Ever since the term Indo-Pacific has been coined, the Chinese have vehemently argued that its primary aim is to counter and limit China’s development aspirations. Further, they note that China has never countered the idea of ‘free and open seas’. Perhaps one of the important reasons behind China’s argument over its containment is prominence the US accords to the Indian role in the Indo-Pacific which challenges the Chinese arguments that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean only.
Terming of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as a ‘single strategic arena’ by secretary of state Rex Tillerson has also troubled the Chinese strategic community. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) among the United States, Japan, India and Australia is viewed as a military and strategic precursor to the Indo-Pacific. It is thus no surprise that the Chinese have not welcomed and accepted this idea, even though there have been arguments that the Indo-Pacific is not aimed at containing China.
The three major issues which concern the Chinese about the Indo-Pacific are the role of the US, its impact on the BRI, and the Indian role. Chinese scholars argue that “the Indo-Pacific strategy is a preliminary idea for the United States to connect the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region, to constrain China’s rise from a geopolitical perspective, and to safeguard its own leadership and interests in the region”. Chinese strategic thinkers believe that the US is not ready to accept the increasing importance and role of China in the region. The whole idea of Indo-Pacific is a construct to give strength to the US to remain as the major player in the region.
The other major factor behind Chinese apprehensions is the inclusion of Indo-Pacific in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). A senior White House official argued that the Indo-Pacific concept juxtaposes the rise of India and underscores the growing India-US relations. Further, the concept of free and open Indo-Pacific also has the support of Japan and Australia. Thus it is not surprising that China has perceived the Indo-Pacific to be a containment strategy by the US. Further, the renaming of the American Pacific Command to ‘Indo-Pacific Command’ has only added to Chinese apprehensions that it is being strategically targeted
According to Global Times, the “Indo-Pacific strategy will also hamper the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative in that it causes countries along the routes to take a wait-and-see attitude, drives a wedge between China and Indian Ocean countries, and dampens their confidence about contact with China”. Such statements reinforce the Chinese perception that the Indo-Pacific concept is a ‘strategy to counter and contain China’.
Another major argument gaining acceptance among the Chinese and reinforces their fears is that the Indo-Pacific targets the BRI. Although US Vice President Mike Pence has stated that the US is willing to contribute nearly US$ 60 billion for development along the Indo-Pacific which China has welcomed, but there are a number of caveats. Chinese believe that the amount is too little, and the clauses which the US has for extending loans will hamper the region’s growth. According to Global Times, “Our suggestion is, instead of being the loudest in the room, why doesn't the Quad complete a mega-infrastructure program of its own that differs from the BRI they repeatedly denounce?”
An article in the South China Morning Post argues that the “Indo-Pacific” label broadens the region’s concept, moving focus away from China – the key actor in “Asia-Pacific” – to emphasise India and the Indian Ocean”.The role of India also needs to be discussed as the Indian Ocean is seen as one end of the Indo-Pacific.
India-China relations have never been smooth despite the growing economic connections. The bilateral trade stands around US$ 80 billion; however, India’s refusal to participate in the BRI has dampened the bilateral relationship. The Global Times counselled that, “India should not fall victim to the United States' purpose of containing China's rise and instead it should look to China for ways of self-development”.
The growing Chinese inroad in South Asia impact on bilateral relations and the 79 days standoff between the two armies at Doklam last year has affected the relationship. Thus it is no surprise that once the idea of Indo-Pacific was floated, China began to hint that India align its interests with China, rather than the United States. There is also a growing notion within China that the United States may use its closeness with India to put pressure on China as Beijing is heavily dependent on the Malacca Strait for its energy and resource requirements.
Despite such hyperbole within China, one cannot ignore the fact that the Indo-Pacific concept does provide Beijing a very active and important space. Beijing can and should get involved and look for ways to help in the overall growth and development of the region. An active and positive participation of China in the region will go a long way in countering the negative perceptions.
Dr Gunjan Singh is Research Associate at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.