Analysts have long wondered if the Chinese navy (PLAN) had a third island chain strategy, beyond the publicly declared strategies for the first island chain (centered on Taiwan) and second island chain (extending from Japan to Indonesia). Many American commentators believed that such a strategy would refer to the ability to project power capable of reaching America's bases in Hawaii.
However, China's recent maritime activities -- such as its extended counterpiracy patrols in the Horn of Africa and its involvement in a number of port development projects in Indian Ocean littorals (dubbed the "string of pearls") -- have raised the suspicion in Indian defense circles that the third island chain lies in the Indian Ocean, and specifically refers to the waters surrounding the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands.
As China's dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources has grown, so has its concern over protecting its sea lines of communication for those energy imports. Given projected rates of growth of the Chinese economy, this dependence is only set to increase, from between 40 percent and 50 percent today to up to 80 percent in 2025. Naturally, the PLAN has been tasked with coming up with a strategy that can secure the lines of communication for China's oil -- not an enviable task, given the tyranny of geography.
As PLA Gen. Qian Guoliang stated in an article written in 2000, the threat to China emanates concurrently from "one point and one lane." While the "point" refers to Taiwan, the "lane" was an allusion to the long voyage of Chinese tankers returning home via the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. It could be argued that China has built up its military capabilities to where the "point," Taiwan, is no longer that much of a concern. But the "lane" continues to be one.
The chief and most immediate area of concern for the PLAN is the six-degree channel that lies between India's Great Nicobar Island and Indonesia's Sumatra Island, where China's shipping is especially vulnerable to Indian and other forces. Indeed, one of the key aims of India's own impressive naval build-up as well as the accretion of assets to its Andaman- and Nicobar-based tri-services command is to "surveillance seed" the Lumbok and Sunda straits as a non-lethal demonstration of Indian capabilities -- in much the same way the U.S. Navy is building up Guam. In this context, China's recent provocations and overall aggressive stance along the disputed Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas could be seen as an attempt to make India spend more on its army and air force, thereby leaving less for India's emerging blue-water navy.
For its part, the PLAN has also sought to raise the profile of its South Sea Force through the construction of hardened deep-water bases like the one at Sanya, on Hainan Island. That base, in particular, is designed to handle both attack and nuclear ballistic submarines, as well as possible future Chinese aircraft carriers, the first of which may be inducted by 2015. Nevertheless, China is still two decades away from being able to project serious carrier battle groups into the Indian Ocean, and for the near future, any unfolding "third island" strategy will depend essentially on nuclear attack submarines and air bases in Burma.
More specifically, China is likely to resort to a greater number of nuclear-powered submarine patrols in the Lumbok and Sunda straits, as well as the northern Indian Ocean, to demonstrate what it calls a "punishment strategy" for nations making contingency plans to interdict Chinese energy supplies. The Chinese may also be looking to station SU-30 MKK attack fighter jets in Burmese bases such as Ann and Sittwe to extend an airborne strike umbrella over the channel.
Despite the military posturing around the "third island chain," some observers feel that the Chinese string of pearls located further afield in places such as Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Mukkala (Yemen) will remain essentially commercial ventures. By this logic, China is hoping that substantive economic relations with Indian Ocean littoral states will weave a "soft-power web" around India, making it politically costly for India to take military action against Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean.
However, India is naturally wary of such moves, which perhaps explains why it refused to give China either observer or associate member status in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. That 33-member grouping of Indian Ocean littoral states, started by India, seeks to evolve a common security agenda for member states in the seas that wash their shores.
The Chinese have also sought to ensure that their posture does not encourage further Indo-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Despite recent naval incidents in the South China Sea, the Chinese have consistently sought to signal to the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) the regional nature of the PLAN's buildup. In fact, PACOM's commander, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, recently revealed that a high-ranking Chinese officer had "offered to divide the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions between China and the U.S. after Beijing launched its own fleet of aircraft carriers."
Keating went on to describe the remarks as tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, the PLAN is clearly considering more permanent basing in the eastern Indian Ocean, as highlighted by comments made by retired Rear Adm. Yin Zhou last week, referring to the difficulties encountered by the Chinese navy's counterpiracy patrols with respect to logistics and sailor health in the absence of port calls.
For its part, India has already acquired berthing rights in Oman, and may be setting up military facilities in Madagascar and the Maldives. It seems New Delhi also wants to convince Beijing that the latter's best chance of securing SLOCs lies in a "joint initiative," rather than possible confrontation. Only time will tell whether the "third island chain" strategy becomes a factor driving heightened geopolitical rivalry between Asia's emerging giants or, to the contrary, serves as the chill before the thaw.
**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," is scheduled for publication in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.