By Abhijit Singh
Since it was released on June 8, China’s first ever “blue book” on the Indian Ocean has generated a lot of interest in strategy circles. Unveiled with some fanfare in the Chinese city of Kunming, Yunnan, the document – prosaically named “Development Report in the Indian Ocean” – presents a comprehensive assessment of the rising challenges in the Indian Ocean Region and the role that China must aspire to play in the region.
While an English version of the blue-book hasn’t yet been released, media reports detailing its salient points make for some interesting analysis. To begin with, it is not an official study but merely a report by a China-based think-tank. Yet, the fact that the concerned agency – the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) – is a prominent organization whose policy prescriptions have often mirrored Beijing’s views on matters of national security interest is a matter worthy of some consideration. So, despite it not being official policy, the report more than hints at the Chinese government’s supposed Indian Ocean strategy.
China’s penchant for inscrutability is well-known. Chinese security elites have a near established practice of floating ‘trail balloons’ aimed at gauging international reactions to proposed Chinese policy measures before coming out with any concrete projections. More importantly, when regional maritime initiatives are preceded but fuzzy and inchoate strategic musings, as is the case with this document, it conveys the impression of a rising power struggling to move beyond its traditional zone of influence. Exactly, as Beijing would like it to be.
In reality, every vaguely expressed thought is meant as a testing device to gauge regional and international reactions – then used to calibrate Chinese foreign policy positions on issues of international security and governance. The report reveals at least one dimension of China’s game-plan: convincing the world that it did not, so far, have an Indian Ocean strategy. “In the past”, the report observes, “China’s Indian Ocean strategy was based on ‘moderation’ and ‘maintaining the status quo’, but the changing dynamics of international relations necessitates China play a more proactive role in affairs of the region”. The self-professed ‘delay’ in recognizing its interests and role in the region is a sign that China might be seeking to legitimize its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Of the many prominent challenges that China faces in Indian Ocean, the report identifies the most urgent one as the need to dispel the notion of China posing a “threat” to the region. There is a concerted attempt, it avers, by the West to cast China in unfavourable light and raise the bogey of a Chinese threat. While its suspicions may not be misplaced, China’s strong economic engagement in the region is reason enough for it to reveal the true extent and nature of its involvement. The out-right rejection of regional concerns over rapidly growing Chinese power and maritime ambition raises doubts about China’s “rising-peacefully” theory.
If there is an area where China has substantive interests in the Indian Ocean, the report posits, it is in the economic domain. The document makes a strong case for China to deepen its economic engagements with the Indian Ocean Region’s littoral states, stressing – for good effect – that Beijing’s interests will be driven only by commercial (and not military) objectives.
This is not at all surprising. The fig-leaf of ‘economics’ has often been used to justify a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. What is often conveniently glossed over by Beijing is that once the ‘economic’ footprint has been established, the impact is usually ‘strategic’. Once entrenched economically in a region, China almost always used its commercial leverages for strategic gains.
The report dwells on the possibility that the future might not see any single power dominating the region. As a corollary, it argues, a failure to engage with China more constructively could render the Indian Ocean a “sea of conflict and trouble”. Not recognising the possibility of continued dominance by the US, or even India’s rising naval power and maritime eminence in the IOR as having a decisive impact on security policies in the region – is a sign that China sees itself as an “equal force” in the emerging regional strategic equations.
For India, it is of interest that there is one whole section discussing New Delhi’s Look East policy and “the expansion of India’s interest eastward’. In an oblique sense, acknowledging India’s stakes in the Pacific is a clever way of justifying China’s own equities in the Indian Ocean. While India does not aspire to be more than a marginal player in maritime security issues in the Western Pacific, talking of Indian interests in the East indirectly validates China’s own strategic role in the affairs of the Indian Ocean.
If there is one surprise in the document, it is the reported inclusion of a full section on China-Myanmar relations, showing just how important Beijing considers Naypyitaw to be in its regional calculations. The construction of the Myanmar-China gas pipeline – due to be commissioned in July this year – has clearly heightened China’s stakes in the Indian Ocean Region. Given the centrality of “oil geo-politics” to China’s maritime outlook, the timing of the report’s release gives reason to believe Beijing may be giving operational effect to its “two-oceans” strategy.
As expected, the ‘blue book’ has aroused great curiosity in India. New Delhi’s security pundits have, for long, speculated about China’s eventual strategic thrust into the Indian Ocean, all the while keeping a close watch over Beijing’s moves in the region. Some have fretted over the absence of a coherent Chinese policy for the Indian Ocean, but few have conceived of the possibility that not revealing a ‘strategy’ for the region could in itself have been a political stratagem.
The report is a sign that China may have set its sight firmly on the Indian Ocean, and openly declared its interest therein. (Courtesy Eurasia Review)
(Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation at New Delhi. He writes on political and strategic issues in West and South Asia)