‘Blue book’ laments Beijing has trailed behind New Delhi and Washington in securing its interests

China has, for the first time, attempted to spell out its strategy — and plans — to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean in its first “blue book” on the region, released here on Saturday.

The blue book makes a case for China to deepen its economic engagements with the Indian Ocean Region’s (IOR) littoral states, but stresses that Beijing’s interests will be driven by commercial — rather than military — objectives.

However, it warns that the Indian Ocean could end up “as an ocean of conflict and trouble” if countries like India, the U.S. and China failed to engage with each other more constructively as their interests begin to overlap.

In a frank assessment of China’s role in the IOR so far, the book laments that Beijing has trailed behind New Delhi and Washington in securing its interests. The 350-page book’s introduction says candidly that China “has no Indian Ocean strategy,” while India has put forward its own “Look East” policy and the U.S. has put in place its “pivot” or “rebalancing” in Asia.

China’s impact

The book calls for China to be more proactive in securing its economic interests in the region. “If [China] cannot have a positive impact on these regional powers and the Indian Ocean littoral states, the future situation will be even more severe, and will affect China’s development and peace negatively,” the book says.

“China’s diplomatic strategy in the past has been based on the traditional concept of moderation, and striven to maintain the status quo,” it argues. “With changes in the relations among countries in the Indian Ocean Region and in the international situation, China’s diplomacy should also change. A clear development strategy in the Indian Ocean Region for China is not only a sign of China’s self-confidence, and also a clear demonstration of China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region.”

Official Chinese think tanks release “blue books,” which are policy documents that put forward recommendations to the government, on a range of subjects every year. The authors of the book, published by the official Social Sciences Academic Press, say it does not represent the government’s official position. They describe it as an attempt by scholars here to bring more attention to a region which, they believe, has not received adequate focus from policymakers.

“Frank dialogue”

Ambassador Wu Jianmin, a consultant to the project who earlier served as China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, indicated that the book was part of a larger attempt to initiate a much-needed “frank dialogue.”

“We are going through a very important phase in international relations, and the change that we are seeing is unprecedented,” he told The Hindu. “Change generates apprehension, suspicion, even fear. This is a reality that is facing us.”

“To those who say that India ‘looking east’ and China ‘looking west’ will have to lead to rivalry, we have a different perspective,” he said. “We look at the convergence that there is [in this process]. If we only focus on differences, the end result is more suspicions, rivalry and competition. But in India too, you need peace and development. This is the same for China, and for the region.”

“To my understanding,” he added, “the region is facing an unprecedented opportunity for development. My advice is if in India you have doubts about China, we must have a frank conversation, and talk to each other.”

Ambassador Wu and Wang Rong, general secretary of the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (YUFE) which backed the project, made the point at Saturday’s launch that China’s foreign policy has remained too focused on the West, and needed a shift in perspective.

The book was launched only two days after China opened its first South Asia Exposition, a trade push led by Yunnan and backed by the central government.

The book includes chapters on India’s “Look East” policy, the expansion of India’s interest eastward in an interlinked “Indo-Pacific.” and lessons for China on “the decline of U.S. and U.K. hegemony” in the region.

It predicts that “no single regional power or world power, including the U.S., Russia, China, Australia, India, can control the Indian Ocean by itself in the future world,” leaving “a fragile balance of power” that will be reached after jostling among “big powers.”

While arguing that the region’s security “does not face a serious threat yet,” it warns that “with the escalating defence efforts of world and regional powers, the future of the Indian Ocean region may turn from cooperation and peace into an ‘ocean of conflict and trouble’.”

The book stresses that “the rise of China is not a threat” to the region, though it acknowledges that “Indian Ocean countries, including India, are worried about the rise of China.” It attributes this trend to “the ‘China threat theory’ proposed by Western countries and the illusory ‘string of pearls strategy’,” rather than seek to explain what many of China’s neighbours, from Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam, see as a new assertiveness from Beijing.

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