News Release

April 12, 2018

For Immediate Release
Contact: Fiona Gettinger, Communications Associate, 703-824-2388

Is the Past Prologue in the Indian Ocean?
A new CNA analysis looks back at the Cold War to gain insights on the future of the Indian Ocean

Arlington, Va. — Over the past decade Chinese ships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have maintained a routine but limited presence in the Indian ocean region. However, as the number of “blue water” capable ships in the PLAN approaches 100, a CNA report by Michael McDevitt, a retired rear admiral who was director of East Asia Policy office for the Secretary of Defense, examines what this could mean for the future of the Indian Ocean, exploring the U.S.-Soviet naval competition during the Cold War.

The Soviet Pacific Fleet was assigned responsibility for maintaining the Soviet Indian Ocean Squadron during the Cold War and according to McDevitt, they faced the same logistics challenges the PLAN faces today.

“Maintaining ships on station thousands of miles away from home-port is as challenging today as it was during the Cold War,” said McDevitt.  “As a result, the Soviets sought naval access arrangements with nations around the western Indian Ocean, just as China is doing today.”

McDevitt’s analysis points out other parallels.  For example, the focal point for Soviet naval operations in the Cold War was the Northern Arabian Sea, as is China’s.  While the Soviets maintained a relatively large multi-ship presence, China has yet to deploy anything but small three-ship anti-piracy Task Groups. However, the PLAN has commissioned the essential naval components — aircraft carriers, multi-mission destroyers with land-attack cruise missiles and sophisticated air defenses, anti-submarine frigates, multiproduct replenishment ships, and large amphibious ships — to potentially be a very credible Indian Ocean naval task force that is assigned presence responsibilities, as well as sea lane protection responsibilities.

McDevitt also points out that there are some key differences. He says the political stability of Djibouti as a basing facility stands in sharp contrast to the instability the Soviets and the Americans experienced in Somalia and Ethiopia.

“The Soviet Union and the U.S. were directly competing for political influence with the host of newly independent African and South Asia nations. It was a zero sum game. Today this sort of competition is between India and China.  The U.S does not actively seek to counter Chinese influence,” said McDevitt.

McDevitt says whether or not history repeats itself in the Indian Ocean very much depends on the overall evolution of the Sino-U.S. relationship:

  • The current “live and let live” relationship between the United States and China could continue well into the future.
  • Tensions between the nations on a geopolitical scale could spill into the Indian Ocean.
  • A breakdown of relations between New Delhi and Beijing could increase tensions, particularly if the U.S. sides with India.
  • China’s military buildup may worry coastal states in the Indian Ocean.

McDevitt writes, “Since the future is unknown, this look to the past is relevant in that it is a suggestion of what might transpire.”

CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to developing actionable solutions to complex problems of national importance. With nearly 700 scientists, analysts and professional staff, CNA takes a real-world approach to gathering data. Its one-of-a-kind field program places analysts on carriers and military bases, in squad rooms and classrooms, and working side-by-side with a wide array of government decision-makers around the world. In addition to defense-related matters for the U.S. Department of the Navy, CNA’s research portfolio includes criminal justice, homeland security, energy security, water resources, enterprise systems and data analysis, and education.

Note to writers and editors: CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as "CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA."

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