Is the newly instated China’s Indian Ocean Region Forum a sign of China’s growing desire for a larger presence in the region?
Beijing has recently announced that it hosted a 19-nation ‘China-Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Forum’ without inviting key player India, at Kunming in south-western Yunnan province on 21 November. Both, Maldives and Australia, in quick succession, denied their presence in the forum as claimed by the Chinese. More governments on China’s list have reportedly followed suit. These claims made by Beijing have now raised questions about its credibility.
Maldives clarified that no official delegation participated, and added that participation by individuals or group of individuals from the country does not constitute official representation. Moreover, in this particular case, on 15 November, the Solih government had briefed the Chinese Embassy in Malé, on its decision to not participate in the forum, the Maldivian foreign ministry said in a statement
After the Maldives, Australia, too, clarified that it did not participate in the abovementioned forum. Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell tweeted, “Contrary to media reporting, no Australian Government official attended the Kunming China-Indian Ocean Forum on Development Cooperation.” The High Commissioner added: “Pleased @TimWattsMP attended #IORA Ministerial Council last week, the only ministerial-level forum for the Indian Ocean. Australia was delighted India’s application for Vice Chair was accepted by consensus. We share an enduring interest: a free, open, rules-based and secure Indo-Pacific.”
The Australian position reiterated what that country and many other riparian states of the Indian Ocean rim consider as the qualifying markers for engagement with China or any other extra-regional power on IOR-related issues. They are already members of the government-level Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which was founded more than two decades ago, with an official charter, character and structure, with rotational chairmanship, as is the norm in such regional/international engagements.
USAID, the inspiration?
It is learnt that former Maldivian President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik and Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd joined the Kunming conclave. The post facto Chinese statement has said that it was a hybrid engagement, organised by the ‘China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA)’, founded in 2018, and currently headed by former Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, who was until recently an envoy to India and earlier in Pakistan.
During a visit to Sri Lanka in January this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed/announced creating another forum ‘on the development of Indian Ocean island-countries’ to ‘build consensus and synergy, and promote common development’. The Chinese foreign ministry has since clarified that the Kunming initiative was a part of this plan. But not all members of the current forum are island nations, as Wang Yi had said in Colombo. If anything, some of them are landlocked and are not even an Indian Ocean rim-state.
In a way, the CIDCA seems to have been inspired by America’s USAID, which is projected as the independent developmental financial arm of the US administration, and going beyond the controversial Belt and Road Initiatives. According to CIDCA’s official website, the organisation aims at formulating strategic guidelines, plans and policies for foreign aid, coordinate and offer advice on major foreign aid issues, advance the country’s reforms in matters involving foreign aid, and identify major programmes, supervise, and evaluate their implementation.
What remains to be beyond comprehension is why China, which is nowhere close to the Indian Ocean, should want to promote a parallel IOR forum, that too when it is a ‘dialogue partner’ of IORA.
At Kunming, a Chinese statement said, the CIDCA countries agreed to cooperate to “strengthen policy coordination, deepen development cooperation, increase resilience to shocks and disasters, and enhance relevant countries’ capacity to obtain economic benefits through the use of marine resources such as fisheries, renewable energy, tourism, and shipping in a sustainable way”. For its part, China “proposed to establish a marine disaster prevention and mitigation cooperation mechanism between China and countries in the Indian Ocean region, and stood ready to provide necessary financial, material, and technical support to countries in need”, a statement from CIDCA said.
Beijing also “proposed the establishment of a blue economy think tank network for China and the countries in the Indian Ocean region with the support of Yunnan”. . China, which has set up a China-Africa Satellite Remote Sensing Application Centre, also called for countries “to jointly address non-traditional security challenges and participate in global development cooperation, so as to forge a united, equal, balanced and inclusive global development partnership”.
According to Chinese claims, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, and Australia participated in the Kunming conclave. In a way, it is China’s answer to the ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’ (IOR) exclusively with 23 riparian states, founded in 1997. From among them, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Comoros, and Somalia do not find a place in China’s ‘select IOR’. What remains to be beyond comprehension is why China, which is nowhere close to the Indian Ocean, should want to promote a parallel IOR forum, that too when it is a ‘dialogue partner’ of IORA. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the IORA list is conspicuous in its absence from the Chinese list. Two other Gulf nations, namely, Iran and Oman, are common to both. Better or worse still, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal, all on India’s northern land border and which are not members of the IORA are there in the China-sponsored forum. Djibouti, which is not a member of the IORA, has joined China-Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As may be recalled, with a PLA-Navy ‘support base’, China is the newest entrant to have a military presence in Djibouti, after France, the US, Japan, and Italy.
Hamlet without the Prince
Therefore, the Chinese initiative can be seen only as a comparison and competitor to India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), as outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mauritius in 2015. The Indian idea is implemented through the nation’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and such other initiatives as ‘‘Project Mausam’ and ‘Integrated Coastal Surveillance System’ (now shared with Maldives), all of them confined to the Indian Ocean, where India too belongs legitimately, unlike China.
On the other hand, the Chinese initiative also looks like a kind of delayed tit-for-tat for India declining the Chinese invitation to be a part of its multi-regional ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and also staying away from the inaugural, citing ‘sovereignty, procedural and leadership issues’. In particular, New Delhi has had reservations that BRI-funded ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC) projects in Pakistan were designed to pass through what essentially was Indian territory (in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, PoK).
It is, however, unsurprising as China, as far back as 2015, had claimed that ‘Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean’. This, it did, even while asserting its contested claims to territories in the South China and East China Seas.
For all this, however, an IOR forum without India is like Hamlet without the Prince. It is, however, unsurprising as China, as far back as 2015, had claimed that ‘Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean’. This, it did, even while asserting its contested claims to territories in the South China and East China Seas, as if they are China’s exclusive backwaters—which they are not.
In a way, it reflects China’s unending greed. It also reflects China’s desire and ambition to measure up to the US in reach and outreach, and through them, geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic comparability. The US acquired much of its current position owing to historic European compulsions caused by the two ‘Great Wars’ in the first half of the previous century, which it did not trigger. Washington has been building its strategic bricks and blocks over this base, through the Cold War past and beyond, first in the name of fending of global communism, and now China-like ‘totalitarianism’, not all of it welcome by nations and regions where all the US has set foot.
A late starter, unlike even the erstwhile Soviet competitor to the ‘liberal West’, China is seeking to bulldoze its way to the top, which is what the current global concern is more about. The Kunming initiative forms a part of that and is a suspect, more so when Beijing wants to bet on former leaders in countries whose domestic political future it wants to shape, obviously for an undisclosed quid pro quo if and when they or their allies return to elected democratic power.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).