‘The Costliest Pearl – China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean’ review: Countering China in the Indian Ocean

Xi Jinping has stolen a march over India and the U.S., the U.K. and France, with investments and maritime strength in the region

October 05, 2019 05:16 pm | Updated 05:16 pm IST

For years, various Indian strategic thinkers have been trying to make the country think of the nation “upside down”. The case they make is that if globes and maps were made with the Indian Ocean to the North of India and the Himalayas to its South, Indian strategic orientation and its threat perceptions would give our maritime neighbourhood as much, if not more, importance over India’s land boundaries.

In The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean , author and chronicler of the South and South East Asia Bertil Lintner puts together all the possible points of conflict in the Indian Ocean from Africa to the South China Sea. The case Lintner makes is that China is purposefully making itself an “Indian Ocean power”, and stealing a march over India, as well as over other Indian Ocean powers like the U.S., the U.K. and France with investments and maritime strength in Djibouti, Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Myanmar and Christmas Island near Indonesia. In most cases, Lintner finds the response to Beijing’s maritime ambitions in every country mentioned woefully inadequate.

His criticism of India’s response is sharp, but also based on research on the ground: finding, for example, that India’s pivot to connectivity through Myanmar, that began in 2007, is full of lofty slogans like “Look east” and “Act east”, but faces a bleak future unless pot-holed highways in Manipur are improved, ethnic problems in the Northeast dealt with, and a greater push made to build infrastructure inside Myanmar. In Mauritius, which India has always considered a blood relative, Lintner delves deep into the history of the island’s engagement and eventual exploitation by the west: the Portuguese arrived in 1507, followed by the Dutch in 1620, the French in 1715 (it was renamed Isle de France), and then the British, who shortly before Mauritius won independence in 1968, hived off the Chagos archipelago and presented it to the United States which has a major base there for naval operations as well as air strikes, called Diego Garcia. Today, Mauritius is a vital point in the Belt and Road Initiative, and China is building a major “smart city” on the outskirts of Port Louis. China is also now the biggest exporter of goods to Mauritius. Lintner, who has been a journalist in the region for decades, makes the point that influence doesn’t just flow from money and military.

In an interview to The Hindu about China’s “charm offensive” in 2017, Lintner described the acrobats and university scholarships that Beijing was sending to Bhutan. “It’s only a matter of time before they put a Panda on a plane and send it to Thimphu,” he said, only half-joking.

Casablanca in Djibouti

Lintner travels to Djibouti to catalogue China’s foray into “The New Casablanca”, as it has leased military bases to the U.S., Italy and France, which also host troops from Germany and Spain, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE considering operations there as well. China’s Djibouti base promises to be the largest, with more than 70 PLA-N ships and a plan to host up to 100,000 troops there. All these crisscrossing interests make the Indian Ocean region (IOR), the ‘costliest pearl’ for Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he adapts the Trumpian ideal to “Make China Great Again”, harking back 600 years to the armadas led by Chinese admiral Zheng He. The book also contains a detailed chapter about the Andaman Islands, and how India may be preparing to leverage its geographical strength in that region.

This is “India’s ocean” to lose, Lintner appears to be repeating through the book, as he advocates a keener eye on actual developments in the maritime neighbourhood rather than empty rhetoric against Beijing or advocating any alliance against Beijing in which India is a junior partner. India’s choices, as it deals with China on three fronts — their 3,000 km land boundary, the U.S.-propelled Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China in eastern waters, and China’s challenge to India’s ocean — must be informed by India’s unique interests here.

The Costliest Pearl – China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean ; Bertil Lintner, Context/Westland Books, ₹699.

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