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Views of China’s Presence in the Indian Ocean Region: A Workshop Report

Michael McDevittUmida Hashimova
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On June 17 and 18, 2019, CNA held a two-day workshop entitled “Views of China’s Presence in the Indian Ocean Region,” at the Hilton Arlington Hotel, in Arlington, Virginia in the United States. The conference hosted 17 speakers from countries either in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) or ones that are a major stakeholder in the region. CNA invited participants from other nations as well in order to capture a diversity of opinions.

All participants are respected experts on the nexus of maritime issues and China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, and are affiliated with academia or independent think tanks in the countries from which they come. All publish extensively on China’s activities in the IOR.

Project background

The purpose of this project and the associated workshop is to inform the sponsor how nations around the Indian Ocean (IO) littoral are reacting to the expanded presence of China throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Over the past decade, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been deploying increasingly to the IO, and its warships have turned into a permanent fixture there. China’s commercial boom, and subsequent demand for natural resources and export of China-made products to the rest of the world, has further boosted China’s maritime presence. China’s commercial dominance in the IOR is also reinforced by its launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s foreign policy initiative designed in part to construct infrastructure projects around the world.

For US Navy (USN) planners, these developments raise serious concerns regarding the potential strategic implications of China’s activities in the IOR. To better understand these activities and, more importantly, to understand the degrees of regional nations’ receptivity to China’s presence in the IOR, CNA organized a workshop to explore the following three questions:

     1. What are China’s interests in the IOR? To what extent does a relationship exist between China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the PLAN’s presence in the IOR?

     2. How do Indian Ocean countries view trends in China’s commercial and military presence in the region? To what extent do they seek protection from vs. seek to benefit from these developments?

     3. Given the priorities of the IO countries and China’s commercial and military presence in the region, what are the most effective courses of action that the USN can pursue as it weighs the wishes of US allies and partners against US strategic and operational interests in the IOR?

The CNA workshop aimed to assess the reaction to China’s economic and military activities of IOR stakeholders from a wide range of IO littoral countries, as well as external powers with stakes in the IOR. The gathering allowed participants to gain perspectives from experts and take a fresh look at this emerging issue. Experts presented their papers, took questions, and engaged in extended dialogue during the workshop. Not everyone invited, including the Chinese, was able to participate. On balance however, it was a good turnout with all of the geographic regions of the IOR represented. 

Prior to the workshop, the experts were asked to prepare papers addressing the question, “How does your country view China’s commercial and military presence in the Indian Ocean region?” Our request was that the experts would be candid in their observations about China and their assessment of their country’s interests and geostrategic circumstances. Collectively, the papers were revealing and touched on salient points. Appendix A includes a 500-word synopsis of each paper. Appendix B provides the workshop agenda and bios of the participants. Appendix C provides a complete set of the participant papers that resulted from this workshop.

The main part of this paper consists of insights into the above three questions gained from the presentations, discussions, and expert papers. The paper begins with an exploration of China’s stakes in the region, followed by views and reactions of regional countries to China’s commercial and military interests in the IOR. The IOR experts detailed concerns, struggles, and aspirations of their respective countries, as well as their independent assessments and how they viewed regional developments. As experts explained, some of their countries have a clear vision of courses their countries should take in the future; others are taking a wait-and-see approach to developments. Finally, the paper provides the USN with recommendations for adapting to the new realities in the IOR while remaining a military power that can withstand China’s aggression.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. Public Release. 3/10/2020

Details

  • Pages: 288
  • Document Number: DCP-2019-U-022222-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 3/10/2020