Chinese warships recently entered the Indian Ocean, with some heading for the Maldives Islands, where a constitutional crisis has been playing out. China wants to keep India away from the islands, which New Delhi sees as within in its own sphere of influence. China has built port facilities in the Maldives as part of its "string of pearls" scheme -- road and sea infrastructure projects that encircle India. Sino-Indian tensions intensified after the Maldives president signed up to China's Belt and Road Initiative. Even in the BRI's infancy, we are watching in real time how BRI is promoting as much confrontation as commerce.
The conflicting trends of confrontation and commerce are closely connected. Both have evolved from China's rising economic heft. China's growth has been quite uneven, so the BRI was designed partly to address domestic regional imbalances. Yet, the country's reliance on imported energy and commodities dictates a strategy to shorten and secure supply lines on land and sea. Building power and transportation infrastructure outside China is a way of alleviating excess capacity at home, rebooting Chinese manufacturing, bolstering state-owned enterprises, and establishing China's own technologies and product standards. From an economic point of view, the BRI is very much a Sinocentric strategy from which small countries might benefit, while provoking resentment among larger ones.