It looks like Sri Lanka’s balancing act in the China-India power play in the Indian Ocean is going to get more and more difficult the coming months and years. China’s assertion of economic and military power is poised to grow stronger in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) if we go by President Xi Jinping’s speech at the recently concluded Communist Party of China (CPC) 19th National Congress.
According to Xinhua, President Xi “announced the new era: China has stood up, grown rich and become strong. It will move toward center stage and make greater contributions for mankind. By 2050….China is set to regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world.”
The Congress has elevated President Xi Jinping’s status on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping by adopting “Xism” – Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era – as its creed. With the Congress making Xi to head the country, the party and the PLA for yet another term, he combines enormous power. He is perhaps exemplifying poet William Cowper’s words “I am monarch of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute, From the centre of all round to the sea, I am lord of the fowl and the horde.” In simple terms, Xi now has a free hand to relentlessly push, to make China truly the Middle Kingdom and realise the China dream.
The CPC Congress has also amended the party constitution to include One Belt One Road initiative (including 21st Century Maritime Silk Road) making it an important strategic vehicle to “move toward the centre stage.” The OBOR amendment passed, ignoring the objections of India and the US and Japan, indicates Xi’s determination to fulfil his strategic vision in the face of big power objections.
The China-Pakistan strategic alliance is likely to become an important vehicle of China’s strategic thrust in South Asia and IOR. The mega China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project is rapidly improving China’s land access to Gwadar port on Arabian Sea coast. This would make it a vital strategic asset for China’s articulation of the 21st century maritime silk route. With China’s help Pakistan is improving its naval assets and maritime infrastructure in Gwadar to handle the threat of Indian Navy’s domination of IOR.
India’s relations with China continue to be haunted by trust deficit, though both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi have repeatedly stressed peaceful development as their objective. China’s periodic acts of belligerence like the recent military confrontation in Doklam Plateau on India-Bhutan-China border has not helped the situation, though India-China trade is growing exponentially, heavily weighted in favour of China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for Indian Ocean articulated in 2015 which includes the SAGAR (Security And Growth for All) has to be viewed in this emerging strategic scene backed by his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. The initiative is holistic and addresses issues relating to economic revival, connectivity, security, culture and identity. India’s strengthening of relations with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Bangladesh is part of this strategic initiative. Indian Navy’s acquisition of naval assets from the US – particularly P8 reconnaissance aircraft and landing craft country as well as development of missile capabilities – point to India’s determination to protect the IOR.
India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj speaking at the 2nd Indian Ocean Conference in Colombo in August 2017 emphasized that for the Indian Ocean economic revival to be sustainable, the waters must not only be better connected, but they should remain free from non-traditional and traditional threats. She also added that it was imperative that all stakeholders abide by a rule-based global order. Apparently, she was hinting at China defiance of UN laws of the sea by ignoring the international arbitration tribunal ruling against China’s illegal development of disputed islets in South China Sea.
China’s maritime assets created in the IOR, including Hambantota, extend now from Djibouti on the West to South China Sea. This is disturbing not only India’s strategic construct but also the US, Japan, and its Pacific allies. They are coming together to build their collective strengths to challenge to China’s westward march in Asia and the IOR. With these moves, the centre of gravity of global strategic power is shifting slowly to IOR.
PM Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enjoy close rapport in shaping India-Japan strategic relationship. Towards a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific – the title of the joint statement issued during PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to India on September 14, 2017 eloquently underlines the strategic focus of the relationship between the two countries.
Japan government spokesman explaining the concept said the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ rested on “two oceans” – Indian and Pacific – and “two continents” – Africa and Asia. He said the new strategy was aimed at preparing Japan to deal with the fast changing global and regional order and threats from China and North Korea, based on “diplomacy that takes a panoramic view of the world map.” It was to create a free and open Asia-Pacific region which connects pars of eastern Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia with Western Pacific Ocean region and Japan.
Indo-US strategic relations have matured in tandem with the growth of their shared goals in keeping the ocean ways open and free and ending the scourge of jihadi terror. President Donald Trump has repeatedly stressed India’s role in ensuring the Indian Ocean remains free and safe for international shipping. The US is also revamping its Pakistan policy after it has shown reluctance in reining in jihadi terrorists operating against India and Afghanistan. Significantly, US has opened the access to defence technology to India, which would make sea change in the country’s China-centric military capability in land, air and sea.
Thanks to its geographic location, Sri Lanka may find itself in the eye of the storm, when the winds of change blowing in IOR get too strong. The pulls and pressures of strategic jockeying for power in the IOR may well prove too complex for Sri Lanka.
Sushma Swaraj explained India’s inclusive view of the Indian Ocean “as an engine for growth and prosperity in our region and beyond, it is of utmost importance that those who live in this region bear the primary responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indian Ocean.” So Sri Lanka views will continue influence India’s IOR strategies because both the nations are Indian Ocean powers too close to ignore each other’s interests.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai)