India has operationalised a maritime support base at the Duqm port in Oman and is on course to set up an air support facility in the north Agalega Islands, south of Seychelles. These strategic moves aim to bolster maritime domain awareness and enhance the coastal security of friendly nations within the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This comes amid escalating concerns over Beijing’s increasing presence in the region.
Although the Indian government maintains a low profile regarding these developments, it has been revealed that the facility at the Duqm port in Oman is already in use. The base is utilised for the maintenance, repair, and overhaul of Indian ships, and offers berthing, fuel, and rest facilities to Indian Navy vessels operating in the vicinity or travelling beyond.
In addition to this, India has constructed an airstrip in the north Agalega islands, approximately 1,050km north of Port Louis, as a show of support for its key ally, Mauritius. The airstrip will enhance maritime security for the island nation and help safeguard its tourism assets in the region. The facility, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Mauritius government, is expected to be inaugurated in December by Prime Minister Pravind Jugnath. The Indian Navy intends to deploy around 50 officers and personnel to manage the airstrip, which is equipped to handle Boeing P-8I surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft from the Indian Armed Forces.
These strategic developments have been partly prompted by the increasing presence of PLA Navy ships in the IOR. National security planners predict that the Chinese Navy Carrier Strike Forces will likely patrol the IOR by 2025-26, as PLA rapidly expands its formidable surface and underwater naval assets.
Data from South Block indicates that the number of Chinese vessels in the IOR is progressively increasing each year, with 24 Chinese ships having already entered the Indian Ocean in 2023 so far. This figure includes PLA Navy ships, satellite and ballistic missile tracking vessels, as well as scientific research and surveillance vessels. The number of such ships was 29 in 2019, which increased to 43 in 2022.
On average, there have been about six PLA Navy assets in the IOR every month this year. From 2019 until now, a total of 48 surveillance and scientific research vessels have been deployed in the IOR. These vessels are generally deployed in the Bay of Bengal, the South Indian Ocean, north of Agalega islands, and the Persian Gulf. The Anti-Piracy Escort Force (APEF) and Task Force 172 have been observed operating off the eastern coast of Africa, with a Chinese naval base located in Djibouti.
A Chinese surveillance vessel, the Shi Yan 6, is also expected to enter the IOR on September 23 to conduct joint military scientific research in the Sri Lankan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in October-November 2023. Since 2019, no less than 33 ballistic missile and space tracking ships of the Yuan Wang class have been deployed in the IOR, with such vessels being tracked off the coast of Australia and the East Coast of Africa.
With an increasing number of Chinese ships and warships entering the Indian Ocean through the Malacca straits, Sunda, Lombok, and Ombi-Wetar straits in Indonesia, India not only needs to stay vigilant of PLA activities in its backyard but also has to ensure coastal and maritime security for its key allies in the Persian Gulf and the South Indian Ocean.