Geo-strategic aspects of naval bases in Indian Ocean
THE Indian Ocean is the third-largest ocean and most of it is in the Southern Hemisphere. The Indian Ocean, which lies at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Australia, houses several littoral countries that play critical roles in the region due to their location.
The importance of the Indian Ocean cannot be undermined after the US shift in policy of the Indo-Pacific Region.
The Indian Ocean remains a pivot, being the world’s busiest trade route. Around 80 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade passes through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); the choke points Babel Mandab, Hormuz Straits and Malacca Straits will remain the focal points for world trade.
Any disruption/blockade of these chokepoints will cripple the world economy, especially China, Japan, India, South Korea, etc.
The waters of the IOR have become a home for economic development, disputes, conflicts and competition for regional influence by regional and extra-regional powers.
All major powers such as the United States, Japan, The United Kingdom, India and China have military bases in the IOR.
Naval bases are facilities directly possessed and operated by or for the military to shelter military equipment and personnel and facilitate training and operations.
These established overseas bases enable a nation to project power, thereby influencing events abroad.
They ensure that the maritime interests of these countries are not compromised in any situation and the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) remain open throughout.
Interestingly, Djibouti, a small African country which lies at the narrow channel of Bab ul Mandab is home to the most extensive array of military powers seen anywhere else in the world, from the United States, Japan, France, Italy, Spain, and most recently China and Saudi Arabia.
The United States has the largest naval base at Diego Garcia to ensure supremacy in the IOR.
Diego Garcia’s base was used in bombing Iraq and Afghanistan. The US also has naval bases in Bahrain, Djibouti and drone base in Seychelles.
Due to the presence of US forces in Bahrain, the Gulf countries are confident that US support will be available in case of any aggression by Iran.
However, Iranian Naval Forces are very strong inside the Arabian Gulf. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017.
The Chinese facility in Djibouti is small but the existence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Indian Ocean is empirical evidence that the PLAN does have clear Indian Ocean ambitions.
Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean is forecast to grow from the current 4–5 vessels to around 20 or more surface vessels and submarines in the coming years.
This will require a network of naval logistics facilities, including submarine support facilities, particularly if China is to pursue a serious sea denial or sea control strategy in the Indian Ocean.
China also has a signal intelligence (SIGINT) facility at Myanmar in the Great Coco Island, which is very close to Andaman and Nicobar Island of India, it is a point of concern for the Indians.
India is also keen in opening naval bases in the Indian Ocean. One such base is Agalega Island that India leased from Mauritius in 2015.
They are building a runway for P 81 NEPTUNE Maritime Patrol Aircraft, port for ships and submarines.
Berthing rights with Oman (Muscat) for the Indian Navy and with Madagascar a listening post and a radar facility.
India always considers the Indian Ocean under its supremacy, but the US can allow Indian dominance up to some level.
Essentially, the US wants an Indian role in the containment of China and would like to see the presence of Indian Naval Forces in the South China Sea for which India is not comfortable going against China openly, due to trade and being a neighbour to China.
In 2020, China acquired 640 km of Indian territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that demarches the China-India border and India could not do anything diplomatically or militarily.
France also has strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and has a naval base each in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Djibouti.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Japan also have naval bases at Djibouti. The UAE has a base at Socotra. The bases of Saudi Arabia, Japan and the UAE show the new trends of these countries to project power outside their area.
The naval bases in the Indian Oceans are growing in the past decade and it is no longer a secret that major powers such as the US, India, Japan and France have been making efforts to establish a foothold in the IOR to counter the Chinese Navy.
But China is also expanding its defence forces, establishing naval bases in the Indian Ocean and economic interests are growing with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which will keep these countries in favour of China.
For the next 30 years or so, the US would be the main opponent of China to keep flourishing its defence industry.
—The writer is associated with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs. The views expressed are his own.