China’s push to expand its footprint into the Indian Ocean through a virtual meeting of the Forum for Regional Development Cooperation on November 21 in Kunming is proving interesting as Beijing bypassed the Foreign Ministry’s invitations to key littoral states. Although the Chinese propaganda media tweeted that the organizer of the meeting, the China International Development Cooperation Agency, wants to cooperate with India and contribute to the prosperity of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), facts gathered from various capitals show that the event was attended by representatives of client states, Sinophile experts and various private persons.
While the Chinese organizers are sending an invitation to the Maldives through the foreign ministry, the foreign ministries of Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mauritius have been kept out of the loop of the entire programme. On 15 November 2022, the Maldivian government announced its decision not to participate in the forum through the Chinese Embassy in Male. However, the virtual meeting was attended by Mohammed Waheed, the pro-China former president of the Maldives, who during his tenure kicked India’s GMR out of the contract to operate the airport. The virtual meeting was attended by the client state of 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 Department of Oceanography, University of Dhaka. At the official level, the representation of the client state was Pakistan.
Although there was no formal representation from Australia, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended the meeting in his capacity as head of the think tank, which also has an Indian branch. Known as a Sinophile, it was during his tenure as Australian Prime Minister that Australia pulled out of the Malabar 2008 naval exercise after China out-marched India, the US, Australia, Japan and Singapore for the Malabar 2007 naval exercise. It was during his tenure that Australia ceased to be a member of QUAD, the idea was raised by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
While the Chinese media tried to portray the Kunming meeting as a major intervention in the Indian Ocean region and a rejection of India, the accumulated diplomatic evidence shows that it was a minor event where a junior minister at the level of Indian Additional Secretary addressed the gathering. The meeting revealed more about President Xi Jinping’s Indian Ocean ambitions through client states in South Asia and the IOR, already reeling under Chinese debt, than about his military capabilities to confront QUAD in the Indo-Pacific.