China continued its growing forays into South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as it organized the first high-level China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation this week, with 19 countries from the region except for India. The event was quietly held along with many other events including the 6th China-South Asia expo, and the China-Indian Ocean region thinktank forum in a hybrid format in Kunming on November 21, 2022, nonetheless, showcasing China’s continuing quest for a larger presence and role in the strategically important Indian Ocean.

The forum was hosted by China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) which according to its website formulates policies and coordinates major foreign aid issues. CIDCA is headed by Luo Zhaohui, the former Vice Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to India. 

According to a press release issued by CIDCA, high-level representatives of 19 countries, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, Australia and representatives of three international organizations were present at the hybrid forum.

It is learned that India was not invited to this forum which is seen by experts as an attempt to challenge India’s traditional presence in the region amid apprehensions of politicization of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry refused to disclose who were the participants from other countries. Generally, details of participants are disclosed in multilateral engagements.

India has been a traditional partner and supporter of Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, in addition, to act as a first responder during major crises in the littoral countries. It has been regularly engaging with the Indian Ocean littoral countries through such mechanisms as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Navies Symposium (IONS) under the vision of “Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)” as propounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Mauritius in 2015.

China is a dialogue partner of the IORA, along with Russia, the US and several European countries. In IONS too, which brings together 24 countries in the region, China, which is not an Indian Ocean country, is one among several observers. However, China has been relentlessly trying to ramp up political, economic and security inroads in the region despite being geographically far from the Indian Ocean.

With China’s prominent role in global supply chains, the vast resource base of the Indian Ocean, and the passage of strategic sea lines of communication

through the IOR, the Indian Ocean littoral has gained prominence in the Chinese policy framework and its expansive Belt and Road Initiative.

At the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on November 21, China has proposed to establish a marine disaster prevention and mitigation cooperation mechanism between China and countries in the Indian Ocean region, the CIDCA press release said. China is ready to provide necessary financial, material, and technical support to countries in need, it said.

Experts said, China’s initiation of a new forum for IOR countries despite the other successfully established forums is worrisome and apparently is aimed at countering India’s strong influence in the region.

China has made substantial investments in ports and infrastructure investments in several countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Beijing has acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port on a 99-year lease besides building the port at Pakistan’s Gwadar in the Arabian Sea opposite India’s western coast and infrastructure investments in the Maldives. China has often been accused of engaging in “debt diplomacy” in these countries under its Belt and Road Initiative allegedly in the name of infrastructure development. Since 2008, China has regularly deployed a contingent of naval warships in the Gulf of Aden and established its first foreign military base in Djibouti in 2017.

Incidentally, in January this year, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a whirlwind trip to five Indian Ocean littoral countries viz. Comoros, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Kenya. In his meeting with Sri Lankan counterpart G L Peiris, Wang Yi ‘proposed to establish a forum for the development of Indian Ocean island countries, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement released in Beijing after the minister’s visit.

And in less than a year, China holds the first China-Indian Ocean Region Forum just after the 20th party congress is concluded and President Xi Jinping has emerged as ever more powerful in his rare third term as China’s top leader. This has highlighted Beijing’s relentless drive for influence over the Indian Ocean region. However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Friday clarified that the ‘China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation is not the same as the ‘forum for the development of Indian Ocean island countries.

In talks with the Sri Lankan leadership, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, Wang Yi said that ‘no third country’ should ‘interfere’ in the close ties between the two, which experts said hinted at India, showing its geopolitical ambitions.

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