Written by: Khan A. Sufyan
June 23, 2011

It was a peaceful and lazy Sunday morning on December 26, 2004 off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. At 07:58 the earth suddenly shook violently and continued to tremble for almost ten minutes. Thus began one of the worst disasters the world had ever witnessed; a 9.2 magnitude earthquake at a depth of 30 kilometers beneath Indian Ocean, 255 kilometers off the coast of Banda Aceh in Sumatra and was followed by a Tsunami with waves as high as 30 meters. The result was over 240,000 people dead in 15 countries as far away as Yemen and South Africa.

The emanation of disaster from one single point signified the centrality of Greater Indian Ocean to its littoral landmass ranging from Africa to the Greater Middle East to South Asia and to South East Asia. The massive humanitarian relief measures led primarily by the disparaging militaries of its littoral states and the US which by its large presence has almost become part of its greater littoral landmass also highlighted the unifying factor projected by the ocean. This also brought about the emergence of Eurasia as an interdependent geographical entity interwoven with its politico-economic and military imbroglios.

During the Cold War era, outside of European geographical zone, denial of Soviet access to warm waters was one of the primary US objectives in Indian Ocean. The Gawader port project at the mouth of Persian Gulf in Pakistan is not a new idea. In the 1960s Pakistan was coerced by the US to shelve the project fearing a Soviet push through Afghanistan to the warm waters. The push however did come in the dying moments of Soviet empire in the late 1970s. This proved to be the nemesis of Soviet empire leading not only to its undoing but also changing the world order.

Demise of Soviet Union also led to the shrinking of Europe’s geo-political significance. The US strategic focus thus increasingly shifted to become Asia-centric due to projected rise of new centers of politico-economic and military powers along the Indian Ocean Rim-land (IOR). Indian Ocean thus emerged as the centre of future power dynamics, conflict and military and trade activity in the 21st century. The theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan are likely to find new meanings when he said that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, and that the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”

Though the US initiated its Asia-centric policy precepts earlier, the military shift was formalized much later. US Navy in its maritime strategy formulated in late 2007, announced that the focus of its activities would now be Pacific and Indian Oceans instead of Pacific and Atlantic Oceans which remained its primary concern for decades. US Marine Corps followed with its vision statement in 2008, indicating Pacific and Indian Oceans as being its primary zones of operation.

A major shift in US military strategy from being pre-dominantly Euro-centric Continental Strategic Format (primary land based operations) to Asia-centric Maritime Strategic Format (primary sea based operations) also emerged. This entailed maintaining US primacy and unhindered access to the Greater Indian Ocean including trade, energy and logistic transit zones and denial of Pacific to any inimical naval force which could threaten the US and its interests.

Roughly 40 percent of all daily seaborne traded oil (or 20 percent of oil traded worldwide) passes through the Strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf. Over 50,000 vessels transit the Strait of Malacca per year to gain access to South China Sea. If the strait were blocked, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to reroute around the Indonesian archipelago through Lombok Strait, located between the islands of Bali and Lombok, or the Sunda Strait, located between Java and Sumatra. Over 3,000 oil tankers pass through the Suez Canal, to and from Bab al Mandab annually.

Transnational threats, including narco-terrorism, gun running, sea piracy, immigration control and assistance during natural disasters, have spawned a multitude of additional “out of area” operational roles for regional navies, and have dramatically increased the maritime security challenges. Countering these threats and challenges requires consistent cooperation between the affected states and the associated maritime agencies.

IOR landmass is a heavily militarized zone but historically its Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) have largely remained free of military intervention. And as majority of IOR states followed the Continental Strategy, naval forces have rarely been a strong element. However, India has been one of the exceptions as it selectively followed the Curzonian maritime strategy of dominance of Indian Ocean to maintain the largest naval force and militarized its outlying islands including Andaman and Nicobar situated at the mouth of strategic Malacca Straits.

