By Darshana M. Baruah
March 11, 2015
With his Indian Ocean tour, the PM aims to counter Chinese influence among small island nations.
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.