Opinion & Analysis

The battle for the Indian Ocean: How the EU and India can strengthen maritime security


  • Over the last decade, China has gradually expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean, combining its military modernisation and cooperation with partners with active diplomacy towards the island and coastal states of the region.
  • China’s presence and capabilities threaten the freedom and influence of other actors in the area, including India and the EU.
  • Europe’s key maritime trade routes to Asia run through the Indian Ocean, making the security of the region and freedom of navigation crucial for European interests.
  • Many of the island and coastal states in the Indian Ocean have limited economic resources to exercise effective control at sea and are therefore dependent on extra-regional powers.
  • As part of their approach to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in the region, the EU and India should jointly establish a regional maritime capacity building programme for island and coastal states in the Indian Ocean.

Throughout the last century, China was primarily a land-based power. But in its 2015 white paper on military strategy, Beijing explicitly set out its goal of becoming “a maritime power” before beginning to modernise and expand the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The expansion of the PLAN from a coastguard into a so-called blue-water navy, which is capable of operating globally and across the deep waters of open oceans, laid the foundation for China to extend its overall presence in the Indo-Pacific. Since 2008, the PLAN has participated in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, deployed submarines and ships on a permanent basis to the Indian Ocean, and established strategic military bases in the region, for example, on the Coco Islands (Myanmar) and in Djibouti. In addition, China has secured the rights to use various ports in the Indian Ocean – part of the so-called string of pearls – which has allowed it to expand its military and commercial network.

China’s strategic use of ports, as well as its growing military presence in the maritime space in general, has increasingly aroused the displeasure of other actors in the Indian Ocean, including India and the European Union. For India, the Indian Ocean is a key strategic and economic theatre, and the centre of its diplomatic, military, and regional engagements. New Delhi considers itself as the regional “net security provider”, a status which is threatened by China’s growing presence in its neighbourhood. For Europe, the Indian Ocean is a primary gateway to the prosperous markets of the Indo-Pacific: Europe exports over 35 per cent of its goods to Asia and four of its top ten trading partners are in the region. As such, Europe is heavily dependent on the security of the sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean. China’s growing naval presence in the region ultimately provides it with so-called anti-access or area-denial capabilities to prevent or limit the freedom of other actors operating within the area. These would allow Beijing to control the traffic in parts of the Indian Ocean, potentially affecting European sea lines of communication, and constraining India’s ability to operate in the area, therefore limiting its influence and security. In its 2021 “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, the European Council highlighted the “intense geopolitical competition” in the Indo-Pacific and the potential negative repercussions on “trade and supply chains”. The strategy announced a policy of “partnership and cooperation”, putting engagement with partners in the region at the forefront of its approach. The EU has declared cooperation with India, in particular, as a priority in its engagement with the Indo-Pacific. In this context, this paper proposes that the EU and India jointly establish a regional maritime capacity building programme for the smaller island and coastal states in the Indian Ocean, modelled on the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise initiated by the United States.

Such a programme would make it possible to partially meet the needs of some of the smaller countries in the Indian Ocean in terms of maritime security. In doing so, it would bring together regional players around the EU and India and therefore increase, at low cost, Europe’s and India’s visibility and ability to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific. The programme would serve as one element in a multifaced approach to respond effectively to China’s assertiveness in the Indian Ocean.

This paper analyses China’s main axes and modes of penetration in the Indian Ocean, and the political fragmentation of the region and weak capacity of the island and coastal states that facilitate this. It then proposes a joint EU-India Indian Ocean Cooperation and Training (IOCAT) maritime capacity building programme for island and coastal states that would strengthen maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

China’s penetration into the Indian Ocean

After expanding its claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has gradually increased its military presence throughout the Indo-Pacific in order to protect its massive economic investments in the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ensure its own energy supply with oil and coal, which is the engine of Chinese growth. The development of this strategy can be traced throughout the ten defence white papers that China has published since 1998, each of which marked a new stage of its ambition to grow as a naval power and of its military positioning overseas.

The 1998 white paper states that China “does not station any troops or set up any military bases in any foreign country”. In striking contrast, the most recent white paper, made public in 2019, emphasises the need to safeguard “China’s maritime rights and interests” and “overseas interests”, and openly mentions the existence of a PLAN base in Djibouti. The defence white papers published between these two documents reveal the development of China’s naval warfare capabilities. The defence white paper of 2000, which states that the navy has “weapons such as surface, submarine, naval aviation, coastal defense and marine corps, as well as other specialized units”, provided the first indication that China had acquired the capability for offshore defensive operations. The 2002 defence white paper notes that China not only has nuclear-powered submarines, but also nuclear counterattack capabilities. The next two white papers, published in 2004 and 2006, insist on strengthening naval capabilities in terms of armament and equipment, as well as the “gradual extension of the strategy for offshore defensive operations”. Both emphasise capacity building in integrated maritime operations.

China’s military expansion has gone hand in hand with its economic development. The 2008 defence white paper gave the navy new and unprecedented prominence. Nearly four pages are devoted to the corps, in contrast to the restrained one or two paragraphs in earlier documents. The context of this white paper is important: by 2007, China had overtaken the US as the world’s top exporter. For China and for the West, 2008 was a pivotal year. It saw the organisation of the Beijing Olympics – a political triumph for the Chinese authorities – but Chinese performances were not limited to the stadium. It was also the year of the most consequential financial crisis since 1929, surpassed only in 2020 by the economic consequences of the covid-19 pandemic. Chinese leaders, among others, interpreted the crisis as a sign of a declining West and an opportunity to be seized, but also the beginning of a period of tough competition. The 2008 white paper argued that “struggles for strategic resources, strategic locations, and strategic dominance have intensified”, and further suggested that the PLAN should develop “capabilities to conduct cooperation in distant waters”. It was also in 2008 that China sent a naval contingent on an anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden for the first time.

