WASHINGTON: Aligning with India's posture, a top American general today said China's access to Pakistan's Gwadar Port has the potential to increase Beijing's strategic presence in the Indian Ocean.
General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Central Command, said China was pursuing long-term, steady economic growth that bolsters its international influence and access to energy resources.
"Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which includes the China Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), could serve as a stabilising, profit-generating project in the region, but could also improve China's military posture," he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a Congressional hearing.
Votel said the collection of infrastructure projects provides China access to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan which has the potential to increase its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean.
India has been raising the same concern repeatedly.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) focuses on improving connectivity and cooperation among Asian countries, Africa, China and Europe.
India is opposed to the BRI as it includes the CPEC which transverses through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
"China also recently established its first overseas military base adjacent to the Bab al Mandeb (BAM) in Djibouti.
While Beijing claims both locations support peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, the new military base and port allow China to project forces more permanently within the region and influence strategically valuable trade waterways," Votel said.
China, Votel said, also seeks to increase its economic and diplomatic cooperation with Iran.
The lifting of UN sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) opened the path for Iran to resume membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Eurasian political, economic, and security organisation.
This, along with the existing BRI cooperation between the two nations, increases China's ties to Iran, he said.
China considers its relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states critical for its current economic needs, he added.
The Gulf States provide approximately one-third of China's oil, and Qatar is its single largest supplier of natural gas, Votel said.
The general said like Russia, China has sought to arbitrate some conflicts in the region, offering to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
While China will continue to develop its relationships with nations in the Middle East, Beijing will likely maintain its stance of avoiding a major role in ongoing conflicts, he noted.
Votel said an increasingly assertive China is not only testing Russia's dominance in the economic and security arenas of Central Asia but also posing challenges to US influence.
"China seeks to capitalise on regional concerns over what it perceives as waning US influence and support," he said.
Toward this end, Beijing is building and strengthening trade, infrastructure, defense, and political relationships across the Middle East, Central and South Asia, he added.