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Flavors of Chinese Foreign Policy in the Indian Ocean Region; By Mohammed Faraz

Image Courtesy: The Conversation

Article No. 08/2019

China’s foreign policy maneuvers intended at expanding its influence over the entire Indian Ocean Region received another boost as new defense deals with Pakistan recently materialized. While Pakistan’s security relations with the US turn sour, Islamabad’s engagement with Beijing is expanding faster than before. The turbulent relationship between Pakistan and the US deteriorated even further when the Trump administration suspended US$ 2 billion in military aid recently[1]. As the U.S policy toward Pakistan shifts to isolation, China’s defense related involvement in Pakistan is catapulting. This has allowed Beijing to skillfully wrap Pakistan in China’s military and strategic commercialism (Belt and Road Initiative), furthering Beijing’s aggressive ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Beijing is relying on a multitude of policy tools to exert greater influence and wider command over the region. These tools include establishing military bases, undertaking commercial projects, offering debt to poor nations and participating in infrastructure projects in many countries across the Indian Ocean. However, before we explore China’s foreign policy intentions and actions in Pakistan, a cursory glance at recent Chinese activities in certain IOR countries is warranted. Below is the snapshot of Chinese foreign policy actions in the region.

Table 1: Chinese Economic, Financial and Military Activities 2015-2019, selected Indian Ocean CountriesNature of ActivityCategoryCountryType of ActivityInvestmentEconomicEthiopia and DjiboutiRailway Line connecting Djibouti and Addis AbabaInvestmentEconomicDjibouti14 major infrastructure projectsConstructionEconomicMyanmarDeep Water PortDefense (Naval)MilitaryPakistanAdvance War ShipsFinancial AssistanceEconomic/MilitaryBangladeshPort maintenance in ChittagongConstruction/InfrastructureEconomicTanzaniaBagamoyo Mega port and Special economic zoneConstructionEconomicKenyaRailway LineConstruction/FinancialEconomicGhanaFishing PortConstructionEconomicCameroonConstruction of deep water port

Source: Author, Vivekananda International Foundation-report China’s expanding military maritime footprints 2017, China Business Law Journal,  2017, Xinhuanet 2018,

Economic aid in terms of financial support, supply of labor and construction of massive infrastructure projects are the mainstay of Chinese strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean Region. Some critics argue that financial and developmental assistance to LDC’s is a guise for China’s intention of enlarging its hegemony and influence in the IOR.

Flavors of Chinese Foreign Policy

Firstly, Beijing’s stratagem demonstrate how eager Chinese foreign policy makers are to devour all potential economic, military and strategic benefits in the interest of building a more pronounced Chinese presence in the region. The fact of the matter is that all Chinese activities, whether commercial or military,stretching from the South China Sea to the shores of Tanzania and even in the wilderness of Ghana and Cameroon, are aimed at increasing Chinese hegemony in the IOR. Never before in history of international relations has a nation been so eager to influence and project power over such a broad area, in the way that the Chinese are currently doing.

Secondly, China’s diplomatic relations with African countries were established in 1960’s: Ethiopia in 1970, Tanzania in 1961, Djibouti in 1979, Kenya in 1963 and so on. However, the irony of this early relationship is that economic activity between China and African countries has boomeranged only in the last decade. Here, the essence of China’s relationship with countries like Tanzania, Ghana, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Cameroon is revealed to be commercial and military in nature. On the contrary, foreign relations necessitate a great degree of non-military cooperation in the form of technological transfers, scientific collaboration and technical assistance, humanitarian aid and cultural exchanges that enable understanding of cultures between people of different countries. These aspects are largely absent from China’s relationship with African countries.

Historically, foreign policy or policies involve diplomacy, aid, military force, or any one tool as the primary means of navigating a relationship with another country. However, what we witness in the case of China are different shades of foreign policy that comprise a multifaceted approach to develop and defend its geo-political ambition. This is characteristic of Beijing’s aggressive intentions because traditionally foreign policy as a tool to deal with countries did not involve such a degree of strategic thinking and action driven by precise objectives and aims.

