Chinese foray into the Indian OceanThis section of the Belt and Road Initiative challenges India’s presumed traditional hold and influence.
A plethora of literature has emerged in China on the centrality of the Indian Ocean in its regional cooperation projects in South and Southeast Asia. They all converge to highlight China as a pivot in paving the way further to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. For China, these coveted sea lines of communication will largely deflect both geopolitically crowded East Asia and exposures to military exercises and security pressures like in the South China Sea.
The gigantic and controversial Belt and Road Initiative partly negotiated through the Indian Ocean could have multimodal features including transport, trade, energy, economy, infrastructure and security. It serves the growing economies of Asia to access the world market through sophisticated supply chains. China further envisages using the Gwadar Port in Pakistan as a parallel route through which oil brought from the Persian Gulf would be brought to western China making use of the highway and railway connections under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This will also facilitate imports to various provinces of Pakistan. On the other hand, the Strait of Malacca—located between Indonesia and Malaysia, and linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and subsequently to the Pacific Ocean—has been widely used as the lifeline of energy transportation by China and Indonesia and other Asian countries.
China is likely to import 9.1 million barrels of crude per day in 2020. Despite the diversification of sources to 43 countries (including from Africa, the Middle East, Canada, Europe and South America), China’s dependence on crude oil from the nine Middle Eastern countries stands to be over 44 percent of its total imports. Saudi Arabia alone constitutes over 16 percent (worth $40.1 billion in 2019). African countries like Angola and Congo are also major exporters. It is also estimated that the Middle East constitutes 57 percent of the total daily oil imports to Asia in 2020. For this trade in fossil fuels, the Indian Ocean route remains the most lucrative and safe route—as against the stretches between Bab el-Mandeb, Straits of Hormuz and Malacca which have been of serious security vulnerability to China. The Myanmar-China gas and oil pipeline constructed in the mid-2010s demonstrably showed China’s determination to bypass the Strait of Malacca.
The ocean links in the Belt and Road, previously referred to as the Maritime Silk Route intends to string a line of established and newly constructed coastal ports, enhancing cargo handling capacity and pulling the hinterlands into the system. This increases interdependence, thereby making the cost of conflicts higher among partners. Thus a curvilinear integration is imagined and practised, where sea routes act as smooth routes, ports as sustainable nodes and the hinterland as influenced areas. The distances are covered with attractive milestones of ‘unimpeded transport’, ‘industrialisation capabilities’, ‘common interest’, ‘common prosperity’, ‘people to people bonds’, ‘joint consultation’, ‘joint building’, ‘policy coordination’, ‘win-win cooperation’ and ‘to build a community of common destiny’. These all will happen ‘while seeking one's own development’.
It is also argued that if any conflict erupts in the Indian Ocean, it will bring a high degree of vulnerability and multiple potentials risks to China’s presence from both the US and India. That is why its BRI projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar have dual-use purpose as security buffers. China is faced with transit chokepoints—narrow channels and straits restricting the size of the vessel that can navigate and possessing security risks—in its imports. Among the seven chokepoints identified by the US Energy Information Administration, the Strait of Hormuz—located between Oman and Iran and leading out of the Persian Gulf—and the Strait of Malacca—the shortest sea route between the Middle East and the Asian markets—have been the most widely used routes by China and others.
Out of the total crude oil moving out of these strategic chokepoints in the Hormuz Strait, 80 percent is directed to Asian markets. These are mostly carried by tankers of over 150,000 deadweight tonnes. The US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, on the one hand, strengthens the positions of Japan and India in the management of this vital chokepoint while at the same time further increasing China’s vulnerability. The vocal resistance of Indo-Pacific initiatives by China emanates from this fear.
A recent study by Chinese geographers based on independent data sources found that events in and around these maritime oil chokepoints did have a very visible impact on the oil imports through these routes. The study revealed that troughs in oil flow witnessed in the Strait of Hormuz in the last quarter of 2014 was directly related to the US sending aircraft and artillery warships to the Persian Gulf ‘to combat the extremist armed forces during the civil wars in Iraq and Syria’. Another trough recorded in the second quarter of 2015 is ‘associated with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2015’. Both these had a visible impact on the Strait of Malacca also.
Coupled to break Indian influence
The core idea of this part of the Belt and Road Initiative, though not explicitly announced, is to play down India’s traditional hold and influence in the Indian Ocean and ultimately dislocate its pivotal position. To accomplish this, a set of sophisticated instruments has been in use to influence the cream of political elites in India’s neighbourhood by offering both grandeur projects and also liberal financial support. Once the level of dependence of these neighbourhood countries reaches a threshold level and the inter-dependence matrix becomes de-linkable, then these cooperation ventures are likely to be turned into anti-India postures. This will permanently create a dialogue-crevice among the South Asian countries vis-à-vis India.
There are examples of this turn towards China in South Asia. The Maithripala Sirisena-led government in Sri Lanka, even after winning the election on a blatant anti-Chinese plank in 2015, gradually caved into allowing the Colombo Port City project. The Myanmar government has aligned and engaged with China even after the abandonment of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Hydropower Dam project and the protracted political protest against Letpadaung Copper Mine. China consistently abhors any de-coupling attempt in its assiduously built vortex of influence. The moment the US resorted to decoupling its trade with other diplomatic matrices vis-à-vis China, their relationship nosedived within no time.