- Securing the Maritime Silk Road in South Asia and the Indian Ocean
For roughly fifteen years, China's commercial and military activities in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean have caused increasing concern about its intentions in the region. China specialists have examined the country's energy interests and naval planning along its sea lines of communication.1 The proliferation of commercial infrastructure projects now branded under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has heightened these concerns about China's presence in the Indian Ocean region. Prominent infrastructure efforts include port development in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, while lower-profile efforts include tunnel and bridge construction in Bangladesh and Maldives.
These developments have raised questions about how China is attempting to secure the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR)—the waterway "road" component of BRI—in South Asia and across the Indian Ocean region more broadly. Because Pakistan will be examined by another essay in this roundtable and the China-Pakistan relationship is long-standing and predates BRI activities, this essay focuses on what China's activities look like elsewhere in maritime South Asia and out to critical Indian Ocean chokepoints.
Despite notable changes in the country's presence in the Indian Ocean over the last decade, to what extent is China securing its commercial interests using naval and maritime forces? If it indeed aims to do this in a comprehensive way, then the results are modest at present. The first section of this essay examines the evidence that China is working to secure its interests in the region. The next section describes challenges to China's efforts to do so and the galvanizing effects of its activities thus far. The essay will conclude by emphasizing the importance of monitoring potential indicators of a substantive shift in the Indian Ocean and South Asian order, [End Page 21] despite the limited scope of China's activities to secure the MSR to date, and by considering the implications for U.S. interests in the region.
Is China Securing the MSR?
The clearest examples of China acting to secure the MSR are the counterpiracy and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs) conducted by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the establishment of a base in the far fringes of the Indian Ocean at the chokepoint in Djibouti.
Since 2008, Beijing has sent a PLA Navy task force to the Gulf of Aden. Originating out of UN resolutions to combat piracy,2 China's military vessels have transited the Indian Ocean for the past decade, providing escort activity that aims to secure the safe passage of shipping, including for Chinese commercial vessels. China has used this mission to justify the deployment of submarines. These were clearly not in support of counterpiracy but instead appeared to be aimed at gaining operational experience far from home for this platform.3 As Admiral (ret.) Michael McDevitt observes, at any given time the PLA Navy has four to five surface ships and two support ships transiting the Indian Ocean, plus occasionally a submarine.4 India's chief of naval staff Admiral Sunil Lanba estimates a similar number (six to eight ships).5
Second, China conducted NEOs in response to domestic instability in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In total, roughly 35,000 Chinese nationals were evacuated from Libya using Chinese civilian and military aircraft and ships,6 and nearly 1,000 Chinese and foreign nationals were evacuated from Yemen.7 Through such operations, China secured an important MSR asset—its citizens working in these countries. [End Page 22]
Third, China established a military base in Djibouti in 2017. Although China had stated for decades that it had no intention of developing overseas bases, its counterpiracy operations as well as NEOs pointed to the potential benefits of having logistical support in place.8 The base leverages Djibouti's location at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait chokepoint, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. China's presence at this far corner of the Indian Ocean shows the expanse of its operational reach across the region.
Challenges to China Securing the MSR
Through conducting counterpiracy operations and NEOs and establishing a base...