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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Indian Ocean is next Asian flashpoint

Despite the bonhomie surrounding the Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping summit, the neighbours are quietly vying for maritime dominance.
Chinese president Xi Jinping, left, waves as he walks with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa upon arrival at the airport in Colombo on September 16 before his visit to India for talks with Narendra Modi. Eranga Jayawardena / AP Photo
Chinese president Xi Jinping, left, waves as he walks with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa upon arrival at the airport in Colombo on September 16 before his visit to India for talks with Narendra Modi. Eranga Jayawardena / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // At first glance, it looks like a diplomatic love-fest.

There was Chinese president Xi Jinping, toasting the birthday of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in a quiet dinner last week in Mr Modi’s home state.

There were the two leaders, deep in conversation as they walked along the Sabarmati River, Mr Xi dressed in a Nehru jacket.

The men are full of praise for one another, and one another’s countries. Mr Xi gushed over India as “an enchanting and beautiful land”. Mr Modi declared that their pledges to work together “will open big gates for progress and development in the world”.

Just a few hours into Mr Xi’s three-day visit, Indian newspapers were awash with accomplishments: a joint industrial park, a sister-city pact, ramped up cultural ties, business deals and investment promises from China worth well more than US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn).

Left largely unspoken, though, are the deep worries in India over Chinese manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where New Delhi’s years of dominance is being chipped away by billions of dollars in aid from Beijing and gargantuan Chinese construction projects.

And while China’s recent push for dominance in the South China and East China seas get more attention, the quiet contest for influence in the Indian Ocean is being watched carefully from Tokyo to Washington. More than anything else, the worries are over energy.

The tankers that move through the Indian Ocean carry 80 per cent of China’s oil, 65 per cent of India’s and 60 per cent of Japan’s, making those waters crucially important. A significant slowdown in tanker traffic – whether from diplomatic standoff, piracy or war – could cripple those countries and send shockwaves around the world.

So for years Beijing has been working to ensure it is not left out of the regional equation, building ports and forging alliances in coastal nations from Myanmar to Pakistan.

“China wants to be a major player in the Indian Ocean, alongside India and the US,” said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary who also held ambassadorships.

Mr Xi’s latest initiative is the maritime Silk Road, a series of agreements that would link China to Europe by sea. But if China heralds the Silk Road as a vision of international cooperation, many in the Indian government worry it is a Trojan horse to hide Beijing’s expanding influence, said Mr Sibal.

“It is a precursor to eventually positioning themselves more permanently in the Indian Ocean,” he said.

Mr Xi, notably, made two stops before India, both in Indian Ocean nations. First came the Maldives, where Beijing’s influence has been growing steadily.

Next was Sri Lanka, where China has become the largest investor and has built a colossal port in the once-quiet town of Hambantota.

“They are building pockets of influence,” Mr Sibal said.

Beijing denies it is on a quest for Indian Ocean influence. In a signing ceremony for the Silk Road plan in Sri Lanka, Mr Xi called it a chance to “strengthen our cooperation” in everything from port development to maritime security.

Wang Shaopu, director of the Centre for Pan-Pacific Studies at Shanghai Jiaotong University, said competition was natural given the importance of the region.

But that does not make conflict inevitable.

“China and India should make a high priority of cooperation and avoid letting competition become cutthroat,” he said. “I think both countries already have realised this.”

Publicly, that is definitely the case. The neighbours might have plenty of room for disagreement, from an immense Indian trade deficit to an Indian state that China claims as its own territory.

But they have also become highly adept at avoiding the most sensitive issues, playing down disagreements to focus on economic growth.

Even in India, where China’s emergence as a world power stings national pride deeply, plenty of people say that’s not automatically a bad thing.

India is also being careful not to put too much trust in China, forging diplomatic agreements in an attempt to balance Beijing’s growing strength.

Just weeks ago, Mr Modi returned from a highly successful trip to Japan, China’s fiercest rival, bringing home pledges of billions of dollars in aid and investment along with agreements to strengthen security and economic ties.

Just days ago, the Indian and Vietnamese presidents issued a statement calling for freedom of navigation in the South China and East China seas – a clear jab at Beijing’s aggressiveness in the region.

While Mr Modi made a brief mention on Thursday of border disagreements during an appearance with Mr Xi – saying he had raised the issue of the “repeated incursions” with the Chinese leader – his statement was overwhelmingly positive, concluding by saying their relationship was “filled with vast opportunities”.

That didn’t surprise Mr Sibal.

“We rarely speak frankly to China. We have preferred to speak about areas where we have common interests.”

* Associated Press

Published: September 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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