China in the Indian Ocean: Agenda Beyond Development?

Authors: Prajakta Sawant and Jayesh Khatu*

Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, during the last leg of his five-nation visit to Sri Lanka on January 09, 2022, floated the idea of creating a ‘forum on the development of Indian Ocean island countries’ to ‘promote common development’. What becomes crucial is the place and the timing of this proposal. Facing its worst economic downturn since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean Island country, has reached out to China, its biggest bilateral lender, for debt-restructuring. Thus, after visiting Comoros and Maldives, Sri Lanka became a perfect destination to talk about a forum on development for Indian Ocean Island nations. But one would wonder- don’t such forums that seek to meet the developmental needs of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) already exist?

Existing fora in IOR and their development outreach

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), formed in 1997, is one such inclusive forum that brings together the most geopolitically dynamic regions of South, South-East and West Asia, Africa and Oceania, anchored together by the Seas. Its nascent forays into harbouring the member countries to the Blue Economy accompanied by trade and facilitation mechanism aim at addressing the members’ developmental needs. The MASE programme, supported by the European Union and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), attempts to create a regional maritime security architecture in the Indian Ocean for fostering growth and development in the region.

However, the organisations and institutions in the region are often marred by overlapping functions and the want of effective practical engagement concerning economic development. The lack of concrete regional economic integration is a major gap, which Beijing is looking to profit from.

Estimating Chinese aspirations in IOR

With the proposal for a development forum, Beijing has hinted towards the creation of an arrangement in which China could get all the Indian Ocean island states to the same table to advance its development diplomacy goals. Such objectives have been reflected in its January 2021 white paper on foreign developmental aid, which complements its efforts of aid and financing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, in September 2021, Beijing launched the Global Development Initiative, consistent with the BRI, to facilitate development aid for meeting the “special needs of developing countries”. But, what motivates Beijing to advance such an idea of a regional developmental forum for the Indian Ocean island nations?

Firstly, there is no such forum that constitutes exclusively the Indian Ocean island states and that addresses the issue of their economic development. The IOC comprises Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles, but excludes the island countries of Maldives and Sri Lanka which are SAARC member-states. Even though the IORA includes all the aforementioned countries, the forum has an extensive membership and a wide array of agenda. Thus, a singular forum that solely includes all the IOR island states and where their specific developmental needs would be prioritised, remains missing. Beijing could capitalise on this vacuum by offering alternative sources of finance for supporting economic development of the countries through institutionalisation.

Secondly, agenda-setting would be possible for Beijing in a forum lying in distant geography. Being a non-resident power of the IOR, China misses out on any direct participation in institutionalised mechanisms and forums of the region. Thus, formulating a forum would grant it more say in setting developmental priorities for the Indian Ocean island states and the region in order to gain economic leverage.

Lastly, and more importantly, with Beijing’s economic leverage comes political and geostrategic motives. Sri Lanka’s leasing out Hambantota port to China could be considered as a textbook example of using geoeconomics for gaining geopolitical leverage. Due to its interests in trade routes and unfolding energy politics, China has increased its naval presence and recently expressed ambitions to create a platform for deeper economic engagement in the IOR. The question is, what do powers like China bring to the table?

China’s status in IOR fora

The existing regional organisations in the IOR included China as an observer or a dialogue partner in the first place to create an environment where China can be socialised into cooperative maritime security and development in the IOR. The aim was to create a shared understanding of regional security and developmental issues. But China has focused on unilateral gains for expanding its sphere of influence in the region. Therefore, calls for the institutionalisation of developmental mechanisms in the IOR coming from Beijing ring hollow. In fact, with the growing Chinese clout in the region, these platforms face the threat of being entangled in superpower rivalries and regional bickerings.

China’s intentions of creating a development forum for the IOR should be looked at with more suspicion than with possibilities of benign motives. China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is an evidence of its rogue and unilateral assertions which could be replicated in the IOR to Beijing’s strategic advantage. With the largest navy in the world and the Chinese record in the Western Pacific, such possibilities cannot be overruled.

It also adds new dimensions to the Sino-Indian maritime complexities and foreign policymakers in New Delhi should be alarmed. Darshana Baruah opines, “Should China manage to find the means and ways to sustain itself in the region and gain experience operating there, it will be able to quickly overcome India’s (geographical and operational) advantages.” The recent development posture put forth by Beijing to gain influence in the IOR could turn into a belligerent one in the near future.

*Jayesh Khatu is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets @jayeshkhatu

Prajakta Sawant
Prajakta Sawant
Prajakta Sawant is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organisations and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She tweets @prajakta95.