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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Tracing China’s Strategic Approach in the Indo-Pacific Region

China’s strategic approach in the Indo-Pacific region has become a focal point of international discourse, reflecting its ambitions to reshape regional dynamics and expand its influence. This expansive area, from the eastern coast of Africa to the western shores of the Americas, is crucial for global trade, security, and geopolitical stability. In recent decades, China has employed a multifaceted strategy, including economic initiatives, military modernization, and diplomatic engagements, to secure its national interests and assert its presence. Understanding China’s manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific is essential for grasping the evolving geopolitical landscape and anticipating future developments in this pivotal region geopolitical landscape and anticipating future developments in this pivotal region.

The Indo-Pacific’s busy sea lanes are essential for international trade and energy transport. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China aims to extend its economic reach across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Its assertive actions in the South China Sea, aimed at controlling vital maritime routes and asserting sovereignty claims, have raised regional tensions.

Furthermore, military modernization is a cornerstone of China’s strategy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has significantly enhanced its capabilities for power projection and modern warfare, expanding its navy, developing advanced missile systems, and establishing overseas military bases. This buildup has heightened regional tensions and prompted other countries to bolster their defences.

Diplomatically, China seeks to build influence through multilateral institutions and bilateral relationships, leveraging platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It also forms strategic partnerships and alliances to counterbalance rival influences, particularly those of the United States and its allies.

China’s approach is characterized by a nuanced blend of cooperation and competition. While fostering economic ties and regional stability through trade, investment, and development projects, China simultaneously engages in strategic competition with other major powers. The United States, with its Indo-Pacific Strategy, aims to counterbalance China’s rise and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific, resulting in a complex interplay of cooperation and rivalry. Other regional players, including Japan, India, and Australia, also play crucial roles in shaping the strategic environment through their policies and alliances.

The evolving dynamics of the Indo-Pacific present both opportunities and challenges for China. On one hand, the region offers vast economic potential and strategic advantages for expanding China’s influence. On the other hand, the assertive pursuit of its interests often leads to friction with other countries, necessitating careful navigation of diplomatic and security challenges. The interplay of economic initiatives, military strategies, and diplomatic engagements underscores the multifaceted nature of China’s approach, reflecting its aspirations and the complexities of achieving them in a highly interconnected and competitive region.

As the Indo-Pacific continues to be a focal point of international politics and economics, understanding China’s approach is essential for anticipating future developments and navigating the complexities of regional dynamics. The strategic choices made by China and its counterparts will have far-reaching implications for the stability, prosperity, and security of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Analysing China’s manoeuvres in this region not only sheds light on its current strategies but also provides insights into the broader trends shaping the global geopolitical landscape.

Historical Context and Strategic Foundations
China has shown a strong interest in the Indo-Pacific Region by establishing connections through shipping lanes such as the Maritime Silk Road, which linked China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and other regions. Currently, China is focused on securing shipping lanes to avert the situations like Malacca dilemma, gaining access to resources and increasing its influence in the area.

The so-called “String of Pearls” theory refers to China’s plan to construct a network of ports and military bases in the Indian Ocean. This initiative aims to safeguard China’s trade routes and ensure access to energy resources. The ports involved in this strategy are located in countries such as Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), and Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), underscoring China’s significant investment in vital infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific region.

Economic Strategy: The Belt and Road Initiative
China’s Indo-Pacific strategy centres around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping. The main goal of the BRI is to enhance connections and cooperation between Asia, Africa, and Europe through a vast network of infrastructure projects. The maritime aspect of the BRI, known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, aims to develop ports, shipping routes, and trade centres across the Indo-Pacific Region.

China is making significant investments in constructing ports and roads in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. These investments typically involve loans and financial assistance, leading these nations to become more dependent on China. This helps China to expand its influence. For example, the Gwadar Port in Pakistan provides China with a strategic location near the Persian Gulf, enabling China to access crucial sources of energy and expand the reach of its navy.

