Title: The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean
Author: Bertil Lintner
In The Costliest Pearl, Bertil Lintner covers a largely ignored and complicated part of the globe — the islands of the Indian Ocean, from the tiny to the largest. In easy, readable prose, he covers the history, domestic politics and foreign policies of these islands while addressing the gradual but significant rise of Chinese influence in the region.
Lintner has a dim view about the consequences of this rise. While the evidence for such a view remains somewhat thin in the book, his pessimism is well grounded, given his decades of experience as a journalist covering Asia. And, there is absolutely no question that China’s somewhat accommodative positions vis-à-vis its East Asian neighbours since the launch of its economic reforms in 1978 were nothing but a holding action that lulled the latter into a false sense of security that the Chinese political system and foreign policies had changed fundamentally from the days of its empire and then of Mao.
China — like other powers that have dominated the international system — seeks hegemony and the Indian Ocean is an increasingly crucial area of operations for it to achieve this end. The book covers Djibouti, Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Myanmar, as well as a host of island territories in Indian, French and Australian possession — the attention to France is particularly noteworthy, given how little attention its interests in the Indian Ocean have received in India until quite recently.
While China’s ingress into the Indian Ocean is focused on the economic, it is also supported by outreach at the people-to-people level, including to ethnic Chinese communities in these islands, no matter how small. It is interesting to note the growing friction in Madagascar, for example, between older Chinese migrants who have lived generations on the island as Malagasy and newer Chinese immigrants who the former criticise for only being interested in earning money and “tarnish[ing] the general image of the Chinese community”. Lintner says these “sentiments are unlikely to change the tide of history” but this also suggests that China’s ability to insert itself into the politics of Indian Ocean nations will be neither smooth nor easy. However, as the history of India’s own ties to polities in the Indian Ocean show, it has not been easy for New Delhi either.
Were it to come down to a question of knowledge of the history, politics, economy, and foreign policies of individual countries of the region as well as the ability to engage them diplomatically, economically and militarily, China’s significant and growing lead over India in the allocation of human and financial resources for these tasks will eventually undercut whatever advantages of geography India possesses. India’s diplomatic corps is seldom afflicted by doubts about its own capacity, but its military attachés in the Indian Ocean region, who are sometimes accredited to even more countries than their civilian compatriots, have watched with alarm both China’s rise and India’s inability to either respond quickly or to keep its promises. For Indian strategists, Lintner’s book will serve as a constant, often painful, reminder of this reality.
Beijing itself has become increasingly confident about projecting both its military presence and interests in the Indian Ocean. While its military base in Djibouti is the most obvious manifestation, there is a longer history of the Chinese offering weapons and training for military personnel to practically every island and coastal nation in the Indian Ocean from the Comoros to the Seychelles to Myanmar.
The book is peppered with interesting trivia — North Koreans in charge of presidential security in Madagascar and the Seychelles, for example — and there are, at least, a few ideas for movies based on the strange turns of history and political skullduggery that Lintner recounts.
One could argue with the author’s view that the Indian Ocean is the most likely site of a “misstep” leading to conflict but his conclusion that a “utopian ‘power-sharing’ agreement” between the US and China (quoting Australian scholar, Hugh White) is unlikely to prevent war as much as a Cold War type “balance of terror” would, is unquestionably correct.
The problem, however, with China’s current rise is also what is referred to as maritime “gray zone” operations — its ability to push the envelope just short of the redlines of adversaries, whether big or small, such that the latter do not find kinetic responses feasible for a variety of reasons. And yet, over time, China’s opponents also find, as in the case of its occupation and militarisation of South China Sea, that the situation has changed drastically against their interests. China’s Belt and Road Initiative investments, political interventions, military diplomacy and active involvement in diaspora associations all count as forms of gray zone operations of a kind in the Indian Ocean.
Jabin T Jacob is associate professor, department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida and adjunct research fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi