China’s bid to expand its footprint into the Indian Ocean through a regional development cooperation forum virtual meeting on November 21 at Kunming is turning out to be intriguing as foreign ministries of key littoral states were bypassed by Beijing while sending invites.
Although Chinese propaganda media has tweeted that the meeting organizer China International Development Cooperation Agency wants to work with India to contribute to the prosperity of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), facts collated from different capitals show that event was attended by officials of client states, Sinophile experts and sundry private individuals.
While the Chinese organizers send the invitation to Maldives through the foreign ministry, the foreign ministries of Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mauritius were kept out of the loop of the entire program. The Maldives government on November 15, 2022, conveyed its decision not to participate in the forum through the Chinese embassy in Male. However, the virtual meeting was attended by Mohammed Waheed, a pro-China former president of Maldives who threw out Indian GMR from an airport operations contract during his tenure.
The virtual meeting was attended by the client state Myanmar and was represented by Minister for International Cooperation U Ko Ko Hliang. The representation from Bangladesh came in the form of Dr K M Azam Chowdhury, Assistant Professor and Head of the Oceanography Department at Dhaka University. There was representation from client state Pakistan at the official level.
While there was no formal representation from Australia, the meeting was attended by former prime minister Kevin Rudd in his capacity as head of a think tank that also has an India chapter. Known to be a Sinophile, it was during his tenure as Australian prime minister that Australia walked out of the Malabar 2008 naval exercises after China demarched India, US, Australia, Japan, and Singapore for Malabar 2007 naval exercises. It was during his tenure that Australia ceased to be a member of QUAD, an idea floated by then Japanese PM Shinzo Abe.
While Chinese media has tried to portray the Kunming meeting as a major intervention in the Indian Ocean Region and as a rebuff to India, the diplomatic evidence collected shows that it was a minor event at which junior minister of the level of Indian additional secretary addressed the gathering through a pre-recorded video. The meeting revealed more about President Xi Jinping’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean through client states in South Asia and IOR already reeling under Chinese debt than its military capacities to challenge the QUAD in the Indo-Pacific.