Power Play in the In­dian Ocean Re­gion (IOR)

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By Gen Deepak Kapoor (Retd)

FOR CEN­TURIES, there has been a be­lief that the In­dian Ocean Re­gion ( IOR) is the back­yard of In­dia. Two facts have fur­ther firmed up this im­pres­sion. Firstly, the ge­o­graph­i­cal re­al­ity of the In­dian penin­sula jut­ting out into the In­dian Ocean dom­i­nat­ingly re­in­forces this per­cep­tion. Sec­ondly, the name given to the ocean it­self cre­ates a strong link­age be­tween In­dia and the In­dian Ocean.

How­ever, thanks to the on­go­ing power play, the IOR can no longer be con­sid­ered an In­dian pre­serve. In fact, ev­ery ma­jor power of the globe has made ef­forts to es­tab­lish its pres­ence in the In­dian Ocean at some point of time or the other in the past, the cur­rent con­tes­tants be­ing the USA and China. Of course, In­dia would al­ways re­main an in­ter­ested stake holder in what­ever tran­spires in the IOR. The moot ques­tion that needs to be an­swered is what makes IOR so im­por­tant.

The IOR has most of the densely pop­u­lated coun­ties of the globe on its pe­riph­ery like In­dia, In­done­sia, Pak­istan, Bangladesh, Malaysia etc, thereby mak­ing it the most pop­u­lous re­gion. 70 per cent of the ship­ping trade of the world passes through the IOR. It is at the con­flu­ence of Asia Africa and Aus­tralian con­ti­nents, thus be­com­ing a hub of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity. The IOR boasts of a seabed very rich in all types of min­er­als, es­pe­cially the man­ganese nod­ules.

The IOR also has a num­ber of dubious dis­tinc­tions which need to be men­tioned to get a proper per­spec­tive of its im­por­tance. In China, In­dia, Pak­istan and North Korea, it has the max­i­mum

num­ber of nu­clear/nu­clear ca­pa­ble states in the re­gion. It is per­pet­u­ally threat­ened with the largest num­ber of po­ten­tial con­flicts in ar­eas bor­der­ing the IOR. The Mid­dle East, Afghanistan, In­doPak­istan dis­pute, Sino-In­dian bound­ary dis­pute and East China Sea (ECS) imbroglio are in a state of tur­bu­lence and can all lead to a global war if not han­dled care­fully.

The Golden Tri­an­gle of drug traf­fick­ing (Afghanistan, In­dia-Pak­istan, Thai­land) is pros­per­ing in the IOR. The re­gion is se­ri­ously af­flicted with ter­ror­ism and the num­ber of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and ter­ror re­lated ca­su­al­ties that have oc­curred over the last decade would far sur­pass ter­ror­ist deaths in the rest of the world put to­gether. Sea piracy in the Ara­bian Sea con­tin­ues to re­main an ever present dan­ger for in­ter­na­tional ship­ping.

Let us now have a look at the main ac­tors in­volved in the power play which is on­go­ing in the IOR.


One sin­gle event of the last decade which has caused re­ver­ber­a­tions not only in the IOR but the en­tire globe is China’s rise. China claims it is ris­ing peace­fully. How­ever, there is a ba­sic prob­lem with this prog­nos­ti­ca­tion. We need to re­mem­ber that the strate­gic space on the globe is fi­nite and lim­ited. Thus, the mo­ment one coun­try de­cides to ex­pand its strate­gic space; it can do so only by push­ing out oth­ers. In such a sit­u­a­tion, fric­tion and con­flict are in­her­ent. China al­ready has an on­go­ing dis­pute with its smaller neigh­bors in South China Sea (SCS). Like­wise, it is con­test­ing Ja­pan’s sovereignty over Senkaku is­lands in East China Sea (ECS). In mov­ing to­wards dom­i­na­tion of the IOR, China is pro­tect­ing its en­ergy sup­ply line since most of its oil is im­ported from the gulf re­gion and trans­ported by ships through the IOR and SCS. Sec­ondly, China needs raw ma­te­ri­als for its man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and mar­kets for ex­port­ing the cheap fin­ished goods, once its abil­ity to ab­sorb those goods do­mes­ti­cally gets sat­u­rated. All th­ese mar­kets lie in the un­der­de­vel­oped coun­tries of Africa and Asia. Thus, in the long run, for its own con­tin­ued pros­per­ity, it is im­por­tant for china to dom­i­nate the Afro-Asian re­gion. Thirdly, by show­ing a strong pres­ence in the IOR, China poses a po­ten­tial threat to In­dia from the sea, be­sides the al­ready ex­ist­ing land based threat. The devel­op­ment of ‘string of pearls’ around In­dia fits well with this con­cept.

No won­der then that the Chi­nese are push­ing the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), which would en­able them to dom­i­nate the land as well as the sea route to­wards the Mid­dle East, Africa and Europe. IOR is a key com­po­nent of this over­all strat­egy.

The devel­op­ment of Gwadar port in Pak­istan in ad­di­tion to com­menc­ing work on China Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor ( CPEC), Ham­ban­tota in Sri Lanka and Kyauk­phyu in Myan­mar are part of a strat­egy of cre­at­ing se­cure bases for the PLA Navy to op­er­ate from and dom­i­nate the IOR. Ad­di­tion­ally, a mil­i­tary base is be­ing con­structed at Dji­bouti. Ef­forts are also be­ing made to woo Bangladesh and Mal­dives by of­fer­ing eco­nomic sops in ex­change for pro­vid­ing bases for the PLA Navy. Thus, China is as­sid­u­ously work­ing to­wards im­prov­ing its stran­gle­hold over the IOR.


