As China continues to draw attention to the South China Sea with its land reclamation and creation of artificial islands, it is also important to look at Chinese activities in the not-so-contentious but strategically important Indian Ocean Region. Beijing, with the help of economic and commercial initiatives, is mapping out a web of influence by increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean. As I argued in a previous article published by The Diplomat, access to and control of the islands in the Indian Ocean is crucial for Beijing to secure its strategic interests in the region.
There are two reasons for China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. First, some of these islands — such as Kyaukpyu — can prove to be China’s answer to its Malacca Dilemma, strengthening its energy security by reducing its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. Second, an increasing presence in the Indian Ocean is crucial in strengthening Beijing’s role as a key actor in the emerging security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. There is no doubt that China aspires to be a maritime power. Beijing realizes that to be considered as a great power, it must have a role and stake beyond its region — beyond the Western Pacific and throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Having attained a favorable status quo in the Western Pacific, China is now engaging with the island nations of the Indian Ocean through its investments and commercial initiatives. It is through its relationship and investments with these nations that Beijing aims to project itself as a resident power of the Indian Ocean, leading to a greater security role throughout the Indo-Pacific. However, unlike in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean is already home to many resident middle powers, wary of China’s unilateral and hostile maritime policies. As a result, the possibility of increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is leading to competition for geostrategic space, especially between India and China. This article looks at the island nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles, against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean tour.
The Republic of Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, close to some of the critical trading routes passing through the region. Though a small island nation, its strategic importance can be relayed from the fact that instability in the waters of Maldives can essentially affect critical global trading routes. While Male is far from flexing any military muscle in the region, access to and influence over this island can help another nation project power through the region. This is perhaps the reason why Male is comfortably sitting in the middle of a geostrategic tussle between India and China unfolding in the Indian Ocean.
Though geographically closer to India and historically within its sphere of strategic influence, Maldives is increasingly strengthening its relationship with Beijing. Chinese investments in the Maldives have increased over the years, ranging from housing projects to infrastructure projects such as building roads and airports. The China-Maldives economic cooperation has experienced a boost ever since the Abdulla Yameen government came into power in November 2013. The Chinese ambassador to the Maldives, Wang Fukang, mentioned three critical areas where Beijing and Male should increase their cooperation, indicating an expansion of their economic and strategic ties. The three areas mentioned by Wang are tourism, infrastructure projects, and, finally, closer maritime cooperation between the two nations.
Noting the Chinese impact on the Maldivian tourism sector, the Ambassador stated, “Since 2010, China has remained the largest source of tourist arrivals in the Maldives. In 2013 alone, more than 330,000 Chinese tourists visited Maldives. In the future, both sides could encourage more Chinese tourists to visit Maldives. Maldives could attract potential Chinese companies to invest in the tourism sector of the country.”
Investing in infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean appears to be Beijing’s preferred approach for obtaining a strong foothold in the region. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative (which still lacks clear details or a clear intent) further boosts this policy. Maldives is an important player in China’s Indian Ocean game and hence infrastructure projects on this island nation are critical. When President Xi Jinping traveled to the Maldives in September 2014, agreement on infrastructure projects in the country was a key outcome. It is equally important to note that this was the first ever visit by a Chinese leader to the Maldives. Along with housing and road projects, the two leaders also agreed to upgrade the main airport and to build a bridge connecting Male to Hulhule — the island where the Male International Airport is located. While initially the agreement was to upgrade the existing airport, reports now suggest the building of a whole new airport with a second runway.
The Chinese presence in Maldives is very prominent through its housing and development projects, so much so that their Ministry of Foreign Affairs building was designed and constructed by Beijing. Increase in Chinese investments in Maldives will provide Beijing with a legitimate platform to increase its military presence in the area. China will have every right to protect its commercial interests in the region both during war and peace times. These infrastructure investments also carry the possibility of being turned into military installations. There is palpable fear, especially in India, of China dominating the foreign investment sector in Maldives.
While the previous government tilted toward Indian influence in the Indian Ocean, the current government seems to favor China. With the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives is descending into political turmoil. While countries such as India and the U.S. have expressed concerns over the arrest and political dissent in the country, Beijing refused to comment on the issue stating that “We are committed to non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.” China’s stance has been well appreciated by the Yameen government, while pro Nasheed supporters have expressed their concerns about anti democratic trends.
Speaking at a conference hosted by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, Ahmed Naseem (former foreign minister of Maldives) stated, “For Maldives it is imperative to stand together with India to balance Indian Ocean security and protect the interests of the Maldives in a growing gamble for power in the Indian Ocean.” The Maldivian delegation led by the Naseem was in India to urge New Delhi to play its role in stabilizing Maldives and in balancing Beijing’s presence in the country. Thanks to growing investments joined with its “non-interference in domestic affairs” policy, Beijing appears to be a favorite for the current government in the Maldives.
