Bertil Lintner, in his enlightening new book The Costliest Pearl, describes today’s struggle for supremacy in the Indian Ocean as a new Great Game, or alternatively, a new Cold War. The major contestants are China, the United States and India, but subsidiary powers such as Australia, France, and Japan are also involved.
The primary impetus for this geopolitical competition is China’s quest to replace the United States as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region, which Lintner believes is part of a broader, long-term Chinese strategy to replace the United States as the preeminent world power. This has produced an arms race among the powers in the region and has resulted in the formation of what Lintner calls a “grand anti-Chinese alliance” consisting of the United States, India, France, Australia, and Japan.
Lintner’s title borrows from US strategy papers written in 2005 and 2006, which described planned or potential Chinese military bases in and around the Indian Ocean as a “String of Pearls”. The “Pearls” include Djibouti, strategically located at the entrance to the Red Sea; Gwadar in Pakistan along the shores of the Arabian Sea; Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka; Chittagong, on the southern coast of Bangladesh; Kyaukpyu in Myanmar; Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean; the Seychelles, off the east African coast and north of Madagascar; the Maldives, a group of islands located southwest of the Indian subcontinent and north of the British Indian Ocean Territory and the American naval base at Diego Garcia; and the Comoros, islands off the coast of Mozambique and northwest of Madagascar.
China is using its economic power to gain strategic footholds in the Indian Ocean’s “Pearls”. As Lintner notes, China is moving into areas of the Indian Ocean “where it has had no presence for centuries.” China opened its first military base abroad in Djibouti in 2017. It financed and constructed a port at Gwadar, and as part of the Belt and Road Initiative it has management rights on the port for 40 years. China owns the port it financed in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. It agreed to finance development of a port at Chittagong in Bangladesh, but progress on that project has stalled. Most important, according to Lintner, China developed the port at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, which “provides China with straightforward and direct access to the Indian Ocean” and is astride “the terminal for China’s oil and gas pipelines from the sea to Yunnan.”
China is vying with India for economic and political influence on the island of Mauritius. Lintner calls this island a “vital link in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.” Xi toured the island in July 2018, and China intends to build a “smart city” near Port Louis. Chinese exports to Mauritius surpassed India’s in 2015.
A similar contest between China and India is occurring in the Seychelles. Lintner calls the Seychelles “a frontline state in Indo-Chinese rivalry in the Indian Ocean.” Its location, he writes, “makes it a vital geographic link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” China has supplied the Seychelles with aircraft and naval vessels, and Seychelles troops have trained in China. In 2016, a senior general of China’s Central Military Commission visited the Seychelles capital Victoria to discuss defense cooperation between the two nations.
It is in the Maldives, a Muslim state, however, that “the strategic contest between China and India” is the sharpest. Lintner explains why:
The widely scattered islands of the Maldives offer strategic vantage points from which to monitor vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and, therefore, the country has come to play a pivotal role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
President Xi visited the Maldives in 2014, and called it “an important stop along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.” China since then has invested in several infrastructure projects, housing, and tourism on the islands. The two nations signed a free trade agreement in 2017. The next year, China announced that it would build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in the northwestern Maldives.
China’s economic and political investments in the String of Pearls, however, have not always gone smoothly. Not all of the Pearls are politically stable. In some of the countries, corruption is rampant. Lintner provides interesting brief histories of each nation targeted by China. He writes:
All the island states have long histories of political instability and exploitation by colonialists, pirates, mercenaries, fraudsters and tricksters, and, more recently in the case of the Maldives, threats posed by Islamic extremists.
This is one reason why China’s future as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean is far from certain.
Another reason why China may not achieve Indian Ocean supremacy is that its aggressive moves in the region (coupled with its even more aggressive moves in the South China Sea) have brought the region’s other powers together in what China rightly views as a US-led effort to contain the spread of Chinese influence and power. Each of these opposing powers occupies strategic locations in the Indian Ocean: India has the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; France has Kerguelen, the Crozet Archipelago, and the Amsterdam and St Paul Islands; Australia possesses the Cocos Islands and Christmas Island; the United States has one of its most important overseas military facilities on Diego Garcia.
Lintner believes that it is important for the Indian Ocean’s other powers—especially India and the United States—to recognize that China’s BRI is primarily a strategic and geopolitical program, not just an economic one. Lintner, who is not prone to hyperbole, writes that Xi Jinping has transformed the BRI from a “plan for trade expansion into a grand strategy to dominate the world.” Lintner by and large accepts the notion of the Thucydides Trap and views China as a “rising, self-confident power challenging the supremacy of an old power” (the United States). Xi’s vision, he writes, is for China to “replace the United States as the world’s leading economic, political, and military power.”
In the end, the costliest pearl that Xi wants is the Indian Ocean itself.