Home / Articles / Australia and India’s New Military Bases: Responses to China’s Naval Presence in the Indian Ocean
Australia and India have built and expanded military bases in and around the Indian Ocean in anticipation of a larger Chinese naval presence in its waters. Most of the construction has focused on creating the capacity to monitor the three main passages into the ocean through the Indonesian archipelago, namely the Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda Straits.
India has established two new naval air stations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and boosted its maritime patrol forces at others nearby.
Australia is working to establish a military base in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and is beefing up its Stirling naval base near Perth to support and sustain nuclear-powered attack submarines.
In May 2022, a Chinese navy Type 815 electronic surveillance ship, the Haiwangxing, sailed close to the Harold E. Holt naval communication station in western Australia, a facility jointly operated by Australia and the United States. On the edge of the Indian Ocean, the station provides communications support to allied submarines operating in the region. The ship’s presence showed China’s willingness to not only eavesdrop on allied communications, but also send its navy into parts of the Indian Ocean where it had rarely ventured before. That prompted concerns in Canberra that were reminiscent of those in New Delhi after a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine unexpectedly docked at a Sri Lankan port in 2014. In the following years, several Chinese hydrographic and survey ships appeared in the region, presaging the future deployment of more Chinese submarines.
Such incidents served as reminders to Australia and India of their need to be prepared for China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Already, that awareness has led both countries to support automatic identification system transponder signals collection to more carefully monitor the movements of Chinese vessels. For now, Australia and India, along with Japan and the United States, have used the collected data to highlight China’s illegal fishing practices. Some suggest that the countries could one day use the data collection infrastructure to track Chinese coast-guard and navy ships too.
But doing so has drawbacks. Chinese surface combatants could disable or spoof their transponder signals. Moreover, Chinese submarines, stealthy by nature, do not emit any signals when submerged. Thus, Australia and India have sought other ways to monitor the waters of the Indian Ocean for Chinese warships and, more specifically, to monitor the passages into the ocean through the Indonesian archipelago, namely the Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda Straits. That has required the two countries to devote resources to build new military bases and deploy new military assets on a variety of Indian Ocean islands.
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean is hardly new. Chinese strategists have commented on the ocean’s importance to their country’s expanding commercial interests and as a conduit for its energy and raw material needs. China’s interest became tangible after it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the western edge of the Indian Ocean. At first glance, the base seemed isolated, given that China’s next closest naval base is thousands of kilometers away. However, fortunately for China, its companies built and, in many cases, now manage civilian ports throughout the region. India, for instance, has long been worried that China could use the ports to facilitate its navy’s operations in the Indian Ocean. Among the ports most often mentioned are Chittagong in Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.
Perhaps even more worrisome to Indian strategists is China’s sprawling Yulin naval base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island. Though located in China itself and primarily built for the country’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine fleet, the base can handle all sorts of warships, including aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. Unlike the Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine that visited Sri Lanka, the naval base’s six Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines can sail into the Indian Ocean without surfacing or needing an accompanying submarine tender, which often gives away the passage of submarines.
Nevertheless, all Chinese warships, including its Shang-class submarines, must pass through the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Straits to reach the Indian Ocean. (To be sure, the deeper Lombok Strait is easier for submarines to transit submerged than either the Malacca or Sunda Straits.) However, if Australia and India hope to check China’s naval presence, they must be able to monitor all three of the straits, both above and below the water’s surface—a capability that neither could do without additional bases and forces in the Indian Ocean.
India Bolsters Island Strongholds
Given India’s enduring concern over a possible conflict with China, New Delhi has long been worried about Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean. To address that concern in the diplomatic arena, it has pursued its “Look East” strategy, promoting stronger ties with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, countries that dominate the routes through which Chinese warships would have to pass to reach the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in the military sphere, India has sought to build new or expand existing bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
At the time of the Song-class submarine incident, India had only four Soviet-vintage, prop-driven Tu-142M maritime patrol aircraft to cover the entire eastern Indian Ocean. They operated from Rajali naval air station on India’s eastern coast. Since then, India has purchased twelve American-made P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, the sale of which the United States encouraged as a way to deepen its security ties with India. The P-8Is offer not only superior surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but also greater speed and longer endurance, making them better anti-submarine warfare platforms. India also established the Baaz naval air station on Great Nicobar Island at the southern end of the Nicobar Islands, only 450 km from the Malacca Strait. From the start, India intended to extend the station’s 3,500-foot runway to accommodate the P-8Is. While the runway was lengthened by 800 feet by 2022, environmental concerns have slowed further construction.
