The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  A Chinese Navy destroyer (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Four defence experts in conversation about the Chinese navy, its strategic designs, and what India can do to checkmate Beijing's expansionist agenda.

This was all a new team today.These guys were raring to get cracking at Chinese analysis. Major decided that let’s dedicate one week to each important section so as to give readers a detailed and more importantly, simplified version of the issue.This week, they planned to cover the South China sea and PLA Navy. In coming weeks, Army, Air Force and other aspects of China would be covered in detail.

Manik (@Manik_M_Jolly) was already in the room when all the guys came in. Post basic introductions, every sat down and Manik unrolled the map of South China sea, and said “This, and Navy is what we are going to focus on today. But entry in this sea, is through Malacca strait. So to get an even better perspective, let’s hear what Niranjan has to say about China’s dependence on Malacca strait and how India can potentially exploit it.

Niranjan (@Necris121): Ok, so to start with, we know how important Malacca strait is for South Asian trade. As for China, it is responsible for 80 per cent for their oil import all the way from the port of Sudan.Therefore, we need to understand how China’s ‘String of pearls’ functions. Since their investment in the Djibouti military base, China has been making steady moves around the Indian Peninsula and developing strategic ports there.Control of the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf is crucial for oil trade in the Indian subcontinent and by conjunction, the rest of Asia.China, in its move to stay ahead of their energy needs while keeping a strategic position against India, has in this move tried very hard to maintain a sense of security for the crucial Malacca Strait that connects the Pearls to their side of the map.

Presently, China’s navy outnumbers India’s 3-1 and naval action with those numbers is very risky.But through positioning and control of certain exploitable choke points, we can achieve a goal that could potentially turn the tide in our favour.

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

1: Port Sudan, Sudan (strategic corridor through Suez Canal);

2: Djibouti (strategic corridor through gulf of Aden);

3: Al Ahdab, Iraq (oil field connecting strategic corridor through Persian gulf to Gulf of Oman);4: Gwadar, Pakistan (Naval Base, Port);

5: Marao Atoll, Maldives (possible Military base);

6: Hambantota, Sri Lanka (port, possible Military base);

7: Chattogram, Bangladesh (possible military installation, port);

8: Kyaukpyu, Myanmar (port, connecting inland dry port);9: Coco Islands, Myanmar (Naval Base);

10: Kra Isthmus, Thailand (Naval Base port);

11: Sihanoukville, Cambodia (Naval access);

12: Spratly Islands, disputed Malaysia, Taiwan, Philippines, China, Brunei, Vietnam (Air base);

13: Paracel Islands, disputed China, Vietnam and Taiwan [Primary Control China (Air base)];

14: Hainan, China (Air Base);

15: Hong Kong (Airbase)

Also, China is in the process of developing the Thai canal which could potentially reduce their dependence on the Malacca Strait drastically.

China’s primary naval bases are to the east of Vietnam and this leaves the Western side of that surrounding the strait relatively harder to manage.Indonesia, Malaysia and the city state of Singapore hold the littoral rights for the Strait; Indonesia is controlling the majority of the sea lane.Suffice to say that none of these nations particularly play well with China. To choke China along the lines of the strait will be a huge blow to the fundamental functioning of the country and cripple its aggression.China, being wary of this, has made bases several sites close to the strait. Notably the Coco Islands Naval base followed by the Kyaukpyu port in the Myanmar landmass.Although this formation spreads very well in Bay of Bengal, India has the Sittwe port that is to the North West of Kyaukpyu, and in the south of the Coco islands, are the existing Indian island states, Andaman and Nicobar.The islands are equipped with the capacity to provide for a naval manoeuvre.

Here comes the opportunity of a possible killing blow. The smoking gun with us is the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which was created for the purpose of security and strategic management of the islands and the Strait of Malacca.The A&N islands constitute just 0.2 per cent of India’s landmass, but provide for 30 per cent (600,000 sq km) of the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).This is especially convenient if there are to be naval blockades around the Coco Islands base and the Kyaukpyu port, cutting the ‘string’ so as to say.