Male’s reliance on China for an economic boost under the current government is dangerous for both Maldives and India. China increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean through the Maldives is no longer a distant possibility and New Delhi must wake up to the strategic changes taking place so close to home. However, the Narendra Modi government is taking note of these developments and seem to be willing to shoulder its responsibility as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific. Maldives was one of the countries that Modi was supposed to visit during his travels beginning March 11, in an attempt to revive India-Maldives ties and balance increasing Chinese presence in its Indian Ocean neighborhood. Unfortunately due to the ongoing political turmoil, Maldives has been dropped from Modi’s itinerary. Modi will still tour Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius.
The republic of Seychelles is another player in the emerging geostrategic competition in the Indian Ocean. The 115-island nation located in the Indian Ocean constantly fights to keep its EEZ secure and safe from pirates. Seychelles’ location and proximity to the coast of Africa make it a lucrative option for Beijing to establish a naval base in the country. China is already participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and has growing economic interests in Africa.
In 2011, it was widely reported that Seychelles offered China maritime bases for refueling purposes while conducting its anti piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The reports created a significant amount of unease in New Delhi; such a move would give Beijing the opportunity to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean, facilitating Chinese naval operations far beyond its shores. While China was quick to dismiss any possibility of a military base overseas, the possibility of such a development is higher today.
It is not news that Beijing aspires to extend its influence to the Indian Ocean. What is alarming is the use of commercial and economic initiatives to create a reason to maintain a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean Region. China is quick to dismiss any plans of creating military bases overseas, but Chinese maritime strategists such as Shen Dingli advocate the need for China to set up overseas military bases. In an article titled “Don’t shun the idea of setting up overseas bases,” Shen asserts that “[s]etting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right.” Encapsulating the reason behind China’s need to expand into the Indian Ocean, Shen further argues, “The real threat to us is not posed by the pirates but by the countries which block our trade route.” Shen continues:
“The threats also include secessionism outside the Chinese mainland. The situation requires us be able to hit the vulnerable points of our potential opponents by restricting their international waterway. So we need to set up our own blue-water navy and to rely on the overseas military bases to cut the supply costs.”
China is gearing up to protect its energy imports that pass through the Indian Ocean. Evidently, Beijing is not comfortable with Washington and New Delhi being the security providers in the region. Inability to sustain troops in the region would mean that China’s energy imports will be highly vulnerable in the event of a military standoff with either the United States or India. Currently, India and Seychelles share close military ties as New Delhi helps the island nation secure its EEZ by presenting surveillance aircrafts and patrolling ships.
By increasing its economic investments in the Indian Ocean Region, Beijing is creating a legitimate reason to maintain a military presence in the Indian Ocean. While New Delhi cannot stop China from making inroads into the Indian Ocean, it must step up its game and increase cooperation with these island nations in order to balance the situation. This is why New Delhi is looking to increase its security cooperation with Seychelles and hopes to balance the situation through Narendra Modi’s ongoing Indian Ocean tour.
India’s ties with Sri Lanka date back to historical and cultural linkages in ancient times. Geographically located at the tip of India, the island nation is considered to be within New Delhi’s sphere of strategic influence. However, strengthening ties with Beijing through infrastructure projects are creating tension in the Indian Ocean politics between China and India. An area of great discomfort for India has been the frequent docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo.
The previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared fairly China-friendly, awarding many infrastructure development projects to Beijing. The Maithripala Sirisena government is now reviewing all Chinese investments in the country, especially the $1.5 billion port city project. Explaining the reason for the re-assessment, Sri Lanka’s investment promotion minister, Kabir Hashim, noted that “The port city project has to be completely looked at… You cannot have land given on freehold basis to another country in a high security zone.” According to reports, the project would give China around 100 hectares of land “an outright basis and the rest on a 99-year lease.”
The issue of Chinese submarines docking at Colombo is a perfect example of Beijing using its commercial initiatives to gradually increase and maintain its military presence in the Indian Ocean. It is interesting to note that the submarine docked at the Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT), a terminal constructed by China Merchants Holdings (International) Co., Ltd. (CMHI), much to India’s surprise and concern. CMHI holds 85 percent ownership of the terminal.
The Sirisena government is now reassuring India that such “incidents, from whatever quarter, do not take place under our tenure.”
In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Sri Lanka from March 13-14 is of great significance to reassert India’s ties with Colombo. Prime Minister Modi will also be addressing the Sri Lankan Parliament along with a visit to Jaffna. While the new government in Colombo reviews its relationship with Beijing, New Delhi must be available to assert its support and strengthen its ties with the tear drop nation of the Indian Ocean.
Modi will also be traveling to Mauritius, another small but significant country in the Indian Ocean. As the island nation looks to attract investments from China, India is stepping up its game by providing a 1,300-tonne Indian-built patrol vessel, the Barracuda, to Mauritius to help the island nation protect its coastline. Modi will also address the National Assembly and will attend the Mauritius National Day on March 12. Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean tour comes at a much needed time to re-assure the Indian Ocean islands that New Delhi is present and willing to shoulder its responsibility in maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.
It is quite clear that China is engaging with the island nations in the Indian Ocean Region through small but significant projects, leveraging its strategic interests. What Beijing essentially aims to do is create an atmosphere where Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean becomes inevitable. While India may not indulge in any China containment policy, there is a dire need for New Delhi to reengage with these islands and secure its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Darshana M. Baruah is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think, the Observer Research Foundation.