China has 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. This makes it easy for the Chinese Navy to visit (for repairs, supplies, or shore leave for the crews). So far this ‚Äústring of pearls‚Äù 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúpearl‚Äù very attractive economic incentives to accept Chinese port building and management efforts.
Speaking of Tibet, China has used its economic clout in tiny Nepal (between India and China/Tibet) to put more pressure on anti-Chinese Tibetans. For decades the Nepalese government was hospitable to Tibetans fleeing Chinese rule in their homeland and even allowed Tibetan anti-China activists permission to operate in Nepal. No more. China has been increasingly generous to Nepal over the last decade and now those favors are being cashed in. As a result, anti-Chinese Tibetans are facing increasing restrictions in Nepal. The Chinese also played on the traditional Nepalese fear of India (which has long dominated Nepal but was never able to permanently conquer it and incorporate it into India).
The Chinese Navy has been increasing its training missions outside coastal waters over the last six years. In that period there were twenty of the high seas exercises in the Western Pacific, involving 90 ships. Including the ships sent to work with the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia, the ships going on high seas exercises includes about 140 vessels. The Somalia missions have been excellent training, as they last four months (versus a few weeks for the Western Pacific operations).
The increased Chinese Navy activity is largely to train sailors on how to keep other countries from exercising claims to disputed bits of land far from the Chinese coast. This issue is particularly explosive in the South China Sea. Long-term, China expects to win all these disputes and its growing (and increasingly active) navy is part of that plan.