The Red Flag Follows Trade: China’s Future as an Indian Ocean Power

The Red Flag Follows Trade
China's Future as an Indian Ocean Power

by David Brewster
January 29, 2019

A study of China’s growing strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), with a particular focus on its future military role.

Executive Summary


China’s military presence in the IOR is likely to grow significantly in coming years, principally driven by the country’s expanding economic interests. But China’s military presence will be limited. Achieving military predominance in the IOR would be a major undertaking requiring decades of sustained expansion of military capabilities and local security partnerships. Instead, in the short to medium term, China’s military capabilities on land and at sea will principally reflect its imperatives to protect nationals and assets. These capabilities will likely evolve over time to provide Beijing with options in respect to a wider range of contingencies.

  • China’s future military presence in the IOR will grow as a function of its unique strategic imperatives, which include the protection of its sea lines of communication and the protection of Chinese nationals and economic interests.
  • China’s naval presence will likely evolve to provide capabilities to respond to an increasingly broad range of contingencies. It would be a major challenge, though, for China to achieve sea control across the Indian Ocean, even in the long term.
  • To protect Chinese nationals and assets, Beijing will primarily rely on local security forces and private security contractors and will deploy ready-response units such as the Chinese marines only as necessary.
  • The U.S. should not assume that China’s military presence in the IOR will necessarily resemble the U.S. presence.
  • The U.S. will need to craft a strategy that addresses a sizeable but not predominant Chinese military presence within a multipolar strategic environment.

David Brewster is a Senior Research Fellow with the National Security College at the Australian National University.

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