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China’s Vulnerability in the Indian Ocean Raises Strategic Concerns Amid Rising Tensions

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Amid escalating tensions and the continuous scrutiny of China’s military capabilities, experts are closely examining a potential Achilles’ heel in its strategic plans—the vulnerability of its oil tankers in the Indian Ocean. The Western military and academic strategists are discreetly exploring scenarios where China’s reliance on this vital sea route could be exploited, particularly in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or elsewhere in East Asia.

Every day, around 60 fully loaded crude oil carriers navigate the Indian Ocean, carrying nearly half of the oil that fuels China’s economy, the world’s second-largest. As these vessels cross the Indian Ocean, a region where the U.S. holds considerable influence, they lack protection, making them susceptible to a range of escalatory options by China’s adversaries.

Security scholar David Brewster from the Australian National University emphasized that in a major conflict, Chinese oil tankers in the Indian Ocean would become “very vulnerable.” He added that Chinese naval vessels would be essentially trapped in the Indian Ocean without adequate air support due to the absence of Chinese bases or facilities in the region.

According to diplomatic sources and analysts, this vulnerability presents a strategic advantage to China’s adversaries, providing them with various escalatory options in a prolonged conflict. These options include harassment, interdiction operations, and even a blockade, aiming to divert Chinese naval vessels to the Indian Ocean and increase the costs of China’s potential actions, similar to the strategies employed during Russia’s war on Ukraine.

In the event of a full-scale war, these oil tankers, capable of carrying 2 million barrels of oil, could be targeted as valuable prizes to be sunk or captured, reminiscent of naval strategies from the last century where combatants aimed to cripple their enemies’ economic resources.

China’s reliance on the Indian Ocean for its oil imports, with approximately 62% of its oil and 17% of its natural gas passing through key gateways, underscores its vulnerability. Despite efforts to diversify its energy supplies, China’s susceptibility to disruptions in the Indian Ocean remains a concern for military planners and strategists.

While China has an extensive network of military satellites, it has only one dedicated military base in Djibouti on the ocean’s western edge, which lacks adequate air cover. The U.S., in contrast, maintains a significant presence in the Indian Ocean with bases such as the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain and the Japan-headquartered 7th Fleet operating out of Diego Garcia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s directive to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be prepared for the invasion of Taiwan by 2027 has heightened concerns. While Chinese strategists are aware of the vulnerability in the Indian Ocean, any decision for military action would ultimately rest with President Xi.

Despite China’s increasing military maneuvers and its emphasis on a modernized military capable of global power projection, questions persist about its ability to secure crucial trade routes, especially in the face of a potentially protracted conflict. As tensions rise and military posturing continues, the vulnerability of China’s oil supply chain in the Indian Ocean remains a key consideration in the evolving geopolitical landscape.

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