A“free and “Open Indo-Pacific”, meant to include both the Indian and Pacific oceans, is the hottest geopolitical slogan. However, when strategists talk about the Indo-Pacific, they usually mean just the Pacific Ocean, and then the westernmost regions around the South and East China Seas. It is there that the struggle for dominance between the US, which has dominated since World War II, and a resurgent China, is at its fiercest. However, the Indian Ocean, which was relatively neglected until recently, now has an opportunity.
The economic dynamism of its fringes and the importance of the ocean as a center for commodity and energy trade have long been recognized. Now its strategic significance is catching up. In this ocean, no single force can dominate, and probably never will. Yet China is encroaching on its waters, where other navies vie for influence. A new maritime era shaped by great power competition has begun. Smaller Indian Ocean nations wonder whether they will be victims or beneficiaries.
The Indian Ocean stretches from the southern tip of Africa to the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia; from the Persian Gulf to southwestern Australia: over 80 degrees latitude and 100 degrees longitude (see map). It includes three continents and island nations, accounting for 12% of the world gross domestic product. On its fringes live more than 2.6 billion people in a country of dizzying topography, culture and economy. There are islands in its waters, such as the Maldives at the crossroads of strategic shipping routes. Although small, they have exclusive rights to the vast ocean.
Signs of increased competition are everywhere. The navies of the United States, Australia, Britain, France, India, Japan and Singapore have all patrolled the Indian Ocean this year. In March, the Chinese, Iranian and Russian navies conducted joint drills there. The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have recently released more details of plans to deploy next-generation nuclear-powered submarines in Western Australia. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited India last month, pledging to invest $75 billion in the Indo-Pacific region. Also in India, there is wild speculation that China has installed radars in Sri Lanka and Chinese listening posts in Myanmar’s Cocoa Islands.
The transportation of oil and gas from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean is critical to the dynamic economies of East and Southeast Asia. Most of these shipments pass through at least one of three geographic bottlenecks. The first is the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow outlet of the Persian Gulf through which two-fifths of the world’s oil trade passes. The other is the Mandeb Strait, which lies between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, with Eritrea and Djibouti on one side and Yemen on the other. It is the gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. A third area of serious concern is the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping lane between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. It is just 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point in Singapore and accounts for one-fifth of the world’s seaborne trade.
Any malicious force able to choke off choke points and other vital inlets to the Indian Ocean would do enormous damage. Bab-al-Mandab and the Strait of Hormuz appear particularly vulnerable. The Horn of Africa is notorious for pirates and Islamic militants. As for the Strait of Hormuz, hostile Iran has seized or attacked merchant ships and threatened to close the strait in recent years. The Iranian Navy is converting two merchant ships into carriers for kamikaze drones.
The Strait of Malacca is better defended than the other two chokepoints, but still has the highest incidence of piracy in the world. In the event of a regional conflict, control of the strait will become very important. Four-fifths of China’s oil passes through the strait, and for years China has pondered how easy it would be for hostile powers such as the United States to close the strait.
In this context, it is important that nations with naval capabilities ensure that chokepoints remain open, not only to protect their own interests, but also for the benefit of the world. These countries are today’s Indian Ocean powers. Their expanding naval presence has also had diffuse consequences. Reconnaissance missions around chokepoints and other vulnerable locations increase awareness of what’s going on above and below the water — including potential adversary submarines. As a result, strategic competition among naval states may intensify even as they cooperate to maintain open sea lanes, a common naval goal. This is happening now.
Some of the ocean’s former colonial powers still have influence. The tropical island of Réunion, an overseas department of France, also has remote islands in the Mozambique Channel. They made France an Indian Ocean power, interests that need to be defended. Britain routinely conducts most of its Indian Ocean deployments, including a new aircraft carrier. Its ships joined French ships on patrols and maneuvers.
The U.S. Navy, which has neglected the Indian Ocean for years, has increased its “freedom of navigation exercises” there. It is also conducting more exercises in the ocean with other members of the “quartet” of security groups including Australia, India and Japan, aimed at countering Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Navy intends to revive its First Fleet, which was disbanded half a century ago, and base it in the Indian Ocean.
Although India sees its main threats, Pakistan and China, as primarily land-based threats, it has the strongest naval power in the northern Indian Ocean. It has stepped up naval cooperation with the United States amid concerns over China’s growing influence in the region. It is also working to fill many of the gaps in its naval capabilities.
Australia has been an Indian Ocean power at least since it opened a submarine base in Fremantle during World War II.its existence is about to Oaks, A defense technology agreement between the US, Australia and the UK will deploy nuclear-powered submarines near the same port city. Okus Designed to counter China’s military expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Although Singapore is a small city-state, it also has a strong naval power. In tiny Djibouti, eight external powers host naval bases, including the United States, France, Japan and, since 2017, China.
China is a newcomer to the Indian Ocean region, and Djibouti is its first overseas military base. China’s naval power is developing rapidly. Gordon Flake of the Perth US-Asia Centre, a think-tank, said Australia was shocked in 2014 when a self-sufficient Chinese navy showed up in the southern Indian Ocean to help in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The Chinese navy has since become the largest in the world by the number of ships. In Beijing, a debate is underway over the creation of an Indian Ocean fleet.
New China and India
China needs more support and supply bases. Djibouti aside, however, acquiring them has been slow. There have been persistent rumors that the Chinese navy is establishing bases in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Pakistan’s Gwadar port, but nothing has been confirmed. China’s plans to build a commercial port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, have also fueled speculation of a naval base there. Kate O’Shaughnessy, a former Australian high commissioner to Mauritius, said, “China is doing long-term construction in really remote places to build its core infrastructure and access to the Indian Ocean.”
Small states in the Indian Ocean are both content and wary of the renewed interest of the great powers. They are more susceptible than anyone to instability caused by rogue states or non-state actors such as pirates, Islamists, and drug smugglers, and therefore welcome naval patrols. Increased strategic competition also works in countries’ favor as countries lure them with development projects such as infrastructure projects.
But, as Darshana Baruah of the Washington think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, small states fear being bought off by larger ones to project power — as happened during the Cold War. Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid said strategic competition between the US-led bloc and China would be disastrous if the interests of smaller countries were not taken into account. “That would seriously undermine our security and our prospects.”
It is conceivable that competition between the West and China could damage the smaller state’s relationship with both camps, especially if the greater power ignores the smaller state’s different security priorities. They care more about climate change than military competition; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; plastic pollution; and oil spills that threaten tourism. Mr Shahid concluded that small states must maintain their independence of action. That would mean doing business with China even if the US and its allies disapprove.
By recognizing the priorities of smaller nations, Western powers — and India — can help counter China’s advances. On climate, rich countries have pledged cash and other help to adapt. But most small states haven’t seen it yet. Helping them protect the fishery would be another easy win. A relatively small step for a big country can be a big victory for a small country.
Increasing competition in the Indian Ocean does not preclude areas of cooperation. For example, the U.S. and Chinese navies cooperate to patrol the sea lines of communication in the Horn of Africa. Nonetheless, regional security dynamics are becoming increasingly complex, multilayered, and prone to miscalculations. This is the new reality emerging in the Indian Ocean. ■