In 2019, India established the Kohassa naval air station on North Andaman Island at the northern end of the Andaman Islands, near a suspected Chinese intelligence outpost on Myanmar’s Coco Island. Again, India has plans to extend the station’s runway to accommodate P-8Is. At the time of writing, only the Utkrosh naval air station in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands has a runway long enough to service the new aircraft. That station is currently home to a squadron of short-range Do-228 maritime patrol aircraft.
More broadly, in 2019, India announced a ten-year infrastructure upgrade program to deploy new aircraft, warships, and anti-ship missile batteries throughout the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Some elements have now been deployed. The Indian navy rebased a Kora-class guided-missile corvette to Port Blair, and the Indian air force established a forward base for its Su-30MKI fighters on Car Nicobar. Plus, the Indian army has test fired its Brahmos anti-ship missiles from the islands. Meanwhile, New Delhi has built a new base on Mauritius’ Agaléga Island, from which it is likely to operate its P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.
Australia Expands Strategic Ports
Further east, Australia has also begun to construct military facilities in and around the Indian Ocean. That has been driven by the perception that China has grown more menacing. The increasing appearance of Chinese naval vessels off Australia’s coasts since the 2010s, China’s diplomatic and trade spats with Australia in the early 2020s, and Beijing’s rising political sway over Australia’s neighbors in Oceania have led Canberra to reconsider what it needs to defend its interests, including those in the Indian Ocean, which include several islands and some of Australia’s biggest offshore energy reserves.
So far, Canberra has concentrated its efforts on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which has a harbor better for handling heavy equipment than Australia’s other Indian Ocean possession, Christmas Island. The Cocos Islands’ location, about 1,200 km southeast of the Sunda and Lombok Straits and 2,700 km northwest of Perth, make them strategic. As a result, during the 1990s, Australia periodically flew P-3C maritime patrol aircraft from the islands. The United States even briefly considered them as an alternative to Diego Garcia in 2012, when it feared that its lease on the island may end in 2036.
Given the increased presence of Chinese warships off Australia’s coasts, Canberra announced that it would upgrade the Cocos Islands’ airport to support the Australian air force P-8As in 2016. Work at the airport, however, has been slow due to rising costs. Nevertheless, Australia appears committed to complete the construction as the islands were specifically mentioned in its 2023 Defense Strategic Review. The airport will also act as a forward operating base for Australia’s four new MC-55A surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft.
But Canberra’s most ambitious base-building plan, approved earlier this year, calls for an expansion of its Stirling naval base near Perth. Australia intends for the base to become the home port for as many as eight new conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered attack submarines, which it announced that it would acquire as part of its AUKUS security partnership with the United Kingdom and United States in 2021. Work will first start on repurposing some of the base’s current facilities before moving onto constructing new ones that will be needed to support nuclear-power plants. In the meantime, American and British submarines are expected to make more frequent port calls at Stirling. The most recent was a US Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, the North Carolina, in August 2023. Similar future Australian submarines based at Stirling would able to reach the Lombok Strait in 2.2 days at an average speed of 30 knots and remain on station for months. By comparison, Australia’s current fleet of six Collins-class diesel-electric attack submarines would require 6.6 days (at snorting depth) to cover that distance and have enough fuel for only a week-long patrol.
The separate investments that Australia and India have made and continue to make into the construction of military bases in and around the Indian Ocean have been driven by their concerns over China’s maritime presence in the region. The similarity of those concerns give Canberra and New Delhi an incentive to share the information that they each collect on Chinese naval vessels near Indonesia’s three strategic straits and in the wider Indian Ocean. The combination of that information with data the two countries already share about Chinese vessels as part of their participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”) could provide Australia and India with an even sharper picture of Chinese maritime activity across the Indian Ocean. Such collaboration would be simultaneously self-interested and mutually beneficial.
Going a bit further, some in Washington might hope that such fused data could be shared with the United States, another Quad member. That could be a step too far, at least in the short term. While Canberra might be open to intelligence sharing with Washington given its participation in Five Eyes intelligence alliance—which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—India is less likely to be keen. After all, the reason for India’s more active participation in the Quad was never to cozy up to America. Thus, were the subject to be broached, India would probably be more responsive if the request came from Australia, a country with which it has common cause. In this case, Washington should follow Canberra’s lead.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.