To the south lie the 10 degree channel, which separates the Andaman and Nicobar islands and the 6 degree channel that extends from Indira Point to the Aceh province of Indonesia.

With some substantial planning, a line of blockades could be formed extending from Sittwe to Aceh, which cuts off Chittagong from Kyaukpyu, and the chain further from continuing into the strait towards the South China sea.

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

Attempting to control any trade movement past Andaman towards Thailand could prove impractical.As for the navy employed, it is imperative to maintain a steady presence in the Arabian Sea because of threats like Pakistan. Ergo, the Eastern naval command could devise an aggressive manoeuvre, utilising bases in the ANC to secure this sort of fibre wire that chokes the Chinese lifeline.Until the CPEC project in Pakistan or the Thai canal connecting Kra to Sihanoukville concludes, and provides a potential route for transport of energy resources for China, and even after that, the Malacca Strait is still just as important.

Major: Ok. Good input. Also India is strategically increasing its presence in the region. In Vietnam, we have a Submarine Training School, which is also our largest naval engagement outside India.Also, India is in talks with Indonesia to gain access to the Sabang port that is in the Aceh province. We could exercise control over the strait and Lombok and Sunda further, though Malaysia is slowly being seduced by the Chinese to cooperate, which could prove problematic.

Niranjan: That’s all I had on Malacca. I guess the maps are pretty self explanatory.

Major: Yes, thanks Niranjan. Great debut and good job on maps. Moving over to you Uma, I believe you have compiled some information about the South China Sea and its importance to China.

Umashankar (@dataguyredux): I have. So, The history of Chinese aggression can itself be the subject of a thesis. But, in simple terms, we can say that real genesis starts with the Mongol-dominated Yuan dynasty, which subsequently followed Maritime control all the way till West Africa under the Ming dynasty, with the great admiral Zheng He.

It will be fair to assume that China will stick to its strategy of not giving maps, and claim control all the way, depending on its ability to project power.

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  
The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

Current claims:

  1. Spratly islands

  2. Paracel Islands

  3. Senkaku islands (Japan)


  1. Hydrocarbons

  2. Fishing rights

  3. Shipping rights

In recent times, Chinese have shown significant aggressive activity in laying claims over most of these islands. The Chinese motivation in the South China sea is also to decrease its economic dependency over Hydro-carbon imports from the Middle East via the extensive oil deposits in Spratly Islands. That is a significant short-term view.

The long-term view involves making most of South-East Asia as a client state which pays tribute in Yuan style and gets protectionism. Not very different from mafia across many countries. They feel it works.

Also, fishing rights are a tool to exert diplomatic pressure on nearby regions to assert their rights over an area.Interestingly, Chinese vessels nowadays carry armed coastguards to justify their claims and have engaged in violence too.

Indonesia showed significant steel in this regard in responding back to Chinese incursions on the Natuna islands, which overlap with Chinese claims of 9 dash line. In light of Chinese aggression, India and Indonesia have a strategic partnership which had a significant result in Sabang deep sea port development.

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

In the context of the strategic nature of the Malacca Straits, the Sabang-Andaman corridor must be one of the most important choke points which can and should be completely controlled.

On the Senkaku island, the conflict is basically a remnant of multiple treaties and withdrawals from the Cold war and world war eras. The Chinese claim the island, but the effective control is still Japanese.

Malaysia is peculiar. It has claims over a number of South china sea entities. Malaysian military has lodged protests on Chinese economic and military activity in Spratly Islands (A section of which they claim).But, in the Mahathir world, they are generally friendly with China. But, under Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia sided with the Chinese in many ways. It even said that, “China is not a threat to anyone in the South china sea”.However, the recent change of regime in Malaysia has brought fresh hope of improving Indian ties with Malaysia.

Major: What else is happening here?

Uma: There is a significant Malay influence in the South Thailand secessionist movement involving Islamist separatists.

I personally feel that this secessionist movement might intensify in the next decade or, to put pressure on Thailand to give Chinese rights to construct the Kra Canal. So, a joint Malay-Chinese axis here cannot be ruled out, although, the geography of the Malacca straits is a goldmine which:

  1. Gives relevance to Malaysia

  2. The Kra Canal could threaten the whole Malacca straits completely.

India needs to enhance its engagement with Thailand in this regard, so that they don’t succumb to the pressure from the Chinese.

