Vijay Sakhuja: Maritime Multilateralism: China’s Strategy for the Indian Ocean

Vijay Sakhuja, Director (Research) at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, writes for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief:

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been tirelessly working to dispel the ‘China threat’ perception, which appears to be increasing concomitantly with the country’s rapid economic and military rise. Beijing argues that China’s growing initiatives in the are for ‘peaceful purposes’ (China.org.cn., June 3). Yet, in recent years, many China watchers in India have captured another side of Beijing’s foray that depicts China carving into the ’s security architecture by regular incursions into the region and the recent naval deployment in the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy. These initiatives appear based on a strategy that pivots on energy sea-lane security, which can be broadly characterized by the ‘string of pearls’ theory, ‘Malacca dilemma’, sale of military hardware at friendly prices to littorals, maritime infrastructure developments in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), road/energy pipeline networks and electronic surveillance installations in Myanmar (Burma). The thrust of these traditional security and economic initiatives are complemented by naval diplomacy involving maritime multilateralism with littorals, which Chinese leaders believe can facilitate the regional perceptions that China’s intent in the region is benign. Indeed, these goodwill visits and naval exercises by the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) are an important tool to further China’s attempts to portray its presence in the Indian Ocean as benign. It has effectively created conditions to develop a broad and substantive agenda for building relations with other nations. In some cases, these initiatives have the potential to translate into strategic partnerships that would consolidate its presence and expand its engagements with the Indian Ocean littorals.

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