Indian Ocean: Strategic competition


Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
THE Indian Ocean’s geographical location and resources have not only made it attractive for the economic activities and strategic pursuits, but also exposed it to the Great Powers precarious strategic competition in the twenty-first century. The trends in the global politics indicate that the Indian Ocean region would witness a new format of strategic competition between/among Great Powers in the near future. The strategic competition will facilitate and increase the extra-regional actors role in the Indian Ocean affairs and also transform the security dynamics of the Ocean.
The danger of a Great Power confrontation is underlined by the continuing American naval presence in the region; Chinese dependency on the sea-lines of Indian Ocean; and India’s naval expansion program. Though the Iran Nuclear Deal reduced the nuclear dimension of the conflict in the Persian Gulf, yet the Gulf contains the high risk of a serious military conflict due to regional competition for influence between/among Iran and Qatar versus Saudi Arab and United Arab Emirates, the risk of asymmetric war in the Gulf, conventional arms race, and Iran’s buildup of ballistic missile force. The nuclear deal with Iran has left the west torn between the old allegiance to Riyadh and the allure of detente with Tehran. Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the misadventure of Trump Administration in the region.
The Americans are upset due to the gradual expansion of China’s Naval capability. It seems determined to impede China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington announced ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia strategy to contain China in 2011-2012. Since than, it has been actively monitoring and responding to the increasing influence of China in South China Sea. In addition, Washington is encouraging and facilitating New Delhi to actively participate in the affairs of the region. Premier Narendra Modi had announced Indo-Pacific strategy and replaced India’s ‘Look East’ with ‘Act East’ policy to establish its hegemony in Indian Ocean with the support of United States. Precisely, Act East policy manifests New Delhi’s increasing economic and strategic relations with the Southeast Asian countries and improving its military position as a regional power.
India is actively engaging regional actors to strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific region. India, Japan and US have initiated a trilateral dialogue on security issues and joint Naval Exercises, such as Malabar Naval Exercise. United States and Japan are reiterating, at various forums, India as a natural partner. On July 10, 2017, the United States, Japan, and India lunched a tri-nation Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal. In the Exercise, the US navy’s largest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—USS Nimitz, the Indian Navy’s solitary aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and Japan Izumo-class helicopter carrier participated. They deployed front-line warships, submarines and aircraft as part of the maritime exercise. Certainly, United States, Japan and India maritime forces cooperation is advantageous for their national interests, but disturbing for the other Indo-Pacific littoral states. The cementing strategic partnership between New Delhi, Washington and Tokyo to check the Chinese assertive strategy in South China Sea definitely deepen Beijing’s Malacca Strait Dilemma.
Malacca Strait Dilemma obligates Beijing to advance its blue-water navy to guard its merchandise, especially energy supplies from West Asia. China’s white paper entitled, China’s Military Strategy issued by the State Council Information Office in May 2015 distinctly spell out strategy of “active defense.” The paper outlined four critical security domains, i.e. the ocean, outer space, cyberspace and nuclear force. It attached great importance to manage the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. Perhaps, it is a combination of the concepts of offshore defense and open seas protection.
India’s claims to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.37 million square miles and its blue-water Navy buildup alarmed Ocean’s littoral states, including