There are few things more more mysterious in global geopolitics than China’s maritime plans, especially in the context of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Embedded in these endeavours is Beijing’s deep thinking into the development of maritime economics for two different purposes: reliving the past glory of the silk route, and developing the relatively under-developed provinces like Yunnan.

While China has been putting across its plans for a new maritime silk route, its recent actions are definitely in contravention to what it preaches for the region: peace and harmony through promotion of economic interests of all. The age-old suspicion between India and China ranges from border disputes to the recent damming of the Yarlung-Tsangpo river.

The prime contention here is misreporting by some scientists on the adverse impacts of the Zangmu dam on downstream India and Bangladesh, without really checking the stream-flow origins, hydrology, and hydraulics of the Yarlung-Tsangpo, which flows as Brahmaputra in India and Jamuna in Bangladesh, with more than 80 per cent of renewable stream-flow occurring within Indian boundaries.

For the sake of energy One of the key reasons for Chinese assertions in the South China Sea and its gradually increasing presence in the Indian Ocean is to secure its energy needs. The Indian Ocean forms the route via which China gets most of its energy supplies, and the South China Sea is estimated to hold large reserves of oil and natural gas.

This is why Beijing has embarked upon a long-term strategy to befriend and develop political and cultural ties with littoral states in the Indian Ocean region. Trade in this case leads to a win-win situation for all the concerned stakeholders.

Most Indian Ocean economies such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar have maintained a balanced diplomatic stance while dealing with China, on the one hand and with the US and India on the other. The key potential of the Maritime Silk Route, as touted by Beijing, would be to harness the economic strengths of littoral countries and create a thriving maritime economics. While Sri Lanka, before the the new government took over, was a big supporter of the Chinese cause, the Indian position has been one of apprehensions that this could increase China’s naval influence across the region.

There is also a feeling that Chinese prominence in these waters is directed at maintaining and fortifying its naval dominance, rather than energy exploration. The underwater naval submarine base at Hainan Island is an important naval asset that the country seeks to protect and develop. China has almost finished construction of a second airstrip on the Fiery Cross Reef in Spratly Islands.

Territorial in the sea China appears to be intent on defining the oceans off its shores as territory to be owned and controlled. A case in point is the South China Sea, which is likely to witness increasing levels of contestation especially between China and either Vietnam or the Philippines. The US has defence treaties with both these countries and therefore could be drawn into the confrontation, should conditions escalate.

Both Manila and Hanoi have filed charges against Beijing regarding territorial sovereignty in these waters. China wants to keep the restive state of the waters alive, it would seem.

Be it securing energy or developing its nuclear and naval capabilities, Beijing is poised to assume a more prominent presence in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, despite having a long way to go to catch up with US on maritime capacity. While this in itself may not indicate an intimidating prospect, the situation may go either way. There is a need for India to think and engage with China in a manner that would help offset an adverse scenario.

Of course, the development of trade linkages can be a major driver, be it through the development of the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) economic corridor, the development of free trade agreements, or through a combined plan on the sustainable development of the Yunnan province of China and north-east India.

Ghosh and Basu are fellows at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata

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