The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) — or as many Chinese like to call it, "the navy" — is kicking off the month-long "Beyond 2014" bilateral naval exercises with the much less frequently discussed Tanzanian navy. The two nations actually have strong defense cooperation ties, and this exercise will focus on anti-piracy, marine security, and counter-terrorism operations.
While Tanzania isn't exactly a fulcrum of Great Power struggle, these exercises are a fantastic chance to get a snapshot of the many different roles a naval presence can fill in international relations.
China is, on one hand, a global power. If you start listing countries according to the sizes of their economy, population, military, and so on, you mention China way more often than you have to count to 10. That said, China is not at all global, and so a major Chinese naval expedition or military presence in Tanzania sounds a bit strange.
And so more specifically, China is a rising global power. Power is tied closely with how a nation projects its hard and soft power beyond its borders, and oceangoing navies are all about projecting. That's why a growing naval presence is very nearly a corollary to being a rising global power.
Some of the expanding Chinese naval presence is very public, open, and internationally engaging, like the ongoing Chinese participation in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. These patrols, which started in 2008, were China's first big global naval field trip, and have netted them operational experience, credit for contributing to the global maritime commons, and international goodwill.
Perhaps as a result, China has been expanding its activity in the Gulf, sending a submarine to join the anti-piracy operation. The submarine, a Type 039 Song-class diesel attack submarine — China's first fully indigenous submarine class — shipped out just last month, making a stop in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, and marking the first time that a Chinese submarine had "openly visited a nation in the Indian Ocean."
This move raised a great many eyebrows in India. Sri Lanka is about 20 miles from the Indian coast, and India tends to regard the Indian Ocean as being their very own personal ocean. Maybe the name has something to do with it.
The reaction prompted the Chinese Ministry of Defense to issue a press release telling people, essentially, to just chill. Very poorly paraphrased: "Submarines are ships. Ships need to dock for supplies. Ships dock at ports. Colombo is a port. You guys can see what I'm getting at here, right? No reason to freak out."
Colombo is an interesting port, because ships going to and fro between the center of gravity of the world's energy supplies (the Middle East) and the scene of the world's most aggressive economic expansion (Asia) pop into Colombo very frequently. In fact, last December, the Iranian navy dropped by Colombo, as Iran continues the process of building up its own long-distance oceangoing capabilities.
Iran has been using its navy to make diplomatic statements and carry out a soft power presence mission, venturing further and further afield in recent years. For instance, last March the Iranian navy paid its first official visit to China, stopping at the port of Zhanjiang.
These growing ties with Iran are the context behind the Chinese navy's first visit to Iran. A trip that, coincidentally, took on even more import when an Iranian navy ship on patrol in the Gulf of Aden rescued a Chinese container ship from pirates. Last month's visit of Chinese warships to an Iranian port, kicking off a five-day joint training exercise, also marked the first entry of a Chinese naval vessel into the Persian Gulf. Since then, China and Iran have been continuing high-level dialog about further naval cooperation.
That said, the Chinese Navy is far from being able to effectively challenge the US naval presence in the Gulf. Aside from supporting air and ground operations, the US Navy's focus has been on both maintaining free movement of shipping — i.e., oil tankers — in and out of the Gulf in general, and deterring Iran in particular from getting any bright ideas about messing with the free flow of the world's oil supply.
China is none too keen to disrupt the world's flow of oil, and would be very unlikely to oppose any efforts to keep the Persian Gulf open. This led some observers to speculate that this visit and associated diplomatic developments are part of a counter to the Obama administration's strategic (and semi-apocryphal) "Pivot to Asia."
The idea that China is showing the flag in the Persian Gulf as a signal to the US is an interesting suggestion. This year marked China's first participation in the world's largest naval exercise, the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or RIMPAC. China agreed to send four ships to participate, including the hospital ship Peace Ark (which VICE News toured for an episode of War Games).
The Chinese also sent a spy ship to monitor the exercise. Privately, US Navy officials suggested that the spy ship was a good thing, since it further cemented the precedent that you can do anything you want in international waters, so long as you're not hurting anyone.
This concept of "freedom of navigation" is something that China hasn't entirely signed onto. In December 2013, a Chinese warship cut off a US Navy ship monitoring a Chinese exercise, nearly causing a collision and an international incident. Demonstrating the fact that the US are cool about the Chinese monitoring in the international waters near Hawaii would, it is hoped, convince the Chinese to chill out a bit.
This year also marked the debut appearance of India's new stealthy guided-missile frigate the INS Sahyadri at RIMPAC. India is becoming an increasingly important naval power as it pushes modernization and expansion of its capabilities. Although some have feared a naval arms race with China, Southeast Asia seems to be serving as an effective partition between China and India's regional naval expansions, at least in the short term. China may be pushing aggressively into the South China Sea, and India may regard the Indian Ocean as its own personal lake, but geography is keeping the two from getting too far up in each other's business.
The existence of that buffer may be a major factor in slowing a naval arms race, but the rapid acquisitions of new submarines, amphibious warships, and other assets by countries throughout the region mean fears of a regional naval arms race aren't unfounded.
Which brings us back to Tanzania. An added complication is that China is shelling out $10 billion for a deep water port on the Indian Ocean — in, yes, Tanzania at the town of Bagomoyo. Some observers argue that this port, which will be the biggest in Africa, is destined to become one more pearl in China's "String of Pearls" — a series of commercial and military bases China has been building from the Chinese mainland to Africa.
As a major naval base, it would vastly expand China's ability to project power throughout the Indian Ocean and around Africa. This would almost certainly cause the Indian Navy to start losing its collective shit, which would likely be followed by a sharp change in Indian naval acquisitions.
Other commentaries have contended that the port couldn't function as a major naval base, because the port access is only 14 meters deep — too shallow for submarines. But being unable to host submarines wouldn't preclude China from running anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden out of Bagomoyo.
In any case, even if the port merely serves as a commercial hub for Chinese interests in Africa, it will still be important to Beijing. Increasing amounts of Chinese commercial shipping to and from Africa will mean that China is going to be more heavily invested in maintaining free movement of its own shipping across the Indian Ocean, likely drawing the Chinese Navy further toward the Tanzanian coast whether they're planning for it right now or not.
So the Tanzanian navy may not be one of the world's, say, 100 most powerful navies right now, but it could turn out it'll have a hell of a front row seat to what could become one of the world's most fascinating Great Power struggles of the 21st century: The possibility of China trying to strangle India with its String of Pearls.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan