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China: Unmasking the Hegemonic Agenda Behind the 'Regional Cooperation' Façade
  • Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi
    Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi
In a move that has sent shockwaves across the Indo-Pacific region, China recently claimed to have hosted a 19-nation "China-Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Forum" in Kunming, without extending an invitation to India – the pivotal maritime power in the region. This purported forum, organized by China's International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), was touted as an initiative to "strengthen policy coordination" and "deepen development cooperation" among the participating nations. However, this grand proclamation has been met with skepticism, denials, and outright condemnation from several countries that China claimed were present at the event. The Maldives and Australia have categorically refuted any official representation at the Kunming forum, exposing the dubious nature of China's claims and raising legitimate questions about its credibility and intentions. This episode has laid bare China's audacious attempt to position itself as a pivotal player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a domain that has traditionally been viewed as India's sphere of influence. By deliberately excluding India, the region's preeminent maritime power, China's actions can be interpreted as a direct challenge to New Delhi's strategic interests and a brazen bid to undermine its regional primacy.

It is worth noting that the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), founded in 1997, is the legitimate intergovernmental organization dedicated to the sustainable development and cooperation in the IOR. With 23 member states and nine dialogue partners, including China, the IORA provides a well-established platform for collaboration among the region's stakeholders. China's decision to promote a parallel initiative, therefore, appears not only redundant but also raises suspicions about its underlying motives and long-term agenda. Beijing's actions seem to be driven by a larger geopolitical strategy – to expand its influence in the IOR and directly counter India's dominance in the region. This move aligns with China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a transcontinental infrastructure development project that has faced criticism for its lack of transparency, potential to increase the debt burdens of participating nations, and perceived attempts to advance China's strategic interests through economic leverage.

Notably, China's selective inclusion of landlocked nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal in the so-called IOR forum is a puzzling departure from the geographical logic underpinning such regional groupings. This move raises concerns about China's ulterior motives and its desire to cultivate strategic allies in India's backyard, potentially encircling New Delhi and disrupting the delicate regional balance of power.

China's approach in the IOR stands in stark contrast to India's vision of "Security and Growth for All in the Region" (SAGAR), which emphasizes the principles of cooperation, inclusivity, and respect for the sovereignty of all nations. India's initiatives, such as the 'Neighbourhood First' policy, 'Project Mausam,' and the 'Integrated Coastal Surveillance System,' are focused on fostering regional collaboration, addressing shared challenges, and promoting sustainable development. In contrast, China's actions in the IOR seem to be driven by a hegemonic pursuit of power and influence, rather than a genuine commitment to the region's development and stability. The exclusion of India, the de facto regional power, from the Kunming forum underscores China's blatant disregard for the existing regional order and its willingness to undermine established mechanisms of cooperation.

Moreover, China's growing involvement in the IOR raises concerns about potential militarization and the disruption of the delicate balance of power in the region. China's establishment of a military base in Djibouti and its expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean have already sparked apprehensions among regional stakeholders, who fear that Beijing's economic influence could pave the way for future military assertiveness. It is evident that China's "China-Indian Ocean Region Forum" is a thinly veiled attempt to assert its dominance in the region, challenge India's long-standing maritime influence, and potentially pave the way for future military expansion. By pursuing parallel initiatives and challenging established frameworks of cooperation, China risks exacerbating tensions, undermining regional stability, and eroding the trust of its neighbors.

The international community must remain vigilant and prioritize inclusive and transparent mechanisms that uphold the principles of sovereignty, mutual respect, and shared prosperity for all nations in the Indian Ocean Region. Regional powers, such as India, must continue to champion cooperative frameworks like the IORA, which foster genuine collaboration and sustainable development, rather than succumbing to China's divisive and self-serving initiatives. In the long run, China's hegemonic ambitions in the IOR are likely to face resistance from a broad coalition of nations committed to maintaining a rules-based international order and preserving the delicate balance of power in the region. Only through multilateral cooperation, respect for international norms, and a genuine commitment to regional development can lasting peace and prosperity be achieved in the strategic Indo-Pacific region.