January 2023


Stealth in the seas

China is making attempts to counter the US-led Quad by hosting a meeting of Indian Ocean nations – minus India. Amit Agnihotri reports

Increasing pressure from the US-led Quad in the Indo-Pacific seems to have unnerved China, leading it to float a counter forum to assert its influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Beijing, which has been expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region over the past three decades, hosted a meeting of the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation on November 21, which was attended by 19 countries. These included Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti and Australia.

However, Australia (a Quad member) and the Maldives were quick to deny they had sent any official representation to the conclave, even as the meeting raised eyebrows worldwide as India – another Quad member and China’s arch-rival in Asia – was deliberately kept out.

Ostensibly, there was no need for China to set up a parallel body to promote cooperation among the Indian Ocean nations, when a 23-member official grouping, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), has been performing that role perfectly since 1997. Interestingly, China happens to be a dialogue partner of the IORA, along with Russia, the US and several European countries.

The BRI allows China to project its economic and military power and secure its energy supplies

Even if one were to go by what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said earlier in Sri Lanka – that Beijing planned to host a development forum for the island nations of the Indian Ocean region – it was surprising that countries such as Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which barely have anything to do with the Indian Ocean, were invited to the controversial conclave.

Yet the reasons are not difficult to comprehend.

China has long been concerned over the rise of India in South Asia. Therefore, Beijing has been trying for years to counter New Delhi’s influence in the region by reaching out to its neighbours Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.

India’s deepening strategic relationship with the US over the past two decades, culminating in the South Asian power joining the Quad in 2020,has particularly perturbed China. To make matters worse, Beijing seems to be on the wrong side of the India-US bridge. While the Asian Dragon is still clearly in the US crosshairs, despite Washington’s focus on the raging Russia-Ukraine war, its relations with New Delhi are also on a downslide, and have been since 2020.

MQ-9B US Predator drone
India is seeking a fleet of 30 MQ-9B US Predator drones to enhance its sea warfare capabilities

In April 2020, China deliberately violated the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border, in eastern Ladakh and grabbed Indian territory. The face-off turned bloody in June 2020 when 20 Indian soldiers and as many Chinese troops were killed in the Galwan Valley clashes, taking Sino-Indian relations to a new low.

And it is not only in eastern Ladakh. China has been making similar incursions along the LAC in another Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, where a recent flare-up stoked fears that it would snowball into a military confrontation.

So, why is China eyeing the Indian Ocean?

There are various reasons. The region is home to around 2.5 billion people, includes several economic powerhouses amongst its rim states, and hosts key shipping lanes through which significant volumes of international trade pass, including cargo and oil.

Over the past decade, the Indian Ocean has become the hub of China-funded infrastructure projects under Beijing’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which allows the Asian Dragon to project its economic and military power and secure its energy supplies.

Doraleh port in Djibouti
FAMILIAR TALE: China’s acquisition of Djibouti’s Doraleh port has echoes of the Hambantota port takeover in southern Sri Lanka

China’s upcoming base in Cambodia will enable its navy to maintain a greater presence in the eastern Indian Ocean

The US-Pakistan nexus

In a way, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), which organised the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum meeting, is trying to catch up with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), used by Washington to assert its influence globally.

China’s forays into the Indian Ocean began when it joined international efforts to police pirates in the Gulf of Aden a few decades ago. But Beijing has gradually, stealthily expanded its presence by deploying a number of ships and submarines in the region.

The data collected by these vessels can be used to operate submarines and detect enemy undersea platforms deployed in the ocean. The vessels are also convenient for Beijing to spy on New Delhi’s ballistic missile tests, which aimed to hit targets deep within China.

To counter the Chinese threat, India has deployed its first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which is supposed to be New Delhi’s sentinel in the Indian Ocean. Besides, India is also seeking a fleet of 30 MQ-9B US Predator drones worth $3 billion to enhance its sea warfare capabilities.

Usually, Chinese submarines use the Lombok Strait and Malacca Strait to reach the Indian Ocean; but they often get detected at various chokepoints. The setting up of China’s first foreign naval base in Djibouti, where France, the US, Japan, and Italy already have a military presence, provides a strategic location for the Asian Dragon to project its military power across Africa and Asia.

China’s infamous debt-trap diplomacy, which comes dovetailed with its BRI investments, helped Beijing gain ground in Djibouti, which wishes to develop as a logistics hub. The story behind the acquisition of Doraleh port in Djibouti has echoes of the Hambantota port takeover in southern Sri Lanka, which came under Chinese control through use of similar tactics.

China has similar stakes in Myanmar, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Its upcoming base in Cambodia will enable the Chinese navy to maintain a greater presence in the eastern Indian Ocean.

India has a far greater physical presence than China in the Indo-Pacific region, with a coastline over 7,500 km long and its exclusive economic zone, which extends up to 200 nautical miles from the seashore, stretching deep into the Indian Ocean. In comparison, China is geographically far from the Indian Ocean, yet still wants to dominate the region.

Ironically, China has been arguing for years that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean. But Beijing conveniently forgets its own contested claims in the South and the East China Sea, which have forced even a pacifist nation like Japan (another Quad member) to undertake a major military upgrade since World War II.

In light of this, it is not surprising that the Quad decided in May last year to counter the Asian Dragon’s threats through the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. This will allow member nations to monitor China’s illicit fishing and dark shipping by tracking near-real-time activities in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean regions.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues


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