China, Indian Ocean and the growing geo-economic competition

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

The legitimacy of governments is challenged as powers strain to expand their area of control through treaties, maritime footprints and other means. This is leading to heightened tensions and conflict of interest between nations globally. No wonder, Niall Ferguson writes of the descent of the west and the pivot towards the East. As the new power (China) rises and the old power (USA) descends into conflict and distrust, efforts to solidify their camps and expand their political and economic influence will only lead to a bitter contest.

The “String of Pearls” Chinese strategy roping together many South Asian countries gained a new feather in the cap recently by securing the Maldives, which historically acts as a buffer zone for India. Another project – the iHaven Project – is on the cards. India of course fears this encirclement of its strategic space by China. Without a well thought out policy to curtail Chinese expansion, India cannot afford to offer the kind of funds to bring other nations into her orbit. The best India can do is to enter into agreements with nations like the US for her bases to be used for logistical support. However, this is a relatively small step to the thrust by China in the Indian Ocean.

Rex Tillerson stated that “the Indo-Pacific – including the entire Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, and the nations that surround them – will be the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century” and that “the greatest challenge to a stable, rules-based Indo-Pacific is a China that has taken to reworking the international system to its own benefit.” (Oct 21, 2017).

China started many projects to bring South Asian countries within its orbit including the Belt and Road Initiative. Her tactics are a mix of economic dependency by other states, political support and trade policies aimed at increasing her huge outreach to the world. Not only is this succeeding, it is causing stress to India who has dreamed of being the next regional power.

In 2013, China launched the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a project that aims to build physical infrastructures across 65 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. Pledging $900 billion towards the project, China is poised to pump in $150 billion in these projects every year. The project includes ports, bridges, railways, and a sea route aimed to link the Mediterranean and East Africa with the Chinese southern coast and includes two levels. One level is called the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ (the road) whereas the other is ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (the belt). The latter is a number of overland corridors that will connect China with Europe through the Middle East and Central Asia.

Pakistan is injected with huge investments for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) whereas Sri Lanka has leased out the Hambantota Port Project to China.

George W. Bush had supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Obama gave final touches to the plan to lay out rules for trading and investing in the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, Trump pulled out of the TPP on his very first day in office. By staying in the TPP, the US would have been in better a position to help countries wanting to be a part of BRI while minimizing economic risks. Another advantage the US lost is the leverage to offer good terms of trade with the US market to countries where China is the main exporter. It can no longer offer a competitive investment plan to nations as opposed to BRI or TPP.

Looking at the bigger picture, Russia, in the meantime, has made a comeback as formidable power in global politics. With extremely shrewd and well thought out policies under Putin and with China straining to surge to the top, Russia has broken away from the old stereotyped security system and entered into agreements with individual states and bilateral security pacts. Examples are agreements with countries bordering Russia like Belarus and Armenia.

In light of the world gaining more global players, the outreach of the US is stagnating. Though Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo are on the same page to combat security threats in Northeast Asia, their continued long term working relationship is cast into doubt due a history of warfare. Faced with aggressive moves by Moscow and Beijing, the US may be forced “to accept exclusionary regional spheres of influence.”(Global Security Review)

Steinberg. (1999 Pg. 403) in “The maritime mystique” rightly argues that “the sea is no longer separate from land, no longer a two-dimensional space configured in terms of shipping lane security. It is now understood as a ‘resource-rich but fragile space requiring rational management for sustainable development’.”

Organizations like The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) expanded in 2017 taking in its fold Pakistan and India. SCO could have been looked upon to work for geo-economic gains, however, diverse regional and international interests of member states make it difficult, if not impossible, for a unified concentration of efforts to take place. One example is the Silk Road initiative bloated with Chinese finances that proved to be a bandwagon pushing through Beijing’s geo-economic interests rather than any policy determined by SCO that needs consensus. Another example is China favoring an SCO bank and free trade zone. Kremlin opposed both, understanding that there was a huge disparity in economic strength of both nations.

The evolving new world order and Pakistan’s interests have placed her in China’s camp as opposed to her old ally the US. However, Pakistan alone cannot ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean; this requires active help from its global and regional allies. The strong military presence of China and the US in the Indian Ocean must be balanced by checks of concerned states. However, the speedy development and increased operations of Gawadar can help towards a better working relationship between China and Pakistan and help secure sea routes. It will also deflect grouping of external powers within the region.

The Indian Ocean cannot be controlled by one or two countries. The expanse of the area involved and the many players involved makes it the collective responsibility of all stakeholders.

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: and tweets at @yasmeen_9





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