic partner, India Strategic:

Also, see the following:

Editor’s Note: China and Russia both wish to make conflict in their key regions about conflict with the United States. 

The reality is very different.

It is about conflict with its neighbors within which the U.S. is an ally of those neighbors.

It is about self-defense coupled with what ever allies can bring to the defense of the country being pressured by either China or Russia.

For a Japanese and French joint perspective on the Chinese actions in the South China Sea. see the following:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Francois Hollande shared concern Sunday over China’s reclamation projects in disputed areas of the South China Sea also claimed by other countries, a Japanese official said.

On the fighting in Ukraine, Abe and Hollande agreed it is important for all countries concerned, including Russia, to implement a cease-fire agreement to halt fighting between government forces and pro-Russia rebels, according to the official.

The Japanese and French leaders met on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Schloss Elmau, south of Munich.

The other G-7 members are Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United States.

Abe told Hollande that China has been pushing ahead with reclamation “at a rapid pace” in the area, the official said.

China has built artificial islands and facilities on them in disputed parts of the sea, provoking other claimants including the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.