The US has strong mil­i­tary bases in Diego Gar­cia and Dji­bouti in the IOR. As the lead­ing su­per power of the world, the US is con­cerned at the rapid rise of China and the con­se­quent chal­lenge to its lead­er­ship. China’s ag­gres­sive pos­tur­ing in SCS and ECS is grad­u­ally re­veal­ing its ex­pan­sion­ist ten­den­cies. The smaller na­tions of the re­gion, some of which are US al­lies like South Korea and Ja­pan, are feel­ing threat­ened and are look­ing to the US for sup­port should a con­fronta­tion de­velop. Dur­ing the Obama pres­i­dency, the US shifted its pivot from Europe to Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, thereby in­di­cat­ing a strate­gic shift to­wards con­tain­ment of an ex­pan­sion­ist China. It also led the Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), an al­liance of na­tions to check Chi­nese de­signs.

How­ever, post the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, there has been a ma­jor shift in the US stance. It has with­drawn from the TPP, thus leav­ing it rud­der­less. Con­sid­er­ing Trump’s pro­nounce­ments from time to time, both of­fi­cially as well as on twit­ter, there is a to­tal un­cer­tainty about which di­rec­tion the US is likely to take in the fore­see­able fu­ture. His pol­icy of ‘Amer­ica first’ and ‘Amer­ica for Amer­i­cans’ seems to in­di­cate a shift to­wards ab­di­ca­tion of US lead­er­ship role in global af­fairs. With­drawal from Paris cli­mate deal and dif­fer­ences with NATO’s Euro­pean part­ners fur­ther con­firm this line of think­ing. How­ever, con­sid­er­ing that the en­tire world has gone too far ahead to­wards glob­al­i­sa­tion and in­ter­de­pen­dence, a sin­gle coun­try, even if it is the US, would find it detri­men­tal to its na­tional in­ter­ests to with­draw from it. Cou­pled with talk of Trump’s pos­si­ble im­peach­ment do­ing the rounds in cor­ri­dors of power in Washington, the di­rec­tion of US for­eign pol­icy is at best un­pre­dictable.

Any US with­drawal will in­deed cre­ate a strate­gic global vac­uum which China will be too will­ing and happy to fill. Mr Xi Jin­ping has hinted as much in his ut­ter­ances. How­ever, by tak­ing a strong stance against North Korea, the US is in­di­cat­ing its re­solve to con­tinue sup­port­ing its al­lies in the re­gion. But in sum, there is am­bi­gu­ity and con­tra­dic­tion in US ac­tions.


The very lo­ca­tion of In­dia makes it a ma­jor stake holder. In fact the en­try of oth­ers like the US, China and Rus­sia has re­sulted in re­duced strate­gic space for In­dia in the IOR. In­dian na­tional se­cu­rity is clearly linked to the power play in the IOR and would af­fect our na­tional in­ter­ests in the long run.

The 200 Km ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone be­yond In­dian coast­line and all around An­daman Ni­co­bar is­lands pro­vide In­dia with le­git­i­mate rights to ex­ploit the seabed wealth to tremen­dous ad­van­tage. The IOR is rich in min­eral re­sources which are yet to be fully ex­ploited. Ad­di­tion­ally, dis­cov­ery of off shore oil in the IOR has re­duced In­dia’s de­pen­dence on ex­pen­sive oil im­ports.

In­dia dom­i­nates global com­mer­cial sea lanes pass­ing through the IOR. Its lo­ca­tion pro­vides it easy ac­cess to raw ma­te­ri­als and con­sumer goods mar­kets of Africa and Asia, an av­enue which China is keen to ex­ploit as part of its BRI.

Th­ese at­trac­tions make the IOR a po­ten­tial zone of con­flict. No won­der then that In­dia is be­ing wooed by Ja­pan and Aus­tralia be­sides the US for a strate­gic mar­itime part­ner­ship to counter Chi­nese de­signs. In­dia’s pos­i­tive re­sponse has re­sulted in shift­ing re­align­ments and strate­gies, a sit­u­a­tion which has yet to fully sta­bilise.


The power play in the IOR is likely to in­ten­sify with the pas­sage of time. Cur­rently, the sit­u­a­tion is fluid with dif­fer­ent stake hold­ers mak­ing their moves clan­des­tinely or openly, thus re­sult­ing in var­i­ous op­tions com­ing in to play. Un­cer­tainty of US poli­cies and en­try of new play­ers like Rus­sia may lead to fur­ther in­sta­bil­ity in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Not­with­stand­ing the above, In­dian stakes in the IOR would al­ways re­main high and need to be pro­tected. The strate­gic im­por­tance of the IOR un­der­lines the need for In­dia de­vel­op­ing a strong navy to safe­guard its in­ter­ests. So far we are nowhere near that goal. In fact we are too late al­ready. Al­lo­ca­tion of ad­e­quate bud­getary sup­port is an es­sen­tial first step. Aside from that, we should has­ten to de­velop tech­nolo­gies and indige­nous man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to pro­duce a state–of-the- art blue wa­ter navy.

US-In­dian Ocean Naval base Diego Gar­cia (Google im­age)

(Top) China Type 039A Yuan-class sub­ma­rine; (Be­low) 052D ‘Luyang III’ Class Guided Mis­sile De­stroy­ers of PLA Navy

In­dian Navy’s lat­est and only air­craft car­rier INS Vikra­ma­ditya

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