While historically a highway for trade in both goods and resources, in strategic terms the Indian Ocean has long been regarded as a relatively quiet backwater. Yet, if India’s economic growth continues, then the possibility of having an emerging power of significance that is directly adjacent to the Indian Ocean promises to alter regional dynamics. To better understand the factors driving these shifts, in the eighteenth installment of the “China-South Asia Dialogues", Carnegie’s Ashley Tellis met with thirteen senior and rising Chinese experts in a roundtable session at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The event was moderated by Carnegie’s Lora Saalman.
- Addressing Domestic Concerns: One Chinese expert emphasized that while energy and maritime trade passages are external factors that China must confront, it also faces a number of more pressing internal concerns, including:
- Strategic development of western China
- Efforts to combat terrorism in Xinjiang
- Population growth and wealth disparities
As a result of such concerns, he added, China has neither the need nor ambition to reach so far abroad and challenge India.
- Focusing on the Asia Pacific: Despite perceived shifts in the Indian Ocean region, China’s maritime focus remains trained on the Asia-Pacific, in particular Taiwan, the two Koreas, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, argued the majority of Chinese scholars in attendance. One Chinese expert estimated that while occupying a small portion of China’s total landmass, China’s coastal regions contribute more than half of China’s overall gross domestic product. Another added that the majority of China’s major trade partners maintain a presence in the Pacific, while India has yet to fully enter this maritime region and strategic calculus.
- Questioning Maritime Capabilities: The bulk of Chinese experts questioned whether China would be capable of sending a large fleet into the Indian Ocean. One Chinese participant noted that while it is a goal of China to protect its shipping routes before they become endangered, the Indian Ocean remains at a large physical and perceptual distance from China. Another cited a lack of sufficient power projection capabilities into the Indian Ocean, stressing that while China’s navy may be growing, it has not yet reached the level at which it could fight or challenge India in the latter’s sphere of influence.
- Comparing Land and Sea: One Chinese expert ranked the Indian Ocean issue and China’s relationship with India behind its eastern maritime concerns and domestic issues. He noted that China’s strategic emphasis has been and continues to be primarily focused on land. Another Chinese scholar made particular note of Beijing’s concerns over natural resources that use inland routes from South to Central Asia, which could be threatened by potential instability in Xinjiang and Tibet. As these concerns grow, China’s focus on the Indian Ocean would increase as a “side effect,” he noted. While arguing for China to undertake a strategic role in shoring up its national strategic investments in these western regions, one Chinese expert also suggested that India could have a stabilizing function in the Indian Ocean.
- Shoring up Sea Lanes: Several Chinese experts emphasized that China’s economic growth remains dependent upon oil, natural resources, and its ability to traverse maritime passages. China’s main consideration in the Indian Ocean remains energy supply, while other concerns are largely tangential, they said. One Chinese expert noted that securing its energy supply means that China cannot rely on others, but must build up its blue water navy. Another stressed that Beijing “has no military influence at all” over these passages, and suggested that China needs to reduce its reliance upon them. She pointed to harbors around the Indian Ocean as evidence of logistics and supply, emphasizing that they are not part of a “String of Pearls” strategy. Another Chinese participant argued that the Indian Ocean’s overall significance for China should not be exaggerated.
- Finding a Grand Strategy: India’s grand strategy in the maritime realm involves enlisting the cooperation and assistance of the United States and Australia, explained one Chinese participant. He added, Beijing’s grand strategy does not feature the Indian Ocean. China’s lack of a clear Indian Ocean strategy does not mean, however, that these waterways do not hold economic importance for Beijing. China will not engage in predatory laws, he emphasized, but will instead follow a rule-based approach to the region that focuses on anti-piracy and anti-terrorism measures. In doing so, this expert advocated respect for India’s core interests and the Law of the Sea.
- Defining the Indo-Pacific: In describing the Indo-Pacific region, there is an automatic effort to insert China into the security calculus of India and the United States, argued one Chinese expert. A number of attendees added that the idea of the “Indo-Pacific,” linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is not new. For one Chinese expert, this term and its evolution stem from the relative decline of U.S. power. She stressed that, as a result, the United States has increasingly felt compelled to include India in a strategic way in the region. Most stressed that the “Indo-Pacific” is a concept of concern for Beijing, given that the United States and India may use it to encircle China.
- Establishing International Standards: Beijing’s goal is to pursue an international standard and system in the maritime, argued one Chinese expert. He, and several others, argued that competition would be more likely to occur between Washington and New Delhi in the Indian Ocean than between New Delhi and Beijing. By contrast, China’s strategic activities in the Indian Ocean can be expected to be “moderate,” they asserted. One Chinese expert noted that his own interactions in India also suggest that most internal debates in Delhi focus on areas of cooperation, rather than conflict. He emphasized that there is a real need to begin building comprehensive mechanisms for confronting piracy and terrorism. To this end, one Chinese expert stressed the importance of trilateral coordination among China, India, and the United States.
Discussants: Cheng Ruisheng, Zheng Ruixiang, Ma Jiali, Zou Yunhua, Zhai Dequan, Gu Guoliang, Han Hua, Su Hao, Yang Danzhi, Lou Chunhao, Mao Jikang, Ren Yuanxi, Tian Kaiwen