China is a one-ocean country with a two ocean posture. In the Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) focuses on defending the country’s East Asian seaboard at ever increasing distances from the coast. In the Indian Ocean, the driver is quite different.

Here the PLAN’s flag is following China’s trade, a reversal of the old maritime dictum of trade following in the wake of a nation’s warships to regions those ships have made safe.

This policy emerged in December 2008 when three PLAN warships were dispatched to the Indian Ocean to conduct counter-piracy patrols in its north-western corner. This was the first time in modern history that China’s navy had conducted operations outside its territorial waters. Unlike the other navies involved, the PLAN joined neither of the two international task forces then coordinating UN counter-piracy operations. Instead, the PLAN undertook independent convoy operations, primarily protecting Chinese merchant ships although other nations’ vessels could also join. Of interest, the PLAN then would also escort Taiwanese cargo ships, as these were considered Chinese and so deserving of PLAN protection.

At the time, the PLAN’s involvement was seen as a positive step towards China becoming a constructive member of the world community. This view has progressively altered since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. China’s new diplomatic assertiveness, its adoption of grey zone coercion techniques and its tremendous naval shipbuilding program have all created a sense of foreboding in many Indian Ocean countries. India, the ocean’s resident great power, considers itself the guardian of the ocean and is becoming increasingly concerned. This apprehension is only being magnified by China’s growing military aggressiveness on India’s northern border.

Please click here to read the full “Indian Ocean rivalries: China and India in the Indian Ocean” article published in Maritime Defence Monitor June 2022 (pp 15-18), written by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow, Dr Peter Layton.