The 16th installment of the China navy escort fleet conducts a two-ship alongside replenishment in the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

If Chinese military planners thought they could use the Covid-19 crisis to steal a march in the Indian Ocean, they may have been mistaken. India may be under the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, but its navy is not.

On April 14, the Indian Navy issued a public statement saying that its Eastern Naval Command’s Dornier squadron continues its maritime surveillance missions and that its naval assets remain “mission-ready and prepared for immediate deployment should the need arise.”

The statement was likely prompted by the discovery of a dozen China-deployed Haiyi, or Sea Wing, underwater drones in the eastern Indian Ocean, India’s traditional sphere of influence. The drones, known as Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), are purportedly used for scientific research for deep-sea mining and other commercial activities.

However, they can also be used to facilitate submarine movements and, in case of a conflict, discover and terminate underwater mines. China’s UUVs, which were first launched in mid-December, can operate for months without refueling while sending data to their mother ship, in this case the 4,900-ton survey vessel Xiangyanghong-06 which has since returned to its base in Shangdong province.

Indian warships also recently encountered another Chinese research vessel, the Shivan-1, operating in waters inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of India’s Andaman Islands. After being warned, the Shiyan-1 retreated outside of India’s EEZ.

In recent years, China’s Type 093 nuclear-powered submarines have been spotted sailing through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean. According to Indian naval sources, four to five Chinese research vessels are mapping different parts of the Indian Ocean at any given time.

A Chinese Yuan class submarine surfaces in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Facebook

The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a respected New Delhi-based independent think tank, pointed out in a recent report that China’s “deployment of research vessels, UUVs and submarines in the Indian Ocean Region, even when the Covid-19 virus was ravaging the country, has not shown any decline.”

“One should not be surprised if China uses the global confusion (caused by the Covid-19 crisis) to its advantage and expands its sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region under the garb of relief work.”

That is arguably already happening. In the Maldives, a hotbed of China-India competition for influence, Chinese medical aid in the form of so-called “epidemic prevention materials” arrived at the end of March.

While the aid was welcome and needed, it also served to improve Beijing’s frosty relations with Male after a pro-Chinese leader lost election to a more India-oriented one in 2018. In mid-March, China pledged to ship supplies to Comoros, a closer Chinese ally in the region, whereas in Seychelles, India was quicker to send four tons of essential lifesaving medicine.

Aid politics has become a new phenomenon in the Indian Ocean amid the Covid-19 crisis, but China, with its vast resources and determination to push forward, may emerge stronger rather after the pandemic that originated in its territory.

The Indian Navy may still have numerical superiority in terms of vessels and manpower, but China, with or without the displacement and disruption caused by the virus, is laying the groundwork to rapidly expand its presence in the region.

It’s all cause for consternation in New Delhi as China ramps up its naval maneuvers in what it terms a “two-ocean strategy”, encompassing both the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Map of the Indian Ocean. Illustration: Vector.

China’s naming last week of new “administrative districts” in the disputed islands of the South China Sea, and an ongoing survey by a Chinese vessel in Malaysian waters which prompted the US to send an amphibious assault ship into the area on April 21 are further evidence of China’s willingness to flex its new naval muscles in the wider Asian region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping calls China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean the “Maritime Silk Road”, a concept first mooted during an official visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2013.

Despite references to a reputed historic “Silk Road” through the oceans, there is no evidence that such a Chinese-run trade route ever existed, no more so than the so-called “Southern Silk Road” to South and Southeast Asia or the “ancient Silk Road” through Central Asia.

But that has not prevented Xi’s administration from using the popular term to invent new “Silk Roads” crisscrossing the globe, including in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and even the Arctic Ocean.

Not since the Chinese explorer Zheng He sailed across the Indian Ocean in the 15th century have any Chinese fleets plied the maritime region—until now.

The 2017 establishment of a naval facility in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, China’s first overseas military base, part and parcel of a new Chinese strategy aimed at strengthening Beijing’s influence far beyond its shores.

Chinese interests in commercial ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar are indications of the heft Beijing is putting behind its Indian Ocean push. All of those commercial ports may serve a dual-purpose, potentially allowing China’s navy to use the Indian Ocean-facing facilities as logistics bases.

China has also with varying degrees of success targeted smaller, independent Indian Ocean nations like Maldives, Seychelles and Comoros with offers of loans and credits for various development projects.

US, Japan and Indian naval ships take part in the joint Malabar Exercise in 2015. Photo: AFP/US Navy Handout

India has countered with joint annual naval maneuvers known as the Malabar Exercises involving the US and Japanese navies.

Although the exercises are not overtly pointed at China, all three navies see China as a potential adversary. It’s not clear if the exercises will be held this year due to the Covid-19 crisis.  

In May last year, India carried out a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean with France, another defense partner, with France’s only aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at its center.

But that will not be repeated this year as more than 1,000 of the Charles de Gaulle’s 1,800 sailors have tested positive for Covid-19. The aircraft carrier was earlier preparing for a mission in the Mediterranean, but had to return to French ports and its sailors, put into isolation on military bases across France.

France controls a huge maritime area in the Indian Ocean, which includes waters around its two overseas departments Réunion and Mayotte and the uninhibited islands of Kerguelen, the Crozet Archipelago and St. Paul & Amsterdam, where France maintains scientific crews and even military personnel on a rotation basis.

The United States also has one of its strategically most important overseas bases in the Indian Ocean: Diego Garcia, an island in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Diego Garcia, which the Americans lease from Britain, has been described as one of the world’s most secretive patches of land and includes naval facilities, an air force base, and a sophisticated intelligence listening post.

Navy personnel of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Twitter

China’s intent to exercise naval power in the Indian Ocean actually predates its declaration of the “Maritime Silk Road.” In July 2013, China released the first edition of what has been termed a “Blue Book”, outlining Beijing’s long-term plans to become a major maritime power.

The gist of Beijing’s Indian Ocean strategy then was guided only by commercial and economic interests, while at the same time China indicated that it would not permit any single power to dominate the Indian Ocean Region.

But as China’s fuel and mineral imports and consumer goods exports pass largely through the Indian Ocean, it would have been shortsighted for Beijing not to provide those crucial trade routes with a defense umbrella. It’s a strategic drive that has continued and may accelerate amid the confusion and distraction of the Covid-19 era.