A brief look at American hegemony in its prime relates a contrasting story: the US emerged stronger after World War II only to expand its influence through diverse means. These included hegemonic economic policies, territorial expansion, institutionalization of international law, active participation in global politics, invasions, deterrence through a system of alliances and the creation of new global norms. On the other hand, the world is witnessing a one-sided approach by China to cultivate regional hegemony in the Indian Ocean Region through investments, funding of infrastructure projects, defense commercialism and aggressively binding economic development projects such as BRI.

The contrast in policy lines and their respective strategies is clear, and it highlights the fact that India must be active in exerting and building influence, and credibility as a world largest democracy and an army of world class talent.

Pakistan Defense Procurement: Impact on India

From an Indian perspective, the implications of Chinese foreign policy overtures in deep African countries are less dramatic compared to the implications of Chinese generosity towards Pakistan. From strategic point of view, military aid to New Delhi’s staunch enemy is of greater concern than financial or economic support to African nations.The cause of anxiety is Pakistan’s defense capabilities, assisted by new and advanced military arsenals entering the country from China. This security nexus between Islamabad and Beijing has only grown stronger in recent years.[2]

In March 2018, Pakistan deployed Chinese made Low-to-Medium Altitude Air Defense System (LOMADS). The LOMADS LY-80 is capable of intercepting and destroying aerial targets flying at low and medium altitude. The deployment of the LOMADS LY-80 comes in the wake of India’s successful test-firing of anindigenous supersonic interceptor missile on March 1st by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO)[3].

Furthermore, in October 2018 China agreed to sell 48 high-end armed drones for purposes of reconnaissance, strike and multi-role endurance. The capability of deploying air-to-surface weapons makes it roughly equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper drone.The drones will also be jointly manufactured by China and Pakistan[4].

Increasing defense trade between China and Pakistan certainly carries the risk of intensifying the arms race between India and Pakistan, potentially destabilizing relations between both countries further.Additionally under its military modernization program, Pakistan continues to purchase warfare artillery from different countries such as from Russia (T-90 tanks)[5], Italy (245 modern guns)[6], and Turkey (30 attack helicopters)[7]. Furthermore, China is also building Pakistan’s most advanced warships which could double the combat power of Islamabad’s fleet[8].

Increasing defense capabilities of Pakistan, under the aegis of China further accelerates arms race between India and Pakistan which will continue to hamper the possibility of peace. Secondly, this implies that Pakistan’s military capability will inch closer to India’s. Finally, the current pace of defense modernization at home is also a matter of serious concern in light of the growing security nexus between Pakistan and China.

However, in a response to these developments, India can by and large increase economic co-operation and strategic technology transfers, can extend aid to countries lying in the close vicinity, and furthermore,  security relations with countries hostile to China and its South China Sea adventures can be enhanced. India can also rope in with such countries through increased naval drills, joint military exercises and training but sequence of such actions are provocative in nature and hence India must develop a grand strategy involving multiple means for engagement with countries of tactical significance.



[1] The Express Tribune-Pakistan turns to China for High-end weapons: report April 19th 2018

[2] ORF-Chinese Military Rise and the Indian Challenge, Harsh Pant&Pushan Das Published on Apr 19 2018

[3] Economic Times-Pakistan deploys Chinese Air Defense system: Where Does India Stand-Akash Sinha published on Jul 14 2018 (partly rephrased)

[4] Economics Times-China to sell 48 high-end military drones to Pakistan- Published on Oct 20 2018

[5]Economic Times-Pakistan Procuring 600 tanks to strengthen capability along the border with India, published on Dec 30 2018

[6] Ibid

[7] Hindustan Times-Pakistan signs $1.5 billion defence deal with Turkey, published on May 31, 2018

[8] CGTN-Chinese-made warship to double Pakistan Navy Combat Power, Abhishek G Bhaya, Published on 01,03 2019

[Mohammed Faraz, member of Young Minds of C3S, is a Public Policy and Economic Development professional and works on diverse policy issues. Faraz has worked as a Policy Analyst with British Red Cross, and Marmore MENA intelligence. Graduated from the University of Reading, England in Public Policy, Faraz has two academic publications and extensive writing experience on national, regional and international policy areas. The views expressed are of the author.]

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