The Vietnamese claims over large parts of South China sea is concentrated around fishery rights over Paracel islands and a section of Spratly islands. So, a BrahMos sale to Vietnam might actually change the dynamics completely in the region. China might not be so willing to ride roughshod over Spratly Islands if that happens.

In case of hostilities, the real destabilising factor is the Chinese production capability to ramp up and replace.They are planning three carriers by 2030 (speculatively). We still are lagging behind in that.

If we can show signs of a decent alliance in South East Asia, it can show development benefits which are non-predatory unlike the Chinese.Of course, each of these countries have significant Chinese populations, so they can be a pressure group which I believe China already leverages. Maybe, it is time we made a significantly reach out to these countries for an Economic NATO of sorts.Open markets, but limit Chinese products through these markets. A TikTok ban in South East Asia can have a disproportionate effect over the complete ecosystem of the CPC.

Major: Thanks Uma. Guess that should give some idea about SC sea to everyone. And now I’d like to hear the most important part of the discussion. A brief on PLA Navy from Anshul. Let’s have it!

Anshul (@Hukum2082) : Thanks Major! The People’s Liberation Army Navy is approximately 400 deployable Ships and Submarines, making it second only to the US Navy in terms of tonnage as of 2020.While a large part of its fleet comprises of smaller Fast Attack Crafts, Corvettes and Frigates; Chinese shipyards are churning surface warships at astonishing speed and are bridging the size, quality, and capability gap with navies worldwide.The most notable among them being the 55,000 Tonne Aircraft Carrier “Shandong” which can carry 44 Aircraft and the 12,000 Tonne Destroyer “Nanchang” which is armed to the teeth with SAMs, AShMs, LACMs, 2 ASW Helicopters and features a powerful X Band AESA Radar.

The PLAN is organised into three fleets namely; North Sea Fleet at Qingdao, East Sea Fleet at Ningbo and South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang.Each fleet consists of surface forces (destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, supply ships, missile boats, fast attack crafts etc.), submarines, coastal defence units, and aircraft.PLAN is divided into 5 Branches spread across the three fleets. These are PLAN Surface Force, PLAN Submarine Force, PLAN Coastal Defence, PLAN Marine Corps and PLAN Airforce.

The South China Sea And PLA Navy  

The bulk of its Surface Fleet, Conventional Submarines and Amphibious Attack Ships are stationed between the East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet. The 12,000 strong PLAN Marine Corps has developed capabilities in line with its desire to assimilate Taiwan and its territorial claims on the islands of Senkaku, Spratly and Paracel.

Major (@Manik_M_Jolly): Ok! So this is very interesting. Let’s open the conversation and everyone is free to ask questions.

Niranjan jumped at the opportunity: How does the Chinese Navy compare to the Indian Navy and does it have the edge in a conflict?

Anshul: In terms of principal combatants, PLAN is about threefold in size. So, as far as raw numbers, they certainly are a larger adversary. However, the victory in a naval conflict depends on many variables apart from the sensors and weapons fielded.The Indian Navy is a seasoned force with a mix of Indigenous, Russian and western assets. It is a well-trained and mission deployed force with extensive experience in operation of Aircraft Carriers, Nuclear Submarines and has a potent Naval Air Arm.While the PLAN has expanded in terms of Surface and Sub Surface Assets, it remains to be seen if its training programmes have been able to keep up with the inductions. Within the IOR, the Indian Navy is a dominant force and so is the PLAN in South China Sea and the West Pacific Region.

Manik: I have a major doubt. Chinese Navy is active in SC sea, predominantly and some Pacific. Indian Navy does not venture there in strength. So in case of hostilities, where do you think Naval war might take place? Do we take the war to them in their backyard or they’ll come to us?

