Indian Ocean: New battlefield

Dost M Barrech
OCEANS, throughout mankind’s history, have played a crucial role which also includes numerous advantages in the areas of trade, commerce, exploration and adventure. They have paved the way for connectivity of distant people across the world. It is estimated that around 66 percent of the total world’s population inhabits within 100 km of coastline. Most considerably, around 90 percent world trade takes place through oceans. In the arena of International Relations, World War I and World War II were Pacific and Atlantic oceans oriented. In the contemporary world, Europe’s map does not determine 21st century, as the century belongs to Asia, due to emergence of Asian economies of the world.
Under current juncture, the significance of the India Ocean will increase by leaps and bounds on account of its geo-strategic location and its choke points .The Indian Ocean was among the first human passage in the history, the discovery of it by Vasco da Gama for European triggered European colonialism in Asia. Currently, Asia consists of world’s 60 percent population. Being a populous continent of the world, it has economic giants like China, Japan, and India and will see more robust economic states in near future.
China, Japan, and India are in quest of raw material and natural resources. Their connectivity to the world for trade and fuel is feasible through the Indian Ocean, which is also blessed with offshore oil production, world’s 40 percent offshore production comes from there. The Middle East and the Central Asian States combined oil reserves are gauged to be around 72.5 percent of the total world’s proven reserves. As a result, the dependence of the Middle East and Central Asian states on the Indian Ocean further expands its importance. As far as global fuel export is concerned it is pivotal to the economic engine of the world, 70 percent world’s oil export passes through the Indian Ocean annually.
China is interested in expanding vertically, southward in order to reach the Indian Ocean. Initiation of Chinese One Belt and One Road (OBOR) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) attributes to avoid Strait of Malacca dilemma. China approximately imports 80 % of its fuel through Strait of Malacca, a region dominated by USA and its allies. History unveils that China has had fear of Malacca; it was an old fear for Ming China’s world that was disintegrated in 1511, when Malacca was conquered by Portuguese.
Meanwhile, India seeks to expand horizontally in the Indian Ocean for the purpose of consolidating Modi’s “Act East” policy. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has announced the Indo-Pacific strategy. The purpose of Act East policy is to reinforce the Indian economic ties with Japan and Southeast Asian countries. India is also concerned about the South China Sea, a sole water passage for the economic connectivity of India with Japan. Whoever dominates the South China Sea will dominate Asia-Pacific. Hence, India’s preoccupation with the South China Sea cannot be ruled out.
On the other hand, the Indian Ocean has a great deal of significance for the US. Consolidated foothold of America in the Indian Ocean has many goals. Firstly, American support to India is to contain China. The signing of bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between India and US is a manifestation of countering China. The LEMOA is a military -to -military cooperation, providing American military access to the Indian bases. Secondly, for the presence of the USA in Middle East, Indian Ocean is a prerequisite to supply arms to NATO. Lastly, Strait of Hormuz is pivotal not only for the US but also for Iran. Someone has accurately said, “If the world were an egg, Hormuz was its yolk”. Thus, 40 percent of seaborne oil passes via Strait of Hormuz. The USA presence in the Indian Ocean is reckoned to be countering Iran as well.
The Indian Ocean, by all means, is a global ocean but the irony with the ocean is that, it is surrounded by nuclear states. Divergence in the interest of global and regional powers will further nuclearize the ocean. China so far steals a march on India in deterrence capabilities. China being a staunch pursuer of the win-win situation has cordial ties with the Indian neighboring countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Construction ports in aforementioned countries by China attributes to win- win situation. The Indian Ocean, being most nuclearized oceans of the world, China will certainly bolster its maritime security to counter foreseen and unforeseen threats.
China has surpassed India in realm of maritime capabilities. By 2020, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will have 73 attack submarines. In contrast, in same period Indian navy will have 17 attack submarines. The Chinese navy by 2020 will build sophisticated mix of 30 guided- missile destroyer. Unlike China, India would lag far behind. Intriguingly, the PRC will have approximately 92 frigates and corvettes, while India will have mere 32 frigates and corvettes.
Pakistan being 4th largest littoral state of the India Ocean is thoroughly cognizant of new developments of adversaries in the ocean. Pakistan has remarkable capability of Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), providing second- strike capability. Pakistan, in this regard, has developed Badur-3 a short-range Submarine Launched Cruise Missile; having a range of 450 km. Ironically, Pakistan does not match Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) capability of India by virtue of its feeble economy.
In short, the Indian Ocean will decide that who will dominate the 21st century. The advancements in maritime security of regional and global powers in the region demonstrate next likely battlefield would be the Indian Ocean. Robert Kaplan articulates magnificently about the future of the Indian Ocean, saying that the Indian Ocean would truly be the nexus of world powers and their quest for hegemony. The battle for democracy, energy independence would be determined here.
— The writer is working at Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad.
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