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Experts: Chinese '4th Fleet' Appears Unlikely

February 6, 2015 (Photo Credit: SOE THAN WIN, AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI — Despite reports that China is planning a fourth fleet for the Indian Ocean, India doesn't appear to be losing any sleep over it.

Unconfirmed reports from Chinese-language articles and Western defense industry reports suggest China would build a fleet command headquarters at Sanya on Hainan Island.

Yet the main obstacles to such a strategy include diplomacy, logistics, and reliability, despite conducting successful, but limited, anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, experts say.

The reports of the fourth fleet are "overstated speculation" and lack "credibility," said Ching Chang, a research fellow at Taiwan's ROC Society for Strategic Studies and a former Taiwan naval officer.

"Without any diplomatically credible, militarily reliable, and logistically functional forward base in the Indian Ocean area, it is impossible for the [Chinese Navy] to establish any long-lasting military organization there, though certain ad hoc arrangements such as dispatch forces, task forces and exercise maneuvering units may appear in the Indian Ocean from time to time," he said.

The Chinese Navy has three fleet commands: the North Sea Fleet in the Yellow Sea, East Sea Fleet in the East China Sea, and the South Sea Fleet in the South China Sea.

Hainan Island, the would-be headquarters for the fourth fleet, is only 200 nautical direct miles from the South Sea Fleet's base at Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province.

Forward deployment of a Chinese Navy ships in the Indian Ocean would be diplomatically difficult. James Holmes, co-author of the book, "Red Star Over the Pacific" and a US Naval War College professor, said forward basing arrangements with Sri Lanka or Pakistan would "set off warning bells in places like New Delhi," and "I would expect a renewal of 'string-of-pearls' talk in India should that happen, and with some cause."

The "string-of-pearls" strategy refers to a suspected Chinese naval plan to build a network of base agreements with countries along the sea lines of communication (SLOC) from Hainan Island to Africa: Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many of the countries listed are Third World and incapable of providing the type of logistics support that US naval fleets enjoy in places like Singapore.

Other problems for the Chinese Navy would be overcoming choke points in straits along the SLOC — Mandeb, Malacca, Hormuz, Lombok, and Singapore — places that US forces and allies can control in a conflict.

"From a geographical standpoint, establishing such a fleet would concentrate even more attention on the chokepoints where shipping accesses the Indian Ocean from East Asia," Holmes said. "If Beijing bases a fleet on Hainan and doesn't forward deploy it, the fleet's ships could be cut off and stranded in South Asia by some access-denier operating in the vicinity of the Strait of Malacca or the Lombok or Sunda straits."

Another problem with the fourth fleet speculation in the media, particularly Chinese-language media, is that China's armed forces normally stay within their assigned military regions. The three naval fleets are attached to three adjacent military regions accordingly. Hainan Island is part of the Guangzhou Military Region, making the creation of a fourth fleet at that location unnecessary and untraditional, Chang said.

"Neither the actual practices of the present military organization may have any space to accommodate such an organization of the fourth fleet," he said. "Please remember that all three existing fleets are named by the territorial seas. This is a basic rule hardly to be changed in near term."

Regarding the media reports, "many commentaries appeared in the overseas Chinese electronic medias might only reflect some aspirations of the military fans in China or overseas Chinese community," he said.

This does not mean that China is not sending ships and submarines into the Indian Ocean.New Delhi has complained about Chinese naval activities in the area, including three submarines over the past year.

China's presence suggests Beijing has ambitions beyond its near-seas, particularly with the more than 300 million tons of oil being transported through the Indian Ocean, said Srikanth Kondapalli, a China specialist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

In 2014, two Chinese submarines made their first port calls in Sri Lanka, unnerving New Delhi. Kondapalli said the submarine visits to Sri Lanka are key to preparing the groundwork for a bigger presence in the Indian Ocean.

"The crucial issue is the number of naval platforms," he said. "Once China produces these — after the three fleets are fully equipped — we could possibly see the fourth fleet."

Holmes suggests the Chinese Navy may be creating the organization for an Indian Ocean fleet without assigning many, or any, assets to that fleet permanently.

"That would resemble the US Navy's 6th Fleet, which has only a command ship and shore facilities," he said. "Ships 'chop' to 6th Fleet temporarily, meaning they put themselves under tactical control of the fleet commander. China may be thinking about a similar arrangement for now, and perhaps permanently. Navies exist to give commanders and political leaders options. This may fall into that category."


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