Preparing for the Two Superpower Reality in the Indian Ocean

The manner in which the upcoming double act between the US and China pans out (confrontational, competitive or shared partake) will set the backdrop for French and Indian geo-strategies in the Indian Ocean and will have large repercussions on our ability to maintain a steady course between all our allies as we attempt to develop the Blue Economy

Last week we commented on some of the players in the Indian Ocean and more particularly on the strategic interests of our traditional allies, France, India and China and perhaps new ones in South East Asia or the Middle East, as they make their moves inside the waters of the zone. We also wondered whether we have an independent nucleus, operating independently of political interventions and horizons, for factual strategic analysis and continuous monitoring of initiatives impacting our own future economic development plans.

France has a formidable network of institutions (AFD, Universite de la Reunion, IE-DOM, CCIR, amongst others) where able researchers prepare a variety of confidential and semi-confidential reports and in-depth analyses on specific topics. They are not the variety of researchers and institutions to be found hogging the airwaves for commentaries. French-funded or sponsored correlates such as the Indian Ocean Commission, are occasionally or regularly roped in for facilitating decisions satisfying French policy-makers in Paris.

Major financial injections using French and EU funds have been poured and are in the pipeline, for instance, into the Reunion Grand-Port with the stated objective of transforming it into THE regional port-hub, capitalising on Mauritius-generated trade dynamism. It is no mere coincidence that President Hollande came personnally in 2014 to launch the process. Maritime economy, “l’Economie bleue” and the perspectives of Grand-Port Reunion will have been the central theme of former PM Michel Rocard conference in Saint Pierre this Wednesday.

The low-cost regional airline being promoted under the Iles Vanilles parfum, may stem from the same perceived geo-strategic French drive at this particular juncture to enable easy link-up between Reunion and Mayotte. The latter scheduled for DOM status vitally needs low-cost port and air connectivity with Reunion. While such a project would most certainly suit French geo-political interests, we can remain doubtful what benefits a regional low-cost airline will bring us when previous French efforts at a regional airline have failed. We are rarely on the prowl for backpacking tourists. Are we planning to invest in a venture of very dubious interest for the country which may even cut our national carrier’s market share?

We hope local authorities have weighed carefully how French strategies in the Indian Ocean will impact and affect our own development imperatives. Our intense, three century-old historical relationship with France should only help us keep in perspective the overall picture. We have every reason to tread carefully or at least allow seduction with eyes wide open rather than shut!

Distant rumblings

However this piece is about the more distant rumblings that are likely to dramatically alter things in this part of the world over the next twenty years. We are referring to the emerging duo-pole that will constitute an unstoppable quasi-natural planetary supremacy between two world superpowers, the US and China. We sort of already had this in the aftermath of the last World War: a squaring off between the two economic and military giants that emerged from those ashes, the US and the Soviet Empire. Those times have faded away but the intervening multi-polar world is once again facing the prospects of a two-superpower game plan within our time horizons.

Although nominally part of the Communist sphere, China had the intrinsic foresight and confidence in its own abilities, to close up and prepare itself for a “long solitary march”. Perhaps not the one envisaged by the Chairman, but one that ultimately, with the peculiar brand of State capitalism that pervades all its structures, has transformed it into the world’s preferred factory, generating immense financial reserves, huge military investments and formidable clout. Environmentalists, Tibetans and minorities, aspiring voices for more freedom to accompany the massive financial turn-around, may well rumble, the Chinese state politiburo is entirely focused on its overarching driving ambition: that of becoming in twenty to thirty years the only superpower capable of squaring off against the US hegemony, economically and militarily.

The geo-political implications are of several orders and all will impact the Indian Ocean zone. Immense Chinese investments in military, nuclear, ballistic missile and space technologies have been ongoing for ages. However, military prowess, to be increasingly credible, needs to be projected, first and foremost towards neighbours until such time it can be deployed into wider spheres. India on the Himalayan frontiers, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and even Japan have been and will continue to be tested. They always were the first sphere.

Sustaining development thrusts in times of growing resource scarcity is another scenery for competitive thrusts. The battle for securing strategic resources, oil and commodities from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere can be seen in China’s foreign policy. It has been dubbed the “chequebook diplomacy”, one that astutely alloys trade and commerce with underpinning strategic ambitions of China for a joint world leadership role. As a regional superpower, China could legitimately be expected to throw its weight in its Eastern waters, the China seas. As an aspiring and emerging global superpower, China feels it has to project itself beyond those geographical confines, now onto the dynamic sub-region of South-East Asia (ASEAN) and, almost simultaneously, in the Indian Ocean.

String of pearls

We, in the Indian Ocean, represent the second sphere and this coincides neatly with several factors: securing raw materials and oil for China’s hungry factories, securing sea lanes for transfer of those raw materials and providing a string of berthing ports for Chinese naval and surveillance forces in an ocean where, nominally, China has no geographical legitimacy. To those ends, China has been prepared to use a generous chequebook to buy into and entrench what has been dubbed a “string of pearls” strategy. Essentially, ensuring a series of berthing ports for naval, military and surveillance outposts stretching from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and the Maldives.

A parallel effort has been to promote a canal cutting through the narrow Thailand Kra isthmus to by-pass the overcrowded Malacca Straits. Nominally to reduce traffic times, from Far East to Africa, it would provide a far faster access for Chinese naval movements to and from the Indian Ocean, while undermining the port economies of Singapore and Malaysia. Those ASEAN nations are extremely wary of Chinese shadowy intents and have up to now pressured the Thai government to resist the lure of Chinese mega-bucks for digging the Kra Canal.

Indian foreign policy has been also extremely agitated at prospects of being surrounded by Chinese naval facilities and refuelling ports, some of which are so unnervingly close to its frontiers (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan). They sense the naval and military escalade of the second sphere taking place through the Chinese strategic “string of pearls” initiatives. It cannot be expected to be enthusiastic should Mauritius, a loyal friend and ally in the Indian Ocean, become part and parcel of the pearls. The Jin Fei zone linking up with a proposal for a Chinese port will probably raise some alarm bells in New Delhi.

The manner in which the upcoming double act between the US and China pans out (confrontational, competitive or shared partake) will set the backdrop for French and Indian geo-strategies in the Indian Ocean and will have large repercussions on our ability to maintain a steady course between all our allies as we attempt to develop the Blue Economy.

  • Published in print edition on 2 October 2015

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