- China’s Emerging Indo-Pacific Naval Strategy
Although China has not formally put forward an Indo-Pacific naval strategy, the new national defense strategy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Fighting Regional Informatized War, has changed the strategy of the PLA Navy (PLAN) from focusing on one ocean (the Pacific) to focusing on two oceans (the Pacific and Indian). As part of its mission in the far seas, the PLAN will require new blue water capabilities in the medium to long term. In short, the Indian Ocean is becoming a linchpin for China’s new global naval reach. This essay argues that China is developing its military strategy for the Indian Ocean to protect and defend its economic and security interests in those waters. As a result, China’s maritime presence there will only increase over time.
The Indian Ocean and the Nexus of PLA and PLAN Strategies
China’s national defense strategy assists the navy in setting service missions, development goals, and combat engagement rules. This paper includes just one conceptual guideline to shed light on PLAN activities in the Indian Ocean.1
China’s sixth national defense strategy, first adopted in 2004 and updated in 2015, introduced a new concept of “frontier defense, which enriched the original strategy and has immediate relevance to PLAN expansion.” This does not refer merely to defense of China’s geographic boundaries but also to protection of its new open-ended frontiers of national and economic security interests. It heavily factors in potential hostile scenarios against China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Frontier defense entails efforts to both establish a forward naval presence and develop the long-range power-projection capabilities to sustain such a presence. This concept departs from the PLA’s time-honored continental mentality in war planning that had dominated previous defense strategies and favored the role of the army [End Page 11] in the overall force structure. Although the PLA continues to maintain its homeland-based defense posture, frontier defense requires it to extend warfighting into the global commons as a way to enlarge China’s strategic space. This requires the projection of new “play Go” posturing and the establishment of multidimensional war zones, including outer space and cyberspace.2 A primary pillar for frontier defense involves the PLAN’s capabilities for far-sea operations against a major sea power, and increasing the PLAN’s effective combat reach into the Indian Ocean has been set as a capability criterion and medium-term objective. This is a consequence of Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative to increase connectivity to Europe through a northern land route and to Africa through a southern maritime corridor connecting China with the Middle East, which places a greater onus on the PLAN to protect China’s SLOCs.
Another important nexus between China’s national defense strategy and naval strategy is the PLA’s two “1.5 war” doctrines. With the prospect of a land war disappearing, the country’s security gravity has shifted from the western and northern land borders to the eastern coastal flank. If the PLA is dragged into a full maritime conflict in the East and South China Seas with the United States and Japan, India may take advantage by encroaching farther across the disputed Sino-Indian land borders. This is the first 1.5 war scenario.3 The second scenario also involves India. If a sizeable maritime war erupts in East Asia, the Indian Navy may be called on to disrupt China’s SLOCs in the Indian Ocean in order to both strengthen India’s position in the Sino-Indian border dispute and help U.S. operations in the Pacific. Both scenarios regard India as a potential threat. In response, the PLA’s frontier defense would inevitably require the PLAN to expand its one-ocean strategy into a two-ocean strategy (the western Pacific Ocean plus the northern Indian Ocean) and thus extend its naval combat reach into the Indian Ocean rim.
The Indian Ocean in the PLAN’s Naval War Scenario
The PLAN’s doctrinal evolution has seen several major adjustments since 1987, each expanding its range of activities...