China’s presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is likely to grow significantly in coming years, principally driven by the country’s expanding economic interests. While China’s military presence will grow, its missions will likely remain limited. Achieving military predominance in the IOR would be a major undertaking requiring decades of sustained expansion of military capabilities and local security partnerships. Instead, in the short to medium term, China’s military capabilities will principally reflect its imperatives to protect nationals and assets. These capabilities will likely evolve over time to provide options in respect to a wider range of contingencies.
- China’s future military presence in the IOR will grow as a function of its unique strategic imperatives, which principally include the protection of its sea lines of communication and the protection of Chinese nationals and economic interests.
- China’s naval presence will likely evolve to provide capabilities to respond to an ever- broader range of contingencies. However, it would be a major challenge for China to achieve sea control across the Indian Ocean, even in the long term.
- To protect Chinese nationals and assets, Beijing will primary rely on local security forces and private security contractors, and will deploy ready response units such as the Chinese marines only where necessary.
- China will also need to develop its long-range and expeditionary air-power capabilities to support naval and non-warlike operations. This will require the development of local infrastructure and access arrangements across the IOR.
- We should not assume that China’s military presence in the IOR will necessarily resemble the current US presence. Australia will need to craft a strategy that addresses a sizeable but not predominant Chinese military presence within a multipolar strategic environment.
Dr David Brewster is a Senior Research Fellow with the National Security College, Australian National University, where he works on Indian Ocean security and Indo Pacific issues.
Dr Brewster’s books include India as an Asia Pacific power, about India’s strategic role in the Asia Pacific and India’s Ocean: the story of India’s bid for regional leadership which examines India’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
His latest edited volume is India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean, about Indian and Chinese perspectives about their roles in the Indian Ocean and their evolving naval strategies.
Dr Brewster is also the author of The Red Flag Follows Trade: China’s Future as an Indian Ocean Power in Strategic Asia 2019 which examines scenarios for the development of China’s future military presence in the Indian Ocean.
In March 2019, Dr Brewster released an ASPI special report: Australia’s Second Sea: Facing our Multipolar Future in the Indian Ocean.