From submarines to warships: How Chinese navy is expanding its footprint in Indian Ocean
Anti-piracy patrols and freedom of navigation are the reasons cited by China for its increased presence in the Indian Ocean, forcing New Delhi to tighten surveillance of the strategic waters, government sources have said.
The deployment of Chinese naval units in the Indian Ocean is being closely monitored by the Indian Navy amid Beijing’s increased forays into the region.
“Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean has touched a new high in recent months. We are using our surveillance assets quite extensively to monitor their movement,” a navy source told HT on Wednesday.
The Indian Navy has sighted more than a dozen Chinese warships, including submarines, destroyers and intelligence-gathering vessels, in the Indian Ocean during the last two months.
The sightings assume significance as the two militaries are in a three-week-long standoff at an India-China-Bhutan trijunction close to the Sikkim border.
Beijing has raised the pitch and its media are warning of a war, demanding India withdraw its troops from the Doklam, a disputed region.
The increased presence of Chinese warships coincides with the Sikkim standoff but the trend had remained the same for several months, navy officials said.
The Chinese deployment in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most important shipping routes, accounts for four to five warships at any given time.
The periodic rotation of these units gave the Chinese navy the opportunity to deploy a variety of assets in the region, officials said. “Chinese submarines have been spotted in the region. Such assets are not used for anti-piracy operations. They are clearly making their presence felt in the region,” a naval officer said on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to media.
The Indian Navy has been present in the Gulf of Aden since October 2008 and so far, 64 warships have been involved in anti-piracy operations.
India has one warship in the area at any given time. Navy data shows that Indian warships have so far made 41 interventions in the Gulf of Aden, a natural sea link between the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and escorted 3,765 ships, including 394 Indian-flagged vessels. It has also apprehended 120 pirates and rescued 74 fishermen.
The officials said China has been deploying submarines in the Gulf of Aden regularly since 2014. “The pattern is they deploy a submarine for three months followed by a three-month break,” the officials said.
The imminent commissioning of a Chinese base and support facility at Djibouti in Horn of Africa will boost Beijing’s ability to sustain naval units in the Indian Ocean.
Sources said Chinese navy research vessels have been mapping the region for both military and economic purposes. The presence of submarines has been confirmed through the sighting of Chinese navy’s submarine support vessels.
Sources said Chinese intelligence-gathering ships would be prowling the Indian Ocean to track Malabar, an international naval exercise involving the US, India and Japan. The week-long exercise begins July 10.
India is using its satellites, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and surface ships to keep a track of the “unusual surge” in Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean, the sources said.
China has stepped up activities in the Indian Ocean where it is building ports and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Indian Ocean figures prominently in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative to build a new Silk Route.
New Delhi is buying 22 Guardian unarmed drones from the US to keep a close watch on the Indian Ocean. The purchase cleared by the US during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US has caused unease in China.