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Geostrategic Chess Game in Indo-Pacific Cause for Concern

Isabella Baker

Source: ABC News

High up on the Perth skyline, foreign ministers and senior officials from over 20 nations across the Indo-Pacific region met last week at the 2024 Indian Ocean Conference to discuss the region’s most pressing concerns. Straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the region contains 36 countries, 16 time zones, seven of the eight fastest-growing markets, 25,000 islands and is home to 2.9 billion people. Four hundred delegates from across the region attended this year's Conference to discuss the theme of ‘Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean’. Leading the Conference was Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Indian Foreign Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.  


The Conference was held against the backdrop of a volatile geopolitical landscape, where relations in the Indo-Pacific are more unstable than ever. Just last month, Sri Lanka blocked Chinese research vessels from its ports. This occurred amid concerns from India that Beijing was intent on gathering intelligence for its submarines to use against India. Senator Wong referenced this recent dispute in her keynote speech at the beginning of the Conference, suggesting that “even research vessels have the potential to be tools for strategic goals”.  


The region is tense with superpower competition, diplomatic neuralgia, strategic angst and political uncertainty. Papua New Guinea is in the early stages of discussion with China over a potential security deal and Beijing is continuing to rapidly militarise the South China Sea. Recent satellite imagery has indicated that it is increasing its efforts to reclaim land by physically increasing island size and creating new islands. China’s notable exclusion from the Conference reflects growing concerns over Beijing’s aggressive power maximising moves in the region. 


The race for strategic supremacy between India and China was touched on at the Conference when Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made veiled references to Beijing’s growing aggression and influence. He drew particular attention to China’s troop buildup at the Line of Actual Control and actions in the South China Sea. The border clashes along the Line of Actual Control in December 2022 and the violent confrontation between Indian and Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley cemented India and China’s troubled relationship. As long as India continues to push for the preservation of the status quo in the face of China’s revisionism, it is likely that strategic competition will continue to intensify in the coming years. 


As a geopolitical chess match unfolds across the region, the delegates shared a growing sense of apprehension regarding China’s rising influence. In addition to Jaishankar’s remarks, Wong’s high-profile keynote speech also addressed the threat of mounting Chinese influence in the region, stating that “with an increasing level of commercial and military passage through the Indian Ocean comes a greater need for transparency and reassurance … [in the] face of China’s rapid military build-up”.  


In a region of middle powers and multipolarity, unbridled Chinese hegemony and great power competition make for an elusive equilibrium. Just last month, Nauru announced that it would sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and instead recognise China. This is Taipei’s first diplomatic ally to move to align with Beijing, and there are fears that Tuvalu and other Pacific nations are next. As a negative trend of democratic recession steadily unfolds across the Indo-Pacific, China has ample room to extend its political influence, accelerating democratic backsliding in the region.  


In her address, Senator Wong went on to express concerns about political interference and disinformation in the Indo-Pacific. These sentiments were echoed in Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech which affirmed the importance of maintaining the rules-based order and using diplomatic frameworks to address geopolitical complexities in the Indo-Pacific.  


Delegates also discussed the economic significance of the region for maritime trade.  Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan used his speech to underscore the need to follow the rules-based order to cultivate peace and stability in the region. As the host of more than a third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of global oil shipments, the Indo-Pacific holds significant strategic and economic importance. By 2030, the region will produce more than half of the world’s economic output. 


China’s flagship policy in the Indo-Pacific region is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which it uses to conceal military infrastructure in commercial environments. The region is a transverse section for both the maritime road and land belt of the BRI. The establishment of military bases along the BRI in the Indian Ocean region acts as a strategic buffer which safeguards the geo-economic value of the maritime silk road.  


In conjunction with its ‘string of pearls strategy’, China can expand its military and naval presence through civilian dual-use maritime infrastructure to encircle neighbouring countries and secure close access to strategic chokepoints. In the last five years, China has established a key military logistics facility in Djibouti and is developing Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan - both of which overlook key sea lanes and account for 80 per cent of global seaborne trade.  


Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in his inaugural address at the Conference that the militarisation of the Indian Ocean and the “great power rivalry” were cause for concerns for smaller countries in the region, who would experience the pressure of choosing “one over the others”. He suggested that “the space for manoeuvrability for littoral states is shrinking fast... in the Indian Ocean Region.” He also said that several countries, including India, the United States, Australia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China were all “significantly” increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean.  


At the end of this month, India will engage in naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal. The drills will involve large-force manoeuvres, advanced air defence operations, anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface operations. Navies from across the US, Japan, Australia, France, Bangladesh, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia are expected to participate in the exercise. In the face of a belligerent China, the naval drills will send an unequivocal message of India’s determination to assert its presence in the region.  


Isabella Baker is a Dalyell scholar at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in Global and International Studies. She is interested in global affairs, national security and human rights with a particular focus on Australia’s relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific.



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