India has enjoyed one area of strategic advantage over China for many years. Chinese industry relies on shipping routes which move goods and oil through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia. This narrow waterway is a perfect choke point. India’s natural position in the Indian Ocean, with basing capabilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the strait, would allow its Navy to cut it off in the event of a crisis or war. But increasingly China may be able to, quite literally, get around this.
With tensions running high between the two countries, this threat is well understood by naval analysts. Talking to the Tac Ops podcast on July 5, renowned naval author and creator of the Harpoon war game series, Larry Bond, said that China has a real concern that India could close the Strait. “If India wanted to cut off trade with China, all that they have to do is park a bunch of ships at the Straits of Malacca. And that’s it, nothing else is getting through that way.”
Historically, the vast majority of China’s oil imports, from the Persian Gulf, Venezuela and Angola, go by this route. China is making moves that could render this ineffective however.
As part of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ they are building a new port in Pakistan. And the opening of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic could create the ‘Polar Silk Road’. Both offer ways around the Malacca vulnerability.
The new port in Pakistan is at Gwadar in the west of the country. Goods unloaded there will be shipped overland to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). On June 8 the Pakistani government approved a $7.2bn upgrade to a railway which will connect Gwadar to Kashgar, China. The port is not yet operating at capacity, but the direction seems clear.
Gwadar itself could be vulnerable to Indian Air Force attack however. But it adds political and military risks as it is in a third country’s territory. Attempts to blockade the port, like the Malacca Strait, could also be considered. But this would draw Indian Navy assets away from the Malacca Strait and other missions.
Additionally India’s ability to threaten goods going via Gwadar, could be complicated by increasing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. In fact the same goes for the Malacca Strait. China has already built a strong base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. And it seems likely that the Chinese Navy, known as the PLAN, will establish more substantial fleet there. Chinese submarines may also become a regular threat in the area.
The other route around the Malacca Strait is the the Northern Sea Route, up and around Russia. The importance of this is underlined by China’s 2018 Arctic policy. It asserts that “Geographically, China is a “Near-Arctic State”, one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle.” The policy goes on to say “China hopes to work with all parties to build a “Polar Silk Road” through developing the Arctic shipping routes.”
With the Ice Cap receding more ships can make the passage. China sent its first ship in 2013. Now China is investing in port infrastructure in the Arctic which connect to Europe.
And China launched its first locally built ice breaker, the Xue Long 2, in 2018. The vessel was built with design help from Finnish specialists Aker Arctic. Another larger ship has been proposed by the shipbuilders.
China is also developing a land route directly to Europe, mainly as a way to export goods. Thousands of trains have been travelling across Asia in recent years, the modern day version of the traditional Silk Road. This infrastructure could also play a part in reducing the criticality of China’s sea routes.
So, taken together the strategic importance of the Strait of Malacca to China will reduce over time. India will still be in a position to throttle Chinese supply lines there, but it will not have the same impact that it once would have.