The BRI has received negative responses as well. Some countries are concerned about accumulating too much debt, causing harm to the environment and being secretive about their agreements. For example, when Sri Lanka was unable to manage its debts to China, it had to lease a port to a Chinese organization for an extended 99-year period. This has sparked discussions about the dangers of depending heavily on China for financial support.

Military Strategy: Strengthening Naval Presence
China is prioritizing the enhancement of its navy and expanding its influence in key maritime regions in the Indo-Pacific area. The Chinese navy has undergone significant upgrades and is now capable of operating far beyond China’s coastlines, rather than solely focusing on defending its shores.

In 2017, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which was a significant milestone in its military strategy. Positioned at the strategic crossroads of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, this base improves China’s capacity to carry out anti-piracy operations, safeguard its maritime interests, and provide assistance for its peacekeeping missions in Africa.

In the South China Sea, China has been building artificial islands and installing military facilities on disputed territories. These actions have increased tensions with neighbouring countries and the United States. China aims to assert its territorial claims and gain control over important sea lanes by constructing runways, radar facilities, and missile installations on these islands. The South China Sea is a crucial route for global trade, with about one-third of global shipping passing through its waters. As a result, China’s activities in the region have become a major concern for both regional and international stakeholders.

Diplomatic Strategy: Building Alliances and Partnerships
China’s diplomatic strategy in the Indo-Pacific involves forming alliances and partnerships to counterbalance the influence of other major powers, especially the United States. China aims to build relationships with key countries in the region through economic incentives, strategic dialogues, and military cooperation.

The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area was established in 2010 and demonstrates China’s commitment to enhancing economic relations with Southeast Asian nations. By reducing trade barriers and promoting economic integration, China seeks to create a positive environment for its goods and investments. Furthermore, China has participated in high-level diplomatic dialogues and forums, such as the Boao Forum for Asia, to advance its vision of regional cooperation and development.

Furthermore, China’s relationship with Pakistan is a cornerstone of its Indo-Pacific strategy. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of the BRI, includes extensive infrastructure development such as roads, railways, and energy projects. CPEC enhances connectivity between China and the Arabian Sea and solidifies Pakistan as a key strategic ally.

However, China faces challenges in its diplomatic efforts. Rivalries with India, maritime disputes with Southeast Asian nations, and scepticism from Western countries complicate its efforts to build a cohesive network of alliances. For example, India’s opposition to CPEC, which passes through the Indian territory illegally occupied by Pakistan, Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, highlights the geopolitical complexities China faces in the Indo-Pacific.

Strategic Motivations: Securing National Interests
Safeguarding its national interests, China’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific is motivated by economic, security and geopolitical factors. Economically, the Belt and Road Initiative highlights China’s efforts to enhance trade routes and energy security by investing in infrastructure across Asia, Africa, and Europe. The South China Sea actions, including artificial island construction, demonstrate its intent to control vital maritime routes.

On the security and geopolitical fronts, China aims to protect its territorial sovereignty and project military power through PLA modernization and overseas military bases.

Geopolitically, China counters U.S. influence by engaging in multilateral institutions and creating economic frameworks like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. These strategies are crucial for maintaining domestic stability and the growth of China’s economy, essential for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy. Understanding these motivations sheds light on China’s actions and the broader geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.

Economic Security
The Indo-Pacific region is essential for China’s economic security, especially for energy imports and trade routes. The Malacca Strait, which is a narrow passage between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, plays a crucial role in China’s energy imports. Roughly 80% of China’s oil imports go through this Strait, making it a strategic vulnerability.

To reduce its vulnerability, China has pursued alternative routes and diversified its energy sources. The development of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan and the Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar provides China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Malacca Strait. Additionally, China has invested in energy pipelines and overland trade routes to decrease its reliance on vulnerable maritime chokepoints.

