China’s Maneuvers in the Indian Ocean Region Could Challenge the Existing Institutional Mechanism

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured five countries of the Indian Ocean Region – Eritrea, Kenya, Comoros, the Maldives and Sri Lanka – in January 2022. During his visit to Sri Lanka he suggested creation of a forum for Indian Ocean island nations. Wang Yi’s proposal must be considered from two perspectives. However, those countries with which China would look to form this proposed forum must consider China’s approach towards institutions. Also China, competitors must also need to be proactive in their strategy as well as in ensuring efficient functioning of the institutions of which they are part. 

China’s approach towards democracy and institutions

China’s strategic assertion and revisionist approach have been posing a major challenge to its rivals across the world. As the conflict between China and its rivals is increasingly taking shape of authoritarianism versus democracy, China is seeking to counter this by presenting its own version of democratic ideals. 

In December 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted a Summit for Democracy which was attended virtually by leaders of more than 100 countries. This summit intended to get the participating nations to commit to strengthening of democracy and defending against authoritarianism. India, Japan, Australia, Israel, France, Germany and the UK were prominent invitees to this summit, China was not invited. However, the US had invited Taiwan. 

As a countermeasure, just days before this summit, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper on democracy titled China: Democracy That Works. Further, Chinese scholars opined that China must actively participate and contribute to the global democracy discourse and must not cede ground to others, particularly the US. On the other hand US analysts argue that democracy is only a means for China to gain acceptance in the world and to expand its economic and diplomatic influence. 

Over the years, particularly since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in 2013, China has engaged in unilateral expansionism by pursuing policies of strategic and economic assertion. In this process, China has undermined the existing institutional mechanism at global and regional levels. While pushing forward its interests in an aggressive manner, China has disregarded international law as well. 

China has territorial or maritime dispute with 17 countries – India, Taiwan, Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Laos, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. China lays claims over virtually all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters. These claims have led to China being at odds with several Southeast Asian countries, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. On its part, China stated that it neither recognizes nor accepts the verdict of the international tribunal. 

Existing institutional mechanism must proactively respond to emerging challenges

China’s energetic outreach to the countries in the Indian Ocean Region with an intention to form an alternate institutional mechanism indicates fault lines in the present institutional structure. 

An institutional mechanism for the Indian Ocean Region already exists in the form of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). At present the IORA has 23 member states spread across Asia, Africa and Europe. Apart from these members, the IORA has 10 dialogue partners which include countries like the US, the UK, Russia and even China. 

China’s proposal for setting up a forum in the Indian Ocean Region comes parallel various regional and extra regional entities expressing interest in the Indo-Pacific Region. Past two years have seen France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the European Union (EU) come up with their respective strategies for the Indo-Pacific Region. The Quad (comprising of India, the US, Japan and Australia) has also gained momentum during the same time period. 

A multilateral order (of which India is a strong supporter) would accommodate multiple institutional mechanisms to protect interests of all the stakeholders. However, China’s maneuvers are aimed at creating a China-centric order. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran provides insights into China’s world view explaining how China combines concepts of various thinkers to forward its interests at regional and global level. He states that while drawing inspiration from Sun Tzu, China also follows the theories of A.T. Mahan and Halford J. Mackinder. This is evident from the expanse of the BRI project which includes land connectivity (Mackinder’s Heartland Theory) and sea connectivity (Mahan’s Sea Power Theory). 

But while China borrows strategic ideas from Western thinkers, it applies the same using Chinese model of authoritarianism. Chinese government’s tight control over the economy is translated in the way it conducts economic diplomacy in the world. This is a reflection of China’s own concept of a global order.    

While democratic countries have reason to be wary about China’s designs, it is important for them to consider how China has managed to circumvent the existing regional and global institutional mechanisms and make attempts to force a China-centric order on the world. The existing mechanisms must develop cohesiveness and interoperability. Only then can the democratic institutions could provide a counterbalance to China’s hegemonic tendencies.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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