The deployment of Indian Navy however, is instructive in many ways. Two thirds of Indian naval forces are deployed along its western coast. The strategic Malacca Strait is covered by a small Tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. The major bias of operations is not towards the Eastern Indian Ocean which controls the entry into South China Sea against India’s declared enemy number one – China. The bias is towards Pakistan, domination of the strategic Straits of Hormuz in Persian Gulf and Bab el Mandab which links Mediterranean with Greater Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal.

With introduction of US and its Allied naval powers in Indian Ocean though, Indian maritime power has largely been neutralized and its aspirations of Indian Ocean dominance severely undermined. With US 7th Fleet stationed in Japan and Chinese and Japanese naval powers operating in the South China Sea, which many analysts treat as an extension of Greater Indian Ocean, India can neither intrusively dominate the Malacca Straits nor can project its naval power into the South China Sea. With presence of US 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the sensitivity of Middle Eastern and European powers towards Bab el Mandab, Indian naval power projection here is also a no-go. If for a reason, India threatens to disrupt the international SLOCs, it will invite the wrath of international community. Therefore, Indian Navy which by 2015 is slated to become the 3rd largest two aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines navy in the world, would mainly remain a coercive force in being, providing anti-piracy support.

US, off-late has extensively engaged India enhancing the economic interaction and initiating a strategic partnership while attempting to garner Indian support for a countervailing and hedging effort against rising China. Apparently however, still immersed in the cold war farce of non-aligned neutrality syndrome, Indians have not reciprocated in the manner US expected it to. Therefore, without assimilating Japan and South Korea, India – US strategic partnership is likely to remain an intellectual strategic discussion forum and nothing beyond.

The Chinese on the other hand have handled the regional affairs rather prudently and in a manner which is in consonance with their interests. Their first intent is quite apparent, that while maintaining a regional stability maintain an appropriate balance of power in the South China Sea. Concurrently they also intend to project southwards into the Indian Ocean in order to bypass the strategic choke points at Malacca, Sunda and Lambok Straits in order to gain direct access to Indian Ocean. At this stage however, there is no indication of an apparent Chinese intent to militarily intrude into the sensitive Pacific pathway leading to mainland US.

In order to maintain appropriate balance of power in the South China Sea, current Chinese strategy is based on sea denial. For this their emphasis has been on induction of offensive weapon systems like the diesel and nuclear powered submarines (about 68 in number) and cutting edge shore to ship weapon engagement platforms. The recent news about development of shore based ballistic missiles to engage large moving targets at sea, 5th generation fighter bomber and future induction of aircraft carriers would have major strategic implications for the Greater Indian Ocean.

China’s extension into the Indian Ocean is a strategic necessity for sustenance of her economic rise. However Chinese mainland does not border the shores of main Indian Ocean and can only transit through other littoral states. Pakistan and Myanmar are the only two states which can provide politically viable trade and energy transit zones. No wonder both these countries were not invited to become members of Indian sponsored, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC).

In future therefore, these two countries by default would become an extension of China into the Indian Ocean and thus acquire strategic importance for China in geo-political and geo-strategic terms. In these emerging environments, an attempted Indian naval blockade of Pakistani ports would be construed as blockade of mainland China. In addition to this, US interests in Afghanistan and beyond are also supported through Pakistani ports. The colluding interests of US, China and Pakistan thus puts a limit on Indian navy’s coercive initiatives.

US is not likely to obstruct Chinese entry into the strategic Indian Ocean zones and would even discourage India to counter such moves, provided the motive of such moves is primarily economic and not aimed at intrusive military presence. By not positioning its naval assets at ports it built in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, China has attempted to reinforce its non-military intent and dispel international concerns. Also, taking a leaf out of US strategy, the Chinese are responding in a quid pro quo by shaping and hedging of their own while continuing to improve and refine its response capabilities.

A peaceful economic rise and development of IOR is a common objective for China as well as the US and other powers having interests in the IOR. It is a win-win situation for all and the best bet to ensure this is by maintenance of stability, at regional and sub-regional levels to limit the chances of a conflict, which may spiral out of control and may result in undermining this peaceful furtherance.

Link: Greater Indian Ocean: A Peaceful Geo-Political Pivot Or A Contentious Source Of Hedging