Tag Archives: Indian Ocean

Beijing Pivots to the Indian Ocean

China is making economic and military inroads into the Indian Ocean, as the vast waterway carries hundreds of billions in trade goods and raw materials to and from China’s shores. China’s rivals in New Delhi are paying close attention, and there are potential fears of great-power confrontation, with the nations along China’s proposed “Maritime Silk Road” taking sides, either with China or against it. However, there is also the possibility of mutual benefit, as trade booms in the region.


Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean were highlighted by the recent visit of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Perris to Beijing. Chinese leaders pledged over four billion U.S dollars for construction of a new port in Sri Lanka, as well as billions more in infrastructure investments.[1] A free trade agreement between the two countries is in the initial stages of negotiation.


China has also shielded the Sri Lankan government politically at the United Nations. The Sri Lankan government has received much international criticism for alleged human rights abuses during and after its campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. China’s foreign ministry has expressed resistance to “some countries’ interference the internal affairs of Sri Lanka under the pretext of human rights issues.”[2]


Beijing’s deepening ties with Sri Lanka are part of China’s new “Maritime Silk Road” project. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying described the efforts thusly:


“During Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting with Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs Peiris, he said that China proposed to build the maritime silk road of the 21st century with the aim of realizing harmonious co-existence, mutual benefit and common development with relevant countries by carrying out practical cooperation in various fields, such as maritime connectivity, marine economy, technically-advanced environmental protection, disaster prevention and reduction as well as social and cultural exchanges in the spirit of peace, friendship, cooperation and development. … The Sri Lankan side expressed its readiness to work on the maritime silk road and step up cooperation with China in relevant fields.”[3]


There are still few details available on this proposed “Maritime Silk Road”. In October Chinese President Xi Jinping floated the idea during a visit to Indonesia. Premier Li Keqiang added some financial muscle to the plan in Brunei, pledging roughly half a billion dollars to support the initiative. When discussing the plan, Chinese officials consistently stress maritime connectivity, disaster management and fisheries cooperation.


Of course, the most vital Chinese interest along the Maritime Silk Road is trade. China is now the world’s largest trading nation, having displaced the United States within the last year. The vast majority of China’s booming trade with Europe and Africa – as well as China’s vital imports of Middle Eastern oil – must travel through the Indian Ocean. These indispensible trade routes pass through the strategic bottlenecks of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Malacca.


Beijing’s extensive (and potentially vulnerable) commercial interests in the Indian Ocean have spurred Chinese investment in military resources. Earlier this month Chinese naval vessels took the unprecedented step of traversing the Lombok Strait in Indonesia and approaching Australian territorial waters. China has also been increasingly active in international efforts in the west Indian Ocean against Somali piracy.


Beijing’s forays into the Indian Ocean seem in part an effort to acquire more strategic depth against potential maritime rivals. U.S officials have, for the first time, explicitly challenged China’s extensive claims to sole ownership over the majority of the South China Sea. [4] China’s Foreign Ministry hit back, saying, “The US is not a party concerned in the dispute in the South China Sea and over the Diaoyu Islands. It should stay neutral, be discreet in word and deed and do more to promote peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, rather than the opposite.”[5]


Pearls before Silk


American officials have long accused China of engaging in a “String of Pearls” strategy to lock in commercial and military assets in the Indian Ocean.[6]  This alleged stratagem involves deepening ties with (and military investments in) Burma, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Thailand. Beijing’s recent overtures to Sri Lanka would be consistent with such an effort.


New Delhi is keeping an eye on Chinese efforts in its strategic front yard. In fact, for the first time the Indian Army has established special teams of officers to monitor Chinese military, economic, strategic, and cultural efforts. A high-ranking Indian army source told the Hindustani Times “It’s not about an incursion here or a transgression there. The China cells are looking at the big picture.” [7]


And what is the big picture of China’s efforts in the Indian Ocean? Zhou Bo of the Center for China-America Defense Relations, dismissed the idea of a militarized “String of Pearls”, saying “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC).” Zhou also downplayed the potential for Sino-Indian rivalry in the area, saying:


“The rivalry between the Elephant and Dragon is often hyped, but India would not challenge China unnecessarily. There is no dispute between China and India in the Indian Ocean. … The queer idea of China encircling India from the sea with the help of Pakistan only exists in the wildest imagination of some Indian ‘strategists’.” [8]


Yang Jiechi, Beijing’s Special Representative to New Delhi, has invited India to join the Maritime Silk Road project.[9] Indeed, so long as the project focuses on trade, open access in potential shipping bottlenecks, environmental issues, and anti-piracy, there is a huge potential for mutual benefit between the two powers. India, like China, is heavily reliant on sea-bound trade, including massive imports of Middle Eastern hydrocarbons.


If China can avoid over-militarizing its Indian Ocean interests, then New Delhi may be brought aboard the Maritime Silk Road project – to the benefit of both powers. However, there remains a very real risk of a militarized rivalry, with both camps lining up allies. Given the tense situation in the Pacific, China has a keen interest in keeping the Indian Ocean open for business.


[1] “Sri Lanka to sign landmark trade pact with China soon”, The Hindu, February 14, 2014.


[2] Ibid.

[3] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on February 13, 2014”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China”, February 13, 2013.


[4] “US Draws Own Line Over South China Sea Dispute”, Radio Free Asia, February 9, 2014.


[5] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on February 13, 2014”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China”, February 13, 2013.


[6] “China builds up strategic sea lanes”, The Washington Times, January 17, 2005.


[7] “Troops to economy, army cells to keep a watch on China”, Hindustani Times, February 17, 2014.


[8] “The String of Pearls and the Maritime Silk Road”, China-US Focus, February 11, 2014.


[9] “India invited to join Maritime Silk Road initiative”, Business Standard, February 14, 2014.



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