Power Play in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)
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.
(Top) China Type 039A Yuan-class submarine; (Below) 052D ‘Luyang III’ Class Guided Missile Destroyers of PLA Navy
US-Indian Ocean Naval base Diego Garcia (Google image)
Indian Navy’s latest and only aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya