China’s Two-Ocean Strategy Puts India in a Pincer

Foreign Policy, 04.01.2022
Raja Mohan, profesor (National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies)

The Chinese foreign minister’s island hopping is the latest sign of contestation over the Indo-Pacific

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi heads to Comoros, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka later this week after diplomatic visits on the African continent, it will highlight Beijing’s determination to gain a strategic foothold in these Indian Ocean island nations. In the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Wang will also continue to challenge India’s claim to primacy in South Asian waters—India’s own maritime backyard.

Although it was the conflict along the Himalayan border that dominated India’s growing troubles with China over the last two years, Beijing has kept up relentless pressure on New Delhi with its overtures to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, including investment and security assistance. Despite some recent setbacks in its relations, China remains a force to be reckoned with in these two island republics, which India has long considered part of its sphere of influence in South Asia.

If New Delhi theoretically benefits from geographic proximity, Beijing brings a lot more resources—economic and military—into play and exploits the natural tendency of small nations to seek to balance a dominant neighbor. What’s more, India’s proximity comes with its own problems: Close neighbors often have multiple disputes while a distant power can take a more strategic view of the relationship. The contestation between Asia’s two great powers in the Maldives and Sri Lanka has also become tightly intertwined with the latter two’s domestic politics, where competing political factions mobilize Indian or Chinese support.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi heads to Comoros, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka later this week after diplomatic visits on the African continent, it will highlight Beijing’s determination to gain a strategic foothold in these Indian Ocean island nations. In the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Wang will also continue to challenge India’s claim to primacy in South Asian waters—India’s own maritime backyard.

China might dismiss the idea of the Indo-Pacific as an artificial U.S. foreign-policy construct and maintain a laser-like focus on its front yard in East Asia, but Beijing is not taking its eyes off the Indian Ocean. While tensions mount closer to home as China rattles its sabers in Taiwan’s direction, Beijing has never yielded its efforts to advance its interests in the Indian Ocean. While that far western flank’s salience for Beijing might be less than the Pacific’s, there is no denying China is pursuing a two-ocean strategy.

Wang begins his African journey this week in Eritrea in its strategic Red Sea littoral and Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa and a historic hub of Indian Ocean trade. Eritrea recently joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and China has developed a significant economic presence in Kenya.

Beijing and Nairobi, however, have dismissed reports they are seeking to establish a Chinese naval base in Kenya after a U.S. Defense Department report on Chinese military power recently suggested Beijing might be looking for bases in various African countries, including Kenya.

Nairobi, traditionally within the Anglo-American sphere, has longstanding military ties with its former colonial power, Britain, as well as the United States. If Washington’s and London’s past focus in the region has been on counterterrorism, they are beginning to see East Africa as an important part of rivaling Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.

As Africa’s economic importance for China rises, Beijing has been eyeing the islands sprawled across the sea lanes and lines of communication to Africa in the western Indian Ocean: the Seychelles, Comoros, Mauritius, and Madagascar. In recent years, China has stepped up its engagement with these island nations, any one of which could prove pivotal to a future Chinese Indian Ocean naval fleet one day.

Sitting atop the Mozambique Channel—a strategic waterway that separates the southern African continent from Madagascar—is Comoros, which may now be a target of opportunity for China. Although Beijing has had a long presence in Comoros, Wang’s visit—the first ever by a Chinese foreign minister—seeks to raise the level of bilateral engagement.

That Wang has chosen to head from Comoros to the Maldives and Sri Lanka points to Beijing’s integrated perspective on the island states in the central and western Indian Ocean. India, too, has begun to see the Indian Ocean islands as part of its extended maritime neighborhood. Although India has yet to make an impact in Comoros, it is locked in a furious geopolitical combat with China in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

When the Maldives, part of the British imperial defense system from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, gained independence in 1965, it established close relations with India. As China turned its strategic gaze toward the Indian Ocean in the early 21st century, it had no difficulty seeing the importance of the Maldives, which sits close to several major sea lanes in the central Indian Ocean. When Abdulla Yameen was elected president of the Maldives in 2013 and broke from its traditional policy of friendship with India, China moved in vigorously.

Chinese President Xi Jinping found time to visit the Maldives—along with Sri Lanka—in 2014. Beijing ramped up tourist flows to the Maldives, signed a free trade agreement, and launched major infrastructure projects. When voters ousted Yameen in 2018, the new government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih sought to reduce the Maldives’ massive debt to China, put the free trade agreement on ice, and return to an India-first policy.

Now, it was New Delhi’s turn to move quickly with massive financial assistance, infrastructure projects, and other ways to consolidate ties to the Maldives. But some of Solih’s domestic opponents have launched an “India out” campaign, accusing India of stationing military personnel, seeking a naval base in the Maldives, and undermining the country’s sovereignty. The Maldives’ government rejected the charges, but there is no denying the government pressure created by the campaign.

In the Maldives, factional fights within the country’s small political elite have led to wild political swings between support for China and support for India. Much larger Sri Lanka (its population of about 21.5 million people is almost 39 times the Maldives’) has seen a more complex and delicate balancing act between New Delhi and Beijing.

China’s big moment in Sri Lanka came in the early 2000s, when the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers was still raging. In the 1980s, New Delhi supported the Tigers and promoted a settlement between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. While India advocated for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka, Beijing unreservedly threw its weight behind Colombo, providing political support and military assistance for the government’s war against the guerrilla organization.

After Colombo defeated the insurgency in 2009, China bagged major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including contracts to build Port City Colombo, Hambantota port, and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport—widely seen as a major strategic win for China. While New Delhi continued to press Colombo to grant autonomy to the Tamil minority within a united Sri Lanka, Beijing simply proclaimed “nonintervention” in the country’s internal affairs.

While Colombo fast tracked Chinese projects, it put most major Indian investments on hold, generating much unease in New Delhi. But the tide appears to be turning in favor of New Delhi as Colombo recognizes the dangers of tilting too far toward the Chinese side. The Sinhalese majority’s concerns about sovereignty, once aimed at India, are beginning to find expression against China, whose presence in the country has grown rapidly.

Alienated from the West, which demands accountability for crimes during its war against the Tamil Tigers, and with its economy in deep crisis, Sri Lanka has turned to India for substantive economic assistance. New Delhi is stepping in with an aid package of its own—including a currency-swap facility and credit lines for imported food, oil, and medicines—while Colombo has begun to greenlight long-pending Indian projects in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has offered a site for a new port terminal in Colombo to India’s Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone. It is also set to clear the joint modernization of a strategic oil storage facility in Trincomalee on the island’s underdeveloped western coast. Sri Lanka has also deferred to Indian sensitivity by canceling a contract awarded to China to develop an energy project on three islands in the waters separating Sri Lanka from India.

If protests against the energy project by Tamils in the north played a key role in scrapping the Chinese project so close to Indian territory, Beijing is now reaching out to the Tamil elites it long neglected. In mid-December 2021, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, traveled to Jaffna in the heart of Tamil-majority Northern Province. Besides meeting with various officials, Qi presented himself at a local Hindu temple dressed in the local attire and with the customary bare chest to make offerings. Judging by its ambassador, China is clearly willing to go out of its comfort zone in its geopolitical jousting with India in Sri Lanka.

Although India’s fortunes in the Maldives and Sri Lanka look better for now, that state of affairs can’t be taken as permanent. A lot depends on how effective India is in seizing the opportunities now emerging in both states. Wang’s trip is a reminder that China does not intend to give up, and the Maldives nor Sri Lanka can afford to present themselves as hostile to Beijing or reject all Chinese proposals.

In the longer term, India can’t expect to keep China—the world’s second largest economy and a major supplier of military equipment—away from its island neighbors. New Delhi’s strategy must necessarily focus on playing to its own strengths while denying Beijing a threatening strategic foothold.

India needs to deepen its own cooperation with the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Comoros. The best way to do that would be for India to give them greater access to its large domestic market, promote cross-border investments, resolve longstanding political disputes, reduce its interventions in these nations’ internal affairs, and insulate bilateral ties from domestic power struggles. As Wang hops across the Indian Ocean later this week and showers the three island nations with attention and fresh projects, the pressure on India to raise its regional strategic game will remain relentless.

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