Anshul: Well, taking into account the sensitivities of countries in and around the Malacca Straits, the Navies will certainly avoid a conflict in its vicinity. However, in a scenario where the Indian Navy imposes a naval blockade against China, the PLAN may sent battle groups to escort its fleet through either the straits of Sunda or Lombok.A possible clash site can be between 250-300 Nautical Miles south of Aceh or just off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. These are possible sites which the Indian Navy might choose for a pre-emptive strike on a PLAN Flotilla using a mix of Surface, Sub Surface and Airborne Assets.

If the PLAN decides to simultaneously repurpose its Anti-Piracy Task Force deployed in Djibouti, a Naval Battle in the Arabian Sea is a fair possibility.The Indian Navy is wary of PLAN’s sub surface fleet and if the PLAN decides to deploy them in the Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea for sea denial, it will be an interesting scenario.

Niranjan: Under what scenarios do you see the IN and PLAN coming face-to-face in the future?

Major: Let me take this, and others can add. I think four main scenarios:

1. The Indian Navy enforces a Naval Blockade on Chinese Merchant shipping in the event of hostilities breaking out along the Indo-Tibetan Border.

2. The PLAN enforces a Naval Blockade on Indian Merchant shipping in the event of hostilities breaking out along the Indo-Tibetan Border.

3. PLAN deploys its Naval Assets in support of Pakistan in case of an Indo-Pak war.

4. PLAN violates the Indian EEZ and a response by the Indian Navy provokes a wider conflict.

Uma: Sir, I think a fifth scenario can be that if the Indian Navy carries out a pre-emptive attack on Djibouti in event of hostilities breaking out along the Indo-Tibetan Border.

Manik: True. Definitely a fifth reason. Also, which are the alternative routes that the PLAN can use to access the IOR and how does the IN plan to plug those gaps?

Anshul: The traditional route to the Indian Ocean Region is via the Straits of Malacca. However, the PLAN can use the Straits of Sunda and Lombok to delay detection. This, however, is a circuitous route and decreases the range of PLAN Ships/Submarines.

The Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) is an initiative of the Indian Navy and was set up at Gurugram in December 2018. It has linkages with 18 countries and shares information with 15 Maritime Security Centres.It undertakes collation, fusion and dissemination of the data being exchanged and provides a comprehensive maritime awareness. This ensures that the Indian Navy is aware of any emerging threats round the clock.

Uma: Is the QUAD formalised and is it something similar to the next NATO?

Anshul: The QUAD at the moment is an informal group of countries which profess an open, rule-based and multilateral order governing the ocean. However, with increasing Chinese belligerence and tensions on the LAC, India might be finally shedding its reservations in militarising the QUAD.

Manik: However, it still depends on all members agreeing to it. Without US, the Quad is limited in strength and capability. And US would militarise only if it sees others taking the initiative.It will not carry the entire burden of being the soldier of Quad. Hence, it comes back to how much India can show and tell. The signing of the LEMOA with the United States and a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia point to this possibility.Recently, Japan has decided to sign a pact for intelligence sharing with India, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Malabar Series of Exercises have gradually evolved into full spectrum deployment of naval assets and have enhanced interoperability between the participating navies.

Anshul: You are right in saying that. However, formalising the QUAD would mean being compelled to deploy naval assets to FONOPS in the South China Sea, which hasn’t exactly been a focus area for the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy will have to commit significant resources out of its relatively meagre allocation of the Defence Budget to the QUAD.The Government of India will have to expand the allocation for the Indian Navy to undertake equipment upgrades and acquisitions to ensure seamless interoperations with NATO standards.This might be a half a decade away at the moment. However, as Information Exchange agreements and Logistics Support Agreements bring the four navies closer, the QUAD shall serve the purpose of keeping a close watch on PLAN activities in the region and warn each other of potential threats in real time.

Manik: Well, this has been an exceptionally informative session. Though I do have a feeling that SC sea will continue to appear in our discussions further, especially when we cover PLA Air Force, trade routes and missiles. Thanks again to all of you. Next week, let’s talk about PLA, its inception, ideology and changes over the century that have made it what it is today. And then next week, we should cover the military hardware in detail. Till then, Jai Hind guys!

Major’s Squad is a debating team of 9 Defence enthusiasts led by a decorated veteran, Maj Manik M Jolly, SM, who gather every week to discuss the critical topics in field of defence and national security.


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