Will China Control the Indian Ocean?

India has already conducted over 100 foreign hydrographic surveys in the Maldives and has backed off presently.

by Victor Cherubim

“China’s increasing military presence and expanding influence in the Indian Ocean have understandably caused concern in countries like India, Australia, and the United States. The establishment of China’s military base in East Africa’s Djibouti in 2017, alongside the development of dual-use facilities in Pakistan’s Gwadar, unequivocally highlights its aspiration to dominate the region,” states Sarin Hashai in “The Print.”

Image shows the Maldivian atolls in the Indian Ocean from above [Special Arrangement]

We are also reminded that the US has a worried eye on China’s growing naval power in the Indian Ocean, while long assuming India would be a counterweight to fight this threat. In the UK, there is the fear that the Government may be on the verge of making an embarrassing strategic blunder by handing the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Ceding the 60 islands in the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius would, at some stage, allow China to build a base, threatening the future of the West’s military establishment in Diego Garcia.

Hydrography Islands have become a fascination to the world’s powers in history to command strategic importance—for trade, for religion, for conquest. Britain once ruled the waves with “Rule Britannia.” Ruling the waves now means first understanding what lies “beneath the waves.” Hydrography is the new front in the battle for influence in the Indian Ocean.

As smaller island nations are stuck for development finance, they are wanting to build their own sovereignty and control over information about their maritime wealth and domain. These nations are venturing into hydrography, which is assuming a geopolitical focus, with the major powers of the world competing to provide hydrographic services.

India has already conducted over 100 foreign hydrographic surveys in the Maldives and has backed off presently. It has conducted surveys in Kenya, Tanzania, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Seychelles in the recent past. China is now offering itself as an alternative provider of hydrographic services to these same islands and nations. The question in many minds is: “Do China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean go beyond the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of President Xi?”

Diego Garcia and China Diego Garcia is the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago. It is the site of a major US military base, leased from Britain in 1966. Even if China cannot achieve dominance in Chagos as yet, analysts state some factors might remain in its favor. Although tracking and “policing” shipments of crude oil to China from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean is a vast and costly exercise, China has learned some lessons from the mistakes made by the West. “Why buy a sweet shop, to occasionally have a lollipop?” Though it may not be a literal comparison, China is today drawing increasing volumes of crude from pipelines through Russia, Central Asia, and Myanmar. It is still dependent on crude from the Persian Gulf. Besides, China is largely self-sufficient in wheat and rice, but it still needs the BRI trade route. It is anybody’s guess; even if it cannot take over control to its liking, the so-called “Islands in the Sun” in the Indian Ocean, China remains a force to be reckoned with. There is hardly a doubt that it has not created a sphere of influence over the many years of its association with these Indian Ocean islands.

Victor Cherubim is a London-based writer and a frequent columnist of the Sri Lanka Guardian