Geopolitics: China’s Gifts Diplomacy Pays Off

India considers the Indian Ocean to be its backyard and sphere of influence which is being infiltrated by the Chinese. It believes that the ‘Indian’ Ocean is ‘India’s Ocean’, reports WANJOHI KABUKURU.

By Wanjohi Kabukuru 2014-05-23, Diplomat East Africa

To have a smooth access to resources China is relying on ‘gifts-diplomacy’ by investing heavily in resource rich nations within the western Indian Ocean rim such as Tanzania, Seychelles, Comoros, Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. “In terms of investment, this is reflected by China’s readiness to finance and construct major energy projects in the region,” says Dr Carlos Lopes. He is the Executive Secretary of the Addis Ababa-based United Nation Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Among the projects that Lopes speaks about is the $1.6billion Karuma Hydropower project in Uganda being undertaken by Sinohydro, and the $1.2 billion 512kms Mtwara-Dar-es-salaam pipeline in Tanzania. “These engagements are very strategic for both countries as they ensure secure direct access to energy resources and reduce China and India’s heavy dependence on the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the volatile Middle East,” explains Lopes.

Professor Shen Dingli, the Vice Dean of the Institute of International Affairs at China’s Fudan University, sees the commerce interests as being directly tied to military objectives. In 2010, he held the view that China should not shun the idea of setting up military bases overseas as it was within Beijing’s rights and would help defend its interests and, at the same time, deter US aggression. Three years later, Dingli still holds the same position. “China needs to build overseas bases so as to defend its legitimate interests.” says Dingli. “China’s main challenges are the US weapons sale to Taiwan and backing Japan on the question of Diaoyu islands.”

Washington and Beijing have dissimilar standpoints on the disputed Diaoyu islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by Japan which refers to them as Senkaku islands. His position, which is shared by Chinese military top brass among them Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo who heads Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, took root in 2009. According to Cdr. Agnihotri, Beijing begun seeking for a military base within the Indian Ocean after its bulk carrier De Xin Hai was released by Somali pirates. Ever since that time, says Agnihotri, Beijing has been courting Seychelles and Maldives for a military base in the two Indian Ocean island nations.

Retired US Navy Captain Don Walsh, who has followed Chinese deep sea development keenly, gives insights into China’s interests within the Indian Ocean. “Simply put China is scouring the world for safe assured sources of commodities to support its rapidly growing economy. This includes seafloor mining and they have secured legitimate mining rights from the International Seabed Authority (ISA),” he says. “Their diplomatic offensive to seek positive relationships with resource-rich nations is part of this. It is a win-win for those nations who sell their resources and also receive development aid from China. It is just good politics for both sides. I see the military element as ‘insurance’ to protect their supply lines”

In the last decade, India and China have been chest-thumping over naval might. This is not surprising given both nations’ ambitions. In the last 11 months, both nations have launched aircraft carriers and recent reports from Beijing indicate that China may launch its second aircraft carrier in the next few months. Prof. Munene explains this show of bravado by the two rising powers as borne out of diverging perceptions of the greater Indian Ocean.

“India considers the Indian Ocean to be its backyard and sphere of influence which is being infiltrated by the Chinese.” he says. “Besides, India believes that the ‘Indian’ Ocean is ‘India’s Ocean’.” On Beijing’s attitude on the Indian Ocean, he argues that Chinese interests are more global. “China perceives western Indian Ocean as an area of immense opportunity both economically and geo-politically and it is willing to invest heavily in order to secure its perceived geopolitical interest in Africa through eastern Africa.”

“While China is seemingly a factor in India’s geo-strategic calculations in the Indian Ocean, India is apparently not a major factor in China’s calculations. China’s calculations are global and western Indian Ocean happens to be just one of the regions in China’s global outreach,” he says. At the height of the Cold War, during the Non-Aligned nations meeting held in Lusaka, Zambia in 1970 the meeting ended up with a call for peace. It called on “all states to consider and respect the Indian Ocean as a zone for peace from which great power rivalry and competition either army, navy or air force bases are excluded.” Forty three years later, it is clear nobody listened to this resolution.

Securing maritime sea lanes, energy needs, deep sea drilling interests from possible pirate and terrorist attacks are clear indications that the militarisation of the western Indian Ocean is likely to neither stop nor reduce anytime soon. Dr Lopes sums it all pretty well by making reference to the former head of Italian oil company Eni, Mr Enrico Mattei who in 1950s coined the term ‘Seven Sisters’. This was an expression used to refer to the oil cartel of Esso, BP, Texaco (today Chevron), Standard Oil of California, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Gulf Oil. Before the 1970s ‘oil shock’ this cartel controlled 85 per cent of the world’s petroleum industry.

“The 20th and 21st centuries are replete with examples of access to oil and mineral resources fuelling militarization in the Middle East and Africa. The scramble for the Middle East and the story of the ‘7 Big Sisters’ is telling,” says Lopes. “Discoveries of new and vast energy and mineral resources in the Western Indian Ocean states will, therefore, inevitably create the incentive for such strategic militarisation.”

Supported by Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR)

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