China and the Geopolitics of Indian Ocean



Recently, China has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean. Till last decade she was busy in western pacific and North Sea. Its recent adventure is considered a need to get pr-eminence in Asia. China is on the race of becoming superpower. According to IMF it is already largest economy of the world in terms of GDP contribution and Purchasing Power Parity of GDP indicator.


The vacuum created due to declining power of USA in this region has provided impetus to China to make foray. The Indian Ocean became one of the most important zones of geopolitical activity after Second World War. The root of this emerging situation can be seen in Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, which led this region into zones of conflicts between superpower countries. Indian Ocean which was referred to as “inner crescent” by Mackinder and “rimland” by Spykman occupies a strategic position on the world map. This led to believe that whosoever controls it, would have dominant position in the world politics.


The factors affecting geopolitics of Indian Ocean emerges from its importance, strategic as well as non strategic. These are: (1) it is a vital sea route between the West and the East. (2) About 80% of seaborne trade in oil transits through this route. (3) Many unexploited land lie on this route. (4) Probability of sea bed resources. (5) Hinterland Afro Asian countries are rich in resources. (6) Two of the nuclear capable countries, India and Pakistan are situated here.


Decline of USA power in the last decade has created a kind of power vacuum in this region. China wants to make gain from this situation in pursuit of getting pr-eminence in Asia It’s giving loans on generous repayment terms. Secondly, it is investing in major infrastructure project such as building of dams, roads, ports, railways, power plants. It is also providing military assistance and political support to the littoral countries in the United Nations Security Council through its veto power.


Recent moves by China in terms of making “String of pearls” i.e. quasi-naval base throughout northern Indian Ocean on the land like in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Horn of Africa are in order to safeguard its trade in the two choke points such as Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca. The reason being cited is piracy near horn of Africa. China has also engaged itself in research activities involving polymetallic nodules in the Indian Ocean sea bed. It has extracted gold recently from them. It is also planning to develop a “Maritime silk trade route”. Further, in order to get unhindered oil transports to its territory it’s developing Gwadar port in Pakistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar in case of any choking of the major trade routes. Another perspective on China’s engagement with Africa is its needed support for its “One China Policy” in terms of Taiwan. It also wants support in terms of resolution against human rights issues brought by USA in the United Nations. The development support provided by China would compel African countries to support China in case of any compelling issues. The regions developed by China could easily be converted into naval base whenever needed. All these development in Indian Ocean region is a concern for India.


India has more than 7000 km. of coastal land bordering Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean is the only ocean having its name derived from a country, India. Naturally she has bigger stake here. Around 80 percent of its trade goes through Indian Ocean. Thus, India needs to get prepared itself for any misadventure of China. Such as by (1) participating regularly in quadrilateral maritime exercises, involving USA, Australia, and Japan, (2) Developing indigenous submarine project P75I, and enhancing ASW in surface ships,(3) engaging positively with littoral countries through activating IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim Cooperation),(4) Reviving NAM (Non Aligned Movement) countries. The countries belonging to NAM had agreed not to give permission for establishment of foreign bases in their territories. UN resolution of 1971 had declared Indian Ocean as “zone of peace”. Till now the efforts of UN in making it a zone of peace has only been partially successful.


Recent move by the Indian government in securing infrastructure development project in Mauritius and Seychelles are commendable. In similar way security grid created by India and littoral countries could prevent militarization of the Indian Ocean.


(Ruby Choudhary has doctorate in Geography from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Rich cultural and academic environment of JNU inclined her to take up academic career. She taught in Delhi University for around five years. She has relocated and left teaching, and currently she is a full time mother. )