In the past three weeks Beijing has committed to supporting Ugandan forces operating in Somalia and to helping the Seychelles fight piracy.
“It is very clear that the Chinese leaders recognize that military force will play a bigger role to safeguard China’s overseas interests,” Jonathan Holslag, of the Brussels Institute of Chinese Contemporary Studies told AFP.
“There is a willingness, and even a consensus, in China, that this process will take place.”
The Indian Ocean is strategic, Holslag said, noting that 85 percent of China’s oil imports and 60 percent of its exports are routed via the Gulf of Aden.
Beijing does not so far have any military base in the region: its military presence consists of three vessels in the Gulf of Aden to fight Somali pirates.
But the deployment of those ships in 2009, the first of its kind for the Chinese navy, was already highly symbolic.
For the moment, cooperation between China and the islands of the Indian Ocean is still limited to “low profile military-to-military exchanges, but it is getting broader and more structured,” Holslag told AFP.
“The mere fact that China has a multi-year naval presence in the Gulf of Aden has great symbolic and diplomatic significance,” said Frans-Paul van der Putten, senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
“Symbolic because it shows other countries that China is an emerging naval power in the region, and diplomatic because China uses its navy ships for occasional visits to ports along the Indian Ocean rim, which helps it strengthen its diplomatic ties with countries in the region,” he added.
During an unprecedented visit by Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie earlier this month, the Seychelles asked China to set up a military presence on the archipelago to help fight piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Victoria is ruling out a military base but is looking rather at having “reconnaissance planes or patrol ships stationed” there, along the lines of what the US and Europe do, Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Paul Adam said.
“China needs port infrastructure to supply its ships in the Indian Ocean, and covering a wider zone could make sense,” said Mathieu Duchâtel of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
With trade exchanges between China and Africa totalling 126.9 billion dollars last year, the stakes are sizeable.
Beijing’s efforts to keep its trade safe are not confined to the high seas. On the African continent China has set up a raft of cooperation ventures in an attempt to secure its investment zones.
Somalia, which has been at war for the past two decades, is “of crucial importance for China,” Holslag said.
Beijing has promised Uganda 2.3 million dollars towards covering the cost of its troops in the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM).
“Not only is Beijing well aware that the failed state is a sanctuary for pirates that threaten its merchant and fishery fleet in the Indian Ocean; it also considers it to be an important source of instability and terrorism in other African countries where it has large economic interests,” Holslag said.
He noted China “is making eyes at the oil reserves in Ethiopia” and private Chinese firms have started linking up the Ethiopian hinterland to the port of Berbera in the breakaway region of Somaliland.
“China has … almost permanent exchanges with officials from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somaliland on security in the Horn,” he said.
Both Washington and New Delhi, already concerned about China’s activities in the Pacific, take a dim view of its ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
“It appears that, for now, the US and India are not very much alarmed by the relatively modest Chinese military activities in the Indian Ocean region,” van der Putten said.
However “the US seems to welcome a greater Chinese involvement in addressing non-traditional security issues such as piracy, but is at the same time worried that China’s growing international influence undermines US interests.”
“In India there are concerns about a possible build-up of Chinese military power in the Indian Ocean,” he added.
“This could ultimately affect the geopolitical balance between India and China, in particular with regard to the disputed parts of the Sino-Indian border and with regard to the relationship between India and Pakistan, a country with close ties to China.”