Australia and India’s Collaborative Defense Strategy against China’s Growing Naval Power in the Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

In May 2022, the Haiwangxing, a Chinese navy Type 815 electronic surveillance ship, sailed near Australia’s Harold E. Holt naval communication station, showcasing China’s willingness to eavesdrop on allied communications. This raised concerns in Canberra, similar to those in New Delhi after a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine unexpectedly docked at a Sri Lankan port in 2014. The incident served as a reminder for Australia and India to be prepared for China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Both countries have supported automatic identification system transponder signals collection to monitor the movements of Chinese vessels. However, this has drawbacks, as Chinese surface combatants could disable or spoof their transponder signals, and Chinese submarines do not emit any signals when submerged.

Australia and India have sought other ways to monitor the waters of the Indian Ocean for Chinese warships, specifically to monitor passages into the ocean through the Indonesian archipelago, namely the Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda Straits. This has required the two countries to devote resources to build new military bases and deploy new military assets on various Indian Ocean islands. China’s interest in the Indian Ocean is hardly new, as it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the western edge of the Indian Ocean.

India’s concern over potential conflict with China is exacerbated by China’s Yulin naval base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island. The base, built for China’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine fleet, can handle various warships, including aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. However, all Chinese warships must pass through the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Straits to reach the Indian Ocean. To counter China’s naval presence, Australia and India must monitor all three straits, both above and below the water’s surface.

To address this concern, India has pursued its “Look East” strategy, promoting stronger ties with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, countries that dominate the routes through which Chinese warships would have to pass. In the military sphere, India has sought to build new or expand existing bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

At the time of the Song-class submarine incident, India had only four Soviet-vintage, prop-driven Tu-142M maritime patrol aircraft to cover the eastern Indian Ocean. Since then, India has purchased twelve American-made P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, which offer superior surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, greater speed, and longer endurance, making them better anti-submarine warfare platforms. India also established the Baaz naval air station on Great Nicobar Island, with plans to extend the station’s 3,500-foot runway to accommodate the P-8Is. However, environmental concerns have slowed further construction.

India established the Kohassa naval air station on North Andaman Island in 2019, near a suspected Chinese intelligence outpost on Myanmar’s Coco Island. The station plans to extend its runway to accommodate P-8Is, and India announced a ten-year infrastructure upgrade program to deploy new aircraft, warships, and anti-ship missile batteries throughout the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Some elements have been deployed, including the Indian navy rebasing a Kora-class guided-missile corvette to Port Blair, the Indian air force establishing a forward base for Su-30MKI fighters on Car Nicobar, and the Indian army testing its Brahmos anti-ship missiles from the islands. New Delhi has built a new base on Mauritius’ Agaléga Island, likely to operate its P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.

Australia has begun to construct military facilities in and around the Indian Ocean due to the perception that China has grown more menacing. The Cocos Islands, located about 1,200 km southeast of the Sunda and Lombok Straits and 2,700 km northwest of Perth, have a better harbor for handling heavy equipment than Australia’s other Indian Ocean possession, Christmas Island. Australia announced in 2016 that it would upgrade the Cocos Islands’ airport to support the Australian air force P-8As, but work at the airport has been slow due to rising costs. The airport will also act as a forward operating base for Australia’s four new MC-55A surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft.

Canberra’s ambitious base-building plan for Stirling naval base near Perth aims to become the home port for eight new conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered attack submarines. The base will be repurposed before constructing new facilities to support nuclear-power plants. American and British submarines are expected to make more frequent port calls at Stirling, with similar future Australian submarines capable of reaching the Lombok Strait in 2.2 days at an average speed of 30 knots and remaining on station for months. Australia’s current fleet of six Collins-class diesel-electric attack submarines would require 6.6 days to cover that distance and have enough fuel for only a week-long patrol.

Australia and India have made separate investments into military bases in and around the Indian Ocean due to concerns over China’s maritime presence in the region. The similarity of these concerns gives Canberra and New Delhi an incentive to share information on Chinese naval vessels near Indonesia’s strategic straits and in the wider Indian Ocean. The combination of this information with data the two countries already share about Chinese vessels as part of their participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue could provide Australia and India with a more sharper picture of Chinese maritime activity across the Indian Ocean.

However, some in Washington might hope that such fused data could be shared with the United States, another Quad member. While Canberra might be open to intelligence sharing with Washington, India is less likely to be keen. If the subject is broached, India would likely be more responsive if the request came from Australia, a country with which it has common cause.

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