China has made it clear that it wants to control the South China Sea as if it were Chinese territory. China has enacted laws to that effect. This is all part of an effort to justify efforts to use Chinese warships to dominate essential sea lanes, especially the one through the Indian Ocean that China requires for moving imports and exports. Controlling the South China Sea is the first step but the Chinese Navy wants to establish naval bases overseas as well. The government will not allow this. Instead the Chinese are establishing commercial relations with foreign countries along these sea routes, often by building new ports or refurbishing existing ones. This is done as commercial ventures and the resulting modern ports are operated by Chinese companies to the benefit and profit of the host country. It is understood that the host country will allow Chinese warships to use these ports for resupply and to give the crews some shore time.
China has already established a number of port relationships in the Indian Ocean that make it possible for them to support increased navy operations. All these ports are commercial operations, where Chinese firms have upgraded or built commercial ports and run them. So far this “string of pearls” includes Bangladesh (Chittagong), Burma (Sittwe and Coco Island), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Pakistan (Gwadar), and Tanzania (Bagamoyo). The Indian Ocean has become a major trade route for China and this makes the security of this route a major concern. This, however, upsets India a great deal because of active claims China has on India (especially along the Tibet border). There’s not much India can do about the String of Pearls, as China has become a major economic force in the Indian Ocean and offers all the nations hosting a “pearl” very attractive economic incentives to accept Chinese port building and management efforts. The fact that it is difficult for other countries to protest these “pearls” because they are not officially naval bases is as the Chinese planned it.
Meanwhile China is improving its ability to operate warships in areas without friendly ports for resupply. China was reminded how vital this capability was in early 2014 when the international military effort to find missing flight MH370 revealed how crucial supply ships were. China sent two dozen warships and support vessels into the southern Indian Ocean to join in the MH370 search and it was obvious that without access to nearby Australian ports the Chinese ships would not have been able to remain in the area for long.
The classic solution to this problem is a large fleet of support (“sustainment”) ships to constantly deliver food, fuel and other supplies to ships at sea. China is rapidly building such ships, but not enough of them yet to maintain a large force for an extended period. China is unlikely to obtain the overseas ports it needs to support its current expansion plans because Chinese expansion plans have angered nearly all the nations in area. China does have few allies, like Pakistan, Cambodia and Burma. This is not enough and if it came to outright hostilities these three would not be enough as any or all of them could have their port access blocked by neighboring countries that are at odds with China.
Without access to foreign ports for resupply the Chinese Navy cannot sustain large numbers of ships far from China and there is no doubt about this in China. Thus more supply ships are being built for the navy. Those orders may now be increased because of the recent experience off eastern Australia. This logistical weakness is no secret but the Chinese have played it down until now. After the April MH370 operation it’s a much more visible issue. Chinese naval threats are now a bit more intimidating with the reports that China is building more sustainment ships.
In 2013 China commissioned its third and fourth Type 903 replenishment ship. Thus in less than two years China had built and put into the water two more Type 903 replenishment ships. The first two of these 23,000 tons tanker/cargo ships appeared in 2004. Then in 2008, these ships became heavily used, supporting 13 task forces sent to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Usually one Type 903 accompanied two warships (usually a frigate and a destroyer). The replenishment ship did just that, supplying fuel, water, food, and other supplies as needed. The replenishment ship would go to local ports to restock its depleted stores of fuel, water, food, and other necessities. China needs more Type 903s to support the growing number of long distance training operations into the Western Pacific and the government has provided the cash to make that possible.