Subsequent defence white papers all emphasised this need to operate further from China’s own shores in order to protect its interests abroad. The 2010 defence white paper insisted in particular on the development of capabilities for conducting operations in distant waters and the construction of land infrastructure and surface logistics platforms allowing the PLAN to operate far from its domestic bases. The 2013 document coincided with the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which marked a new phase for the PLAN. The 2015 white paper reiterated the PLA’s mission “to safeguard the security of overseas Chinese interests” and the need for the PLAN to “gradually shift from defending offshore waters” to combining the defence of offshore waters with “high seas protection”. This clearly showed China’s intention to “seize the strategic initiative in military competition”. Just a few months later, China began an ambitious programme to modernise its armed forces, investing heavily to upgrade military equipment and ships, with a particular focus on commissioning more nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

The militarisation of China’s presence in the Indian Ocean

Absent militarily from the Indian Ocean until 2008, China has expanded its military presence significantly in recent years. In addition to building a military base in Djibouti, Beijing has increased its naval presence in the area. It deployed a nuclear submarine to the Indian Ocean for the first time in 2013, a move which was followed by two visits to Sri Lankan ports by a conventional submarine and its support vessel in 2014. After acquiring its first aircraft carrier in 2015, China then commissioned another two, demonstrating that it has systematically chosen the maximalist option to strengthen its naval capabilities.

These rapid reaction capabilities help China to support the BRI and more generally to protect its citizens and interests. According to Joshua T White, former senior advisor and director of south Asian affairs in the US National Security Council, the PLAN has five objectives in the Indian Ocean: 1) to conduct non-combat activities focused on protecting Chinese citizens and investments and enhancing China’s soft power; 2) to undertake counterterrorism activities, unilaterally or with partners; 3) to gather intelligence in support of operational requirements and against key adversaries; 4) to support efforts aimed at coercive diplomacy towards the small countries of the region; and 5) to enable effective operations in a conflict environment. Among other things, these capabilities therefore prepare China to be able to deter, mitigate, or end a trade ban.

White also points to China’s deployment of a number of surface assets such as guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, large amphibious transport docks, an emerging fleet of even larger amphibious assault ships, as well as support and auxiliary ships, while the PLA Air Force develops its long-range air transport fleet.

China’s capabilities raise questions about the nature of the threat to which they are supposed to respond. The fight against piracy, for example, is no longer a major problem in the Gulf of Aden. This did not prevent China from deploying a guided-missile destroyer, Taiyuan, and a frigate, Jingzhou, as well as some 690 navy personnel, to the Gulf of Aden during the covid-19 crisis, officially for the protection of ships and vessels passing through the region. In addition to these actions, Beijing has deployed underwater drones and spy ships to the Indian Ocean region to conduct underwater surveillance and acquire a better understanding of the marine environment in which the PLAN operates.

China’s diplomatic engagement with the small states of the Indian Ocean

The implementation of China’s modernisation programme was concomitant with that of the BRI. Through the BRI, China has extended its influence over countries in the region through investments, for example financing and constructing several commercial and port facilities in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, but also Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Bangladesh. The BRI has generated a series of realignments and transformed the region into a vast space of geopolitical competition. Some smaller states have become increasingly dependent on Beijing for trade and infrastructure and in some cases deeply indebted to China.

Beijing has also engaged in active diplomacy towards the small island states of the region. Geographically, four of these island states play a central role in the protection of the open sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka and the Maldives are located on the most direct route between China and the Middle East, while Mauritius and the Seychelles are located on the Asia-Africa maritime routes. They are also therefore located on the key maritime route between Europe and Asia.

Engaging with these four island states also has political value for China in the context of its competition with the US and India. China has been trying for decades to establish facilities near India, which would undoubtedly increase New Delhi’s vulnerability. For example, since 1986 Beijing has attempted to acquire, directly or indirectly, one of the islands of the Maldives archipelago.

China is the only country with an embassy on each of the six islands in the Indian Ocean. Beijing is also a dialogue partner in regional and sub-regional organisations that include the island states: the Indian Ocean Rim Association – of which Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles are all members – and the Indian Ocean Commission, whose member states all border the Mozambique Channel and include Mauritius and the Seychelles. China’s participation in these organisations not only helps it to foster relations with these states, it also provides it with recognition as a legitimate regional actor.

However, China is no longer satisfied with a folding seat within existing regional bodies. It is now attempting to bring together states of the region on its own terms as well. In November 2022, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) – an organisation associated with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – held the first meeting of the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation, which brought together some 19 states, not including India or any EU states. According to CIDCA, the forum aims to “pool wisdom and resources” and allow China to “strengthen cooperation with countries in the Indian Ocean region to grow the blue economy and advance the implementation of the GDI [Global Development Initiative] in the region” and “constantly expand the converging interests” between China and the countries in the Indian Ocean.

China’s engagement and investment has brought financial benefits for these island states. It has also attracted the attention of other regional players, such as India and the US, which have begun in turn to court the island states. India, for instance, has increased its diplomatic engagement with the countries: President Narendra Modi has visited Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles several times since his first term in 2014. India also granted extensive loans to Mauritius in 2017 and the Maldives in 2018, partly to help them pay off Chinese debt. Major regional powers, such as India and France (which identifies as a resident state in the Indian Ocean), perceive China’s involvement in the island states as a threat, as their presence in the Indian Ocean is regularly challenged by local actors, be it in the Arabian Sea or the south-west Indian Ocean, with the more or less active support of Beijing and Moscow.

Read the full publication here 

About the Authors

Frédéric Grare is a senior policy fellow with the Asia programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Manisha Reuter is the Asia programme manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations.