Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean: Sino-Indian Tensions on the Rise

Yesterday, the Financial Times published an excellent piece on growing Sino-Indian geopolitical tensions.

With China's three decades of uninterrupted economic growth, the country is seeking to expand its influence throughout South Asia - from the Indian Ocean to the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. As the FT notes, often this influence takes the form of infrastructure projects - such as deep water ports, arms deals, energy investments, and diplomatic support.

The so-called "string of pearls" of Chinese influence appear to leaders in New Delhi as elements in a strategy of encirclement. No wonder the Indians are eager to begin sea trials of their first nuclear-powered, ballistic missile capable, submarine later this month.

This portending conflict is a subject that Robert Kaplan expanded upon in the March/April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, in an essay titled "Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean."

While it is tempting to believe that the forces of history will inevitably lead to major war between these two powers, it is worth pausing and remembering that history isn't linear. The recent unrest in Xinjiang Province points to the tenuous hold the Chinese Communist Party has over domestic stability. An increase in unrest of any kind within China likely would compel the government to focus on its domestic situation, and forego the uncertain benefits of foreign intrigue. Of course, leaders in Beijing might redirect domestic anger and unrest, by channeling the population's latent nationalism toward a foreign enemy.

Regardless, as David Lampton points out in his excellent book The Three Faces of Chinese Power: with 14 land neighbors, China faces a delicate balance between overt demonstrations of power and influence, and maintaining a peaceful regional environment conducive to its own continued economic growth. If China manifests its power obtrusively, it may find its neighbors bandwagoning against it.

For those interested in geopolitics, competition over resources, the great swath of land stretching from the Near East through South and Central Asia to China, as well as those who believe the world's future lies more with the G-20 than with the G-8, this story is one to watch.

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