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Anchoring the Indian Ocean

Anchoring the Indian Ocean

Continuing with its expansionist agenda, China looks set to pave its way to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Chinese President Xi Jinping's Myanmar visit will ensure that its Belt and Road Initiative yields the country access to the strategic Bay of Bengal. By pushing mega projects in a country that has not been of much interest in the past, China looks to consolidate a connection between its South-Western province of Yunnan and Bay of Bengal. The Kyaukpyu deep-sea port being developed by China on the eastern bank of Bay of Bengal, when put together with Chinese ambitions of CMEC, creates a full-fledged and high-potential path for China in its trade route. China, via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Gwadar port, has already established a foot in the Indian subcontinent. With Gwadar in the Arabian Sea, Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal as well as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, China has seemingly engulfed India from point of view of its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). And, while these ports offer China immense potential both from strategic as well as trade perspectives, they garner apprehension for India — the only absentee from China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With BRI derivatives all around, India has a cause for concern. Not only has China propagated its BRI, making its outreach to IOR and gulf peninsula a reality, strangely enough, but there has been no check on its expansion by the US — for whom China's strides matter the most. Apparently, President Donald Trump's trade friction with China has blatantly ignored the latter's trade agenda through BRI. Nevertheless, Chinese advances, while not of concern for America, become very much a case for India. In recent years, Chinese debt trap has been instrumental in treading a path for China to reach Indian waters. IOR has been a prime transit route of the global maritime traffic following the inauguration of the Suez Canal. While naturally, India is comfortably positioned to utilise the benefits of strategically paramount IOR, aggressive Chinese advances to form bases in IOR has ensured competition. China's growing geopolitical influence in IOR does not sit well with Indian interests. India has also taken steps to curb Chinese dominance of the area by offering a hefty economic package to the Maldives, empowering the latter to come out of the Chinese debt trap and not give in like Sri Lanka. A Chinese-friendly regime in Sri Lanka following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa will only accelerate Chinese presence in the island nation. With three ports covering the entire peninsula of India in a sense, China wishes to tap on the opportunity-galore IOR. Xi's Myanmar visit will provide an impetus for CMEC, allowing Kyaukpyu to become an important port for Chinese exports and imports. Kyaukpyu allows China to access IOR which unlocks entire South-East Asia. Year by year, Chinese advances ensure a consolidated foot in the IOR while India spectates. Blessed naturally with a most-strategic position — head of IOR — India has to step up and emerge as a leading power in IOR. Developing ports, not just along its mainland, but in the Maldives and maintaining transit routes to check Chinese presence should be facilitated. While India cannot blame China for its expansion, it can certainly counter it, especially in collaboration with its allies.

Becoming a mediator for Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Rohingya issue has earned China some brownie points. And, given how 40 per cent of its overall debt is owed to China, Myanmar compliance is assured even before any argument rises. On the backdrop of this, Xi's Myanmar visit is more like an obligation for affirming his regime's expansion machinations. Chinese ambition in IOR can also be attributed to its enormous requirement for energy security that is primarily ensured via IOR transit routes starting from Strait of Hormuz. With the advent of deep-sea mining, opportunities do not stop at merely transit routes and India must take cognisance of its strategically ripe IOR. With its neighbouring countries in compliance with Chinese BRI, albeit under Chinese debt, India must ensure that Chinese advances do not impede its own agenda in IOR. The Indian peninsula is perhaps a most-important natural resource that India can utilise, more so with the trade centre shifting from the West to Asia. With Asian economies progressing, IOR transit routes will be instrumental in the future and going by that, Chinese BRI and seaports in IOR underline an efficient and prudent Chinese outlook to a potential trade bloc. India has to make headways and utilise the potential that its geographical position offers.

(Image from brookings.edu)

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