Strategic Competition
China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific are influenced by the broader context of strategic competition with the United States and its allies. The U.S. “Pivot to Asia” strategy, which began during the Obama administration, sought to increase American presence and influence in the region. This strategy involved bolstering alliances with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and also expanding involvement with Southeast Asian nations.

In response, China has sought to counterbalance U.S. influence by building its network of alliances and expanding its military presence. The militarization of the South China Sea, the establishment of overseas military bases, and the modernization of the PLAN are all part of China’s efforts to assert its dominance in the region and challenge the existing security architecture.

Domestic Stability
Ensuring domestic stability is a top priority for China’s leadership, and its strategic approach in the Indo-Pacific region is closely linked to maintaining internal cohesion and fostering economic growth. The CCP gains much of its legitimacy from its ability to promote economic prosperity and uphold social stability. Therefore, it is imperative to secure access to resources, markets, and trade routes to sustain economic growth and prevent domestic unrest.

Furthermore, the CCP places great importance on national sovereignty and territorial integrity as part of its domestic narrative. By exerting control over disputed territories in the South China Sea and showcasing its military capabilities, the Chinese government aims to strengthen nationalistic feelings and solidify its portrayal as a protector of China’s fundamental interests.

Challenges and Counterbalances
China’s Indo-Pacific strategy has resulted in significant achievements, but it also encounters various challenges and opposition from regional and global players. The interplay of competition, cooperation, and conflict shapes the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, offering both opportunities and obstacles for China’s aspirations.

• Regional Resistance
China has been assertive, especially in the South China Sea, which has led to resistance from neighbouring countries with overlapping territorial claims. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei are some of the nations contesting China’s absurd expansive claims. They have been working to bolster their own military capabilities and strategic partnerships.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played a role in mediating disputes and promoting regional stability. Although ASEAN’s unity has been tested by China’s influence and the divergent interests of its member states, it remains a critical platform for dialogue and cooperation in the region.

• The Quad
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, is an informal strategic forum consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. It was originally established in 2007 and has been revitalized in recent years in response to China’s increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad’s main focus is on promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, enhancing maritime security, and strengthening cooperation on issues such as infrastructure development, cybersecurity, and disaster response.

The Quad serves as a significant counterbalance to China’s ambitions by uniting major regional powers with shared concerns about China’s strategic behaviour. Joint military exercises, like the Malabar naval exercises, demonstrate the Quad’s dedication to improving interoperability and readiness in response to regional challenges.

• International Law and Freedom of Navigation
China’s actions in the South China Sea have raised concerns about the erosion of international law and the principles of freedom of navigation. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a legal framework for resolving maritime disputes, yet China’s rejection of a 2016 arbitration ruling in Favor of the Philippines has fuelled tensions.

The United States and other countries have been conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and emphasize the importance of upholding international law. These operations, along with diplomatic efforts to gather support for the rules-based order, demonstrate the ongoing contestation of China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s strategic manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific, encompassing economic, military, and diplomatic initiatives, reflect its ambitions to reshape regional dynamics and secure its national interests. The Belt and Road Initiative, military modernization, and diplomatic efforts through multilateral institutions and bilateral relationships illustrate a multifaceted approach. While these strategies offer significant opportunities for expanding China’s influence, they also encounter significant resistance from regional players and global powers, such as the Quad and the United States, who seek to maintain a balance of power.
The complexities of the Indo-Pacific region, characterized by strategic competition, cooperation, and conflict, require careful navigation by China to achieve its goals. China’s focus on economic security, strategic competition with the United States, and maintaining domestic stability underscores the broad motivations behind its actions. The evolving dynamics in the region will significantly impact global trade, security, and geopolitical stability.
Understanding China’s approach provides critical insights into the broader trends shaping the Indo-Pacific and highlights the importance of strategic decisions made by all involved actors. As this region remains central to international politics and economics, closely monitoring and analysing China’s strategies will be essential for anticipating future developments and ensuring regional stability and prosperity.

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Authored by Samruddhee Sapkale
RLA Research Intern

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