And the list of countries that are coming within China’s strategic orbit appears to be growing. Sri Lanka, which has seen China replace Japan as its largest donor, is a case in point—China was no doubt instrumental in ensuring that Sri Lanka was granted dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
To the west, Kenya offers another example of how China has been bolstering its influence in the Indian Ocean. The shift was underscored in a leaked US diplomatic cable from February 2010 that was recently published by WikiLeaks. In it, US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger highlighted the decline of US influence in East Africa’s economic hub, saying: ‘We expect China’s engagement in Kenya to continue growing given Kenya’s strategic location…If oil or gas is found in Kenya, this engagement will likely grow even faster. Kenya’s leadership may be tempted to move close to China in an effort to shield itself from Western, and principally US pressure to reform.’
But where China has led, India has certainly been following. India imports about 70 percent of its oil through the Indian Ocean Region to its various ports. As a consequence, it has been enhancing its strategic influence through the use of soft power, by becoming a major foreign investor in regional mining, oil, gas,and infrastructure projects. In addition, India has aggressively expanded its naval presence.reportedly to include the establishment of listening posts in the Seychelles, Madagascar.and Mauritius; in late 2009, it successfully co-opted the Maldives as part of its southern naval command. China is often accused of engaging in a String of Pearls strategy to surround India. Judging by India’s naval build-up, though, the truth could actually be quite the opposite.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
All this said, the economic and military considerations traditionally associated with diplomacy shouldn’t overshadow another pressing and potentially inflammatory issue in the Indian Ocean—the largely unregulated overexploitation of its fishery resources.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has launched a number of initiatives to tackle the problem, including the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, which was created in 1993 (and which includes among its 24 members a number of countries outside the region such as China, Japan, and the United Kingdom). Yet despite such efforts, in 2005, the FAO admitted that 75 percent of fishery resources in the south-western Indian Ocean had been fished to their limits, while the remaining 25 percent had been harvested beyond ecological sustainment. The consequences of over fishing, which is actually largely a result of activity by countries outside the region, could eventually have serious consequences for littoral states that depend heavily on maritime resources to feed their populations and also provide valuable export revenues.
The problems associated with resource and strategic issues are only likely to grow more pronounced over the coming decade, especially with the global economy’s continued reliance on energy reserves in the Middle East, Central Asia,and Africa. A rapidly growing China and India, who both entertain superpower aspirations, are becoming increasingly energy hungry, and there’s genuine potential for conflict as these two giants try to feed their economic growth and expand their influence.
‘Energy security,and resources are absolutely critical. The Indian Ocean Region is immensely rich in that, and therefore, all developing societies need access to the new material produced around the Indian Ocean littoral,’ said Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, in an interview with Asia Pacific Defence Reporter. ‘In the long-term the Indian Ocean is going to be massively more significant in global politics than it has ever been before, and that is the function largely of the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is massively more significant.’
Right now, there’s no reason to think he isn’t right.
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a Senior Analyst at Future Directions International, a strategic think tank based in Perth, Western Australia.