Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a five-country tour to Eritrea, Kenya, Comoros, Sri Lanka and the Maldives this month. Officially, the Chinese have sought to downplay the visit as a three-decade-old tradition of Chinese FM visiting Africa at New Years. However, the visit has major implications for the region, including India, and Beijing could stand prepare to take action to counter India’s preeminent role in the region.

China is not a member of any of the Indian Ocean regional groupings in the region and may attempt to establish one as part of Xi Jinping’s “Shared Community for Humanity”. This is an attempt to strengthen Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region or IOR.

The Chinese goal is to strengthen its BRI and form a new grouping, which will oppose the India-Japan-led Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) and security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) of India.

The “debt diplomacy” practiced by the Chinese could extend to the small island nations of the IOR, as they are considered important by the Chinese to serve as military outposts/bases to facilitate communication, l space, scientific research, power projection and other activities in IOR.

Regular incursions by Chinese research and research vessels, ostensibly to collect sensitive IOR data, could be used against the interests of these small island nations. China could curry favor with themes such as economy, non-intervention in domestic affairs and equality for all.

The announcement of China’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa is a clear indication of the region’s strategic importance for China to maintain its political and economic influence in the region. China already has a military base in Djibouti with ground and air troops, and rail connectivity with Ethiopia which needs sea access via Djibouti or Eritrea.

To balance Chinese forays into the IOR, India could create synergies with other powers, including joint military exercises and exchanges.

Over the past decade, China has become Africa’s largest trading partner with a trade balance significantly in favor of China. China has curried favor with mostly unstable African nations that use their vast natural resources to fuel its own growth. In December 2021, Wang attended the China-Africa Cooperation Summit in Dakar, Senegal. He also traveled to Ethiopia to express his solidarity in the ongoing civil war.

Kenya being a BRI signatory has a large number of infra projects including a railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa. The Chinese FM has inaugurated an oil terminal in the port of Mombasa. He also pledged more support for Comoros’ goals – universal immunization, malaria elimination and “Plan Comoros Emerging 2030”.

During the IOR’s five-country tour, Wang indirectly targeted India by espousing the creation of a forum for Indian Ocean “island nations” sharing similar experiences, common needs and goals. of development in order to strengthen “mutually beneficial cooperation”. He used terms such as “third party” for “should not be disturbed by a third party and does not target a third party”.

Wang described China’s relationship with Sri Lanka as one that has “injected positive energy into regional places and stability”. The visit also commemorated the 65th anniversary of China-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and the 70th anniversary of the rubber-rice pact. In the Maldives, the visit gave a boost to the opposition party’s “India Out” campaign.