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China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean calls for European engagement

The Indian Ocean is a critical link in global trade routes, with 80 percent of global seaborne trade passing through it. As China increasingly asserts its interests in the region, Europe cannot afford to turn a blind eye, argues Julian Weber.

Eighty percent of China’s oil imports come through the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean’s busiest “chokepoint”. This reliance on maritime energy imports has led to more assertive securitization by China. Over the past decade, it has expanded its naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean – joining the ranks of the United States, India and France which run several bases in the ocean.

In its new 2019 defense white paper, China has stressed the protection of its maritime rights and interests” (海洋权益) and safeguarding its overseas interests” (海外利益). These interests undoubtedly entail actions in the Indian Ocean, including the supply of military equipment for its allies and building military bases and commercial ports.

Indeed, China has already started building high-tech warships for its “all-weather ally” Pakistan. Its only overseas military base has been put into operation in the small African state of Djibouti, which borders the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a “bottleneck” between the Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean.

In Sri Lanka and Pakistan, China runs two other strategic ports. The port of Hambantota leased by China from the Sri Lankan government is located just north of the most important shipping route of the Indian Ocean. The Pakistani port of Gwadar built and managed by a Chinese consortium lies close to the India-operated Chabahar port in Iran, and, more importantly, near the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s biggest chokepoint for oil. The concerns about dual use for military purposes have been reinforced by China docking a submarine in Sri Lanka for resupply and sending warships to Gwadar for refueling.

More than a third of EU external trade value in goods relies on Indian Ocean routes

The potential consequences of China’s securitization efforts in the Indian Ocean will also affect Europe. Apart from China, Japan, South Korea and India are among the top ten good-trading partners of the EU. Europe has over 30 percent trade volume with Asian countries. The trade of goods with these countries relies on trade routes passing through the Indian Ocean. And Europe’s freedom of navigation in the region is already impeded as the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz showed where an Iranian commando seized a Swedish-owned and British-flagged container ship. Although it is not likely that China will create such an incident under current circumstances, its abilities to do so are growing.

In the neighboring South China Sea power plays involving military operations can already be seen: Here, China has demonstrated that it is not only willing and able to provoke stand-offs with Vietnam and the Philippines by sending coast guard and maritime militias, but that it also does not shy away from intercepting US destroyers in the disputed waters. In doing so, it is breaching international regulations such as the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

Considering that China’s navy is growing stronger, and “speeding up the transition of its tasks from defense on the near seas to protection missions on the far seas,” such incidents could expand to the neighboring Indian Ocean. The Chinese navy is already training for “strategic deterrence and counterattack” and the risk is increasing that it will use maritime traffic passing through chokepoints to create a precedent for stand-offs or seizures far from its shores.

If this happened, goods would not arrive a their destination ports anymore creating insecurity among European businesses about the accessibility to their biggest market Asia. The whole trading system with Asia and Europe could be impeded.

The EU must find ways to deal jointly with China to ensure uninterrupted trade

The EU has acknowledged the nexus between Asian Security and European prosperity in a recent factsheet and in March labelled China as a “systematic rival” not only in terms of trade but also security policy. However, it has as of yet failed to address the need for a common China strategy in Asia, let alone in the Indian Ocean.

France, which has territory and military abilities in the Indian Ocean, is the only EU country addressing this issue. Without naming China directly, in its 2019 security paper on the Indo-Pacific it stated that it is determined to “[uphold] the multilateral order against major powers” that favor “power-based relations, generating anxiety and unpredictability worldwide”. As the world’s leading trade bloc, the EU must find ways to deal jointly with China to ensure uninterrupted trade and uphold multilateralism in the region – France is not willing or capable to do it alone.

This does not mean that Europe should not seek to build trust and cooperation with China. The European Union Naval Force (NAVFOR) should continue its joint peacekeeping and counter-piracy missions and evacuation exercises with the Chinese navy.

The EU needs to show more presence in the Indian Ocean

But Europe needs equally be prepared for a China that is not interested in multilateralizing securitization efforts beyond anti-piracy missions. The EU needs to step up its joint military capabilities and show more presence in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis China with European observer or escort missions and naval exercises. The Djibouti military bases of Italy and France would provide good starting points for such engagement.

Japan, which also operates a base in Djibouti, could be a potential partner in such engagement. And India, as the most relevant and like-minded regional stakeholder, is considering more security cooperation with Europe.

The EU as a whole needs to realize it has to engage towards China in the Indian Ocean with more visibility and self-confidence to secure its interests – it should act sooner rather than later. If Europe continues to be inactive towards China’s influence in the region and unable to secure its own trade, its container ships could find themselves in stormy waters.