Indian Ocean has always been instrumental in expanding India’s influence. From the ancient times when Indians had trade relations with Sumerian and Greek Civilizations to the times of Chola Empire when whole of South East Asia was under the ambit of Indian influence. Indian Ocean has not only served as a medium of trade but also linked the nations around culturally and religiously. India has always considered Indian Ocean as its own backyard. This changed in 21st century with the rise of China. Suddenly this prized possession was not safe from Chinese ambitions. Celebrated journalist and author Bertil Lintner explains the geopolitical ambitions of China to master the Indian Ocean. He argues that economic diplomacy of China is nothing more than a veil for a grand strategic takeover. Through various facts and scenarios he delivers a warning to the stakeholders of Indian Ocean about the changing reality.
China’s interest in the Indian Ocean coincides with its rise as an economic power. Historically China has never been present in the Indian Ocean in centuries. The only example is of Admiral Zhang He who in 15th century travelled across Malacca Strait to reach India and from there to the Horn of Africa. This feat was not repeated till the end of the 20th century partly because of China’s Middle Kingdom syndrome. However in the 21st century China increased its trade with Africa and Middle East therefore needed a presence in Indian Ocean to guard its interests. China is looking for shortcuts for its trade routes to relieve itself from strategic checkpoints of Malacca and Hormuz .Indian Ocean is an arena housed by various powers like US, UK, France, India and Australia. This book describes how China is winning over small island states in the Indian Ocean to establish its supremacy and pushing all these major powers on back foot. The title of the book is inspired by a US Strategy paper of 2005 which described the concept of ‘String of Pearls’. With US losing its supremacy in the arena it depends on other regional powers to counter China. Lintner also provides some insights on the future course of action of major powers of Indian Ocean to push back China and why it’s important to do so.
The pearls that China included in its strategy include Djibouti, Gwadar, Hambantota, Kyaukyu, Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles etc. One of the most important geographic points on earth is Djibouti. A small state in Africa houses military bases of all major powers in the world. Lintner correctly describes it as a new Casablanca as it has become of a hotspot for confrontation. China has the biggest military base in Djibouti which can house 100,000 troops. Djibouti is a resource less country therefore allotting land for bases was a viable option for the tiny nation. China has trapped Djibouti in its debt trap by offering huge amounts of money for its development and can cause turmoil in the region. Two states are extensively dealt with are Myanmar and Mauritius. Myanmar has tried to balance out China and India. It gives shelter to networks of Indian rebel and Chinese rebel groups which cause havoc in their respective countries. India specially had trouble dealing with military junta government in Myanmar. China has provided extensive economic support to Myanmar for infrastructure. It was also instrumental in development of Kyaukyu port which couldn’t materialize because Myanmar realized that it could fall into the debt trap of China and lose its sovereignty. On the other hand India is building Siitwe port as part of its Kaladan multimodal project to compete with China. Mauritius has an interesting history as lots of migrant labours were taken away from India during British Raj. Now the Indian origin population makes a significant portion of the local populace and hence is favorable to India’s ambitions. The British and French interests in Mauritius have not faded due to adjacent strategic islands around Mauritius. Still China has invested large amounts of money and wants to build a smart city and uses tourism as a big factor to change policies of these island nations. Seychelles also stands as a frontline nation in Sino-Indian rivalry. Since it is the link for BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) China has used all means to keep Seychelles on its side from financial to military cooperation. China has trained an elite force of Seychelles army and provided them with naval equipments. China has also used tourism as a significant policy tool as island states’ income depend on tourism and overwhelming tourists of China drive the change. Examples have been given that how China crippled Palau’s economy by denying its tourists to visit it. However India has also maintained friendly relations and maintained a coastal surveillance system in Seychelles. Similarly Maldives also present an avenue for competition between India and China with both states promoting their candidates in the election. With Mohamed Solih’s election India could sigh relief for some time as Maldives leaders have also tried to outbalance both giants. In spite of India’s favored candidate winning presidency Maldives is under China’s stranglehold and it would be very difficult to free Maldives from this power struggle. Besides these islands Lintner talks about French Departments in the Indian Ocean, British Indian Ocean Territories including American base Diego Garcia and Australia’s island bases. These bases could prove effective in the possibility of a grand coalition against China’s aggressive policies in the Indian Ocean.
Present situation could be understood alternatively as a new Cold War. Strategy of China is to replace US as a world power. It is the classic Thucydides trap where war between rising power and established power is unavoidable. Author list historical examples from World War II when Japan wanted to replace US power in Pacific and Germany wanted to replace UK, the war was inevitable between them. If this theory is to be believed ‘Policy of Appeasement’ of China by US won’t work because China is not seeking compromise but World domination. Lintner dismisses a formation like G-2 to solve security crises and there is no point in pursuing compromise like British PM Chamberlain which failed to contain Germany. In this Sino-US struggle Australia finds itself in a dilemma. It has always aligned itself with western nations but now its economy is dependent on China, at the same time it is strategically important to counter China. Its decision would be important in security architecture of Indian Ocean. Lintner believes that countries response have been inadequate while China sprints in the region. India and Japan have signed various strategic documents but it has yet to come to life. He criticized India’s lopsided Look East policy because of India’s less investment in infrastructure hence not been able to compete with China in South East Asia. Lintner asks US and India to understand BRI as a strategic tool of China and do not mistake it as only economic plan. However he concludes in the end chapter that not everything is rosy for China. It’s facing a pushback in Myanmar and its pipelines in Pakistan are attacked by militants. There is a possibility that China won’t succeed through its aggressive techniques because it will antagonize small states. Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is a clear example of that. Besides India- Japan- US enhanced cooperation would be able overcome China’s maritime strength. India has also started to make a base in Seychelles and has tactical arrangement with Japan’s base at Djibouti to counter China. In the end challenges that China faces will have to be seen: Aging population, overstretching of BRI resources, Japan and India as an alternative security provider and a politically aware citizenry would be too great factors to cut short its ambitions. Lintner has adopted the lengthy narrative history of the territories. It’s important to understand the relation of these island states with China. Bertil outlines the economic dependence of these states on China but has not focused on security dimensions. He has ignored the proximity of islands with French and British powers which could also drive their policies. The book includes Myanmar as a case study while others were island states. Other nations like Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh could have been included in the discussion. Despite India being a major power it was not mentioned enough in the book. A mention of its investment and military bases was there but no discussion about the strategy. Similarly he mentions China’s military overtures and investment, client patron relations but fails to give a wider perspective on their strategic intent and defence capability. Lintner writes as a journalist and makes information accessible but it does not provide in depth information and analysis for the researchers. But overall the book provides good insights on small nation states of Indian Ocean as the information is not readily available. This would help the policymakers in making efficient decisions when dealing with small island states and dealing with resurging China in India’s backyard.