By Komal Khan
For China, unhindered access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a strategic requirement. For that, the critical SLOCs around Eurasian rim-land must be secured. Presently, access to IOR is dependent on China’s stable relations with the United States, whose navy dominates IOR; and the U.S. allies like India, having sizeable presence there, thereby sustaining an integrated deterrence in the IOR as part of the U.S. strategic reassurance policy.
China’s interests are growing in the Indian Ocean, which directly affects coastal states, including South Asian nations. The Indian Ocean hosts critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) ferrying crucial imports and exports, including vital energy supplies. Presently, China is the largest importer of crude oil in the world. Meanwhile, around 90 percent of China’s international commerce, by volume, is transported by sea. Global trade and transit routes pass through IOR and the South China Sea, while 80 percent oil and gas ships traverse through Malacca Strait. Similarly, being a global manufacturing hub, Chinese economy is dependent on raw materials and minerals imports from African and the Indian Ocean littoral states via sea. China is also focusing on developing its ‘blue economy’, which was estimated to be more than 1.2 trillion USD in 2020 and is growing at an average rate of 7 percent annually.
China’s Defense strategy whitepaper issued in 2015, directed People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to ensure security at open seas. It essentially means that at present, PLAN is a blue water maritime force with the capabilities to undertake prolonged missions in high seas. The paper also emphasizes ensuring protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) across the Indian Ocean”. Additionally, Military Strategy white paper emphasizes that China should develop a ‘modern maritime military force’ to ‘safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests’. This shift in PLAN’s mission has emerged at a time when Beijing is expanding its economic cooperation through BRI and requires PLAN to safeguard its interests, assets and citizens in foreign lands and seaports. Beijing is focusing on exerting influence, mitigating its vulnerabilities, and securing its maritime trade in the IOR. China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest crude oil importer in 2017.
To advance its interests, Beijing has enhanced its economic and naval cooperation with IOR littoral states by investing in a number of new ports in the IOR. This Chinese policy is being implemented through ‘Maritime Silk Road’, a sea-based component of the broader BRI. At its core, BRI envisions connectivity across regions, enhanced industrial cooperation among partner countries. Maritime Silk Road, meanwhile, focuses on establishing a network of ports through building new ports, expanding existing ones and developing industrial zones in these port cities. A major artery of Maritime Silk Road goes from China’s Eastern seaboard to European ports via South China Sea, the IOR, and Mediterranean Sea, which then links to the Atlantic. Beijing is pursuing long term lease rights to ports in friendly countries along strategic waterways. These agreements are being inked between Chinese state-owned companies and local governments of IOR. Long-term presence in IOR countries is intended to bolster local economies and connect them with Chinese ports. In case of Gwadar (Pakistan) and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar), goal is to stimulate development of China’s inland underdeveloped provinces through economic corridors by linking them with Indian Ocean.
This economic cooperation has been followed by building overseas military facilities, joint exercises and expansion of defence and maritime cooperation. China stated its forays in IOR in 2008 near Horn of Africa. In 2009, first antipiracy missions were undertaken in Gulf of Aden. It became a regular feature with expanding scope. From 2014 onwards, Chinese submarines have also ventured into Indian Ocean, making port calls in Colombo and Karachi. Chinese patrols have gradually increased as claimed by the New Delhi that it spotted 14 Chinese ships in August, 2018. After two years of negotiations with the Djibouti administration, China opened its first foreign military base in August, 2017. PLAN troops were stationed and ships were deployed to officially termed ‘logistical facilities’. It now has deployment of a Marine company and related equipment. Its location in Horn of Africa in IOR enables Beijing to project power, deploy deterrent forces and undertake military operations in faraway seas.
However, to contain China in the IOR, the primary partner to the US in this regard is India, based on India’s policing of the Indian Ocean for the sake of India’s own maritime interests, and also as an assigned balancer against China by the United States. India has opted for two strategies: cooperate with China where possible and also propose alternate connectivity initiatives. In 2014, India joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member. It also joined New Development Bank. In 2017, India gained full membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, are regional security forum where China plays a leading role. Meanwhile, to take advantage of its growing economic prowess and geographical location, New Delhi proposed five new initiatives Neighbourhood First policy (2014), the Act East policy (2014), Project Mausam (2014), Security and Growth for
Beijing and New Delhi are pursuing soft-balancing strategies and diplomatic engagement. This has led India to address the needs and concerns of smaller states as they pursue enhanced cooperation with China. India remains under wary of potential upgradation of China – South Asia political and security cooperation and particularly, the Chinese naval presence in strategic ports. If smaller states consent to Chinese naval presence; particularly, Sri Lanka and the Maldives; it will escalate regional competition in South Asia. If it happens, this will also complicate stability for smaller states, and potentially undermine the ability of Small South Asian countries to attract economic support and investments from both the regional economic powers – India and China.
The writer is working as a Research Officer at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.