In February 1941, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from its west coast home base at San Diego in California, to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, in order to cut the enormous distance the fleet had to sail to confront the Imperial Japanese Navy if war broke out in the Pacific.
Despite the devastating Japanese carrier strike on Pearl Harbor in December of that same year, moving the fleet there was sound military logic. Pearl Harbor remained the prime Pacific Fleet naval base throughout World War II.
China faces a very similar strategic though more critical naval scenario today in the Indian Ocean. Rather than protecting overseas territories, China’s economy and military machine are heavily dependent on imported oil. Ironically, the very same dilemma Imperial Japan faced in 1941.
A war with India, the United States, or a renewal of hostilities with erstwhile enemy Russia would place China’s seaborne supply of Middle East oil under threat. In the long-term future, Japan may also pose the same threat.
China has taken enormous steps in recent years to extend a naval & air footprint outward to counter this threat, primarily into the South China Sea.
Effectively annexing the Spratly Islands, China has established a permanent military presence right on the doorsteps of Malaysia & the Philippines and projects naval power toward Singapore and northern Indonesian waters.
Added to a longstanding military presence in the Paracel Islands; the building of air bases & ports following land reclamation in the Spratlys has laid the foundation of a Chinese maritime footprint extending southwest to Singapore and from the coast of Vietnam to Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
However, there remains the vast vulnerable area of the Indian Ocean in which Chinese bound oil tankers could be stopped, seized or if Chinese flagged, simply sunk on sight in any conflict with India, Russia, the U.S. or potentially Japan in the future.
A solution clearly had to be found and Beijing explored three options; oil pipelines transiting Myanmar & Pakistan; a military presence in Maldives; and a major naval base in Sri Lanka.
The pipeline deal with Myanmar appears to have fallen through. However, the pipeline deal with Pakistan sustained and has the advantage of allowing oil to be offloaded by ship at the Chinese built port of Gwadar in Pakistan without having to transit the Indian Ocean or South China Sea.
However, that option is dependent on defending against terrorist or military special forces attacks and enemy air & missile strikes to destroy vital sections of the pipeline. Such attacks only have to succeed once, to shut down the oil flow.
The more viable solution is an effective Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean capable of protecting seaborne Chinese commerce from the East African and Arabian coasts, to Singapore.
The Maldives can be used to operate Chinese maritime patrol aircraft to attack enemy naval forces, and/or to refuel & provision Chinese warships & diesel submarines with pre-positioned oil tankers, and supply vessels.
Though in the event of war with India or America, either nation would in all likelihood employ carrier strike forces and/or an amphibious assault to eliminate this option for China in very short order.
A Chinese naval base in Sri Lanka however, poses a major problem for any naval adversary of China. Sri Lanka is not merely an island, but a large one, and a nation of over 20 million people. Destroying or seizing Chinese naval & air bases there, is far more problematic.
Beijing is courting the Sri Lanka government with heavy investment in the nation’s infrastructure including the new seaport at Hambonata, now set to be expanded with exclusive berthing rights for Chinese vessels.
Agreement has also been reached for another Chinese built seaport at Colombo and a Chinese run aircraft maintenance facility to be built near Trincomalee to support the Sri Lanka Air Force, which of course will have an adjacent military grade airfield.
Most likely in the minds of Chinese naval planners is staging a sizable number of diesel-electric submarines, maritime patrol and perhaps even tactical aircraft from Sri Lanka in the event of hostilities, to combat both surface warships and submarines threatening oil tankers bound for China.
Chinese submarines operating from there and others forward deployed to Maldives would quite effectively bottle up the Indian Navy along India’s coast protecting India’s own seaborne commerce, naval bases and capital ships.
In the event of hostilities with the United States, American facilities on Diego Garcia would also be open to attack by submarine launched cruise missiles.
Russia would be the easiest adversary for Beijing in the Indian Ocean, as Russian warships and submarines would be operating at their furthest point from any naval facilities; unless operating from Indian naval bases were an option.
It’s unlikely China would deploy any major surface warships or nuclear attack submarines to Sri Lanka, unless the conflict were strictly with India alone. Those warships are vital to protect the Chinese coast from clear threats posed by Russia, the United States and Japan; if one or more of those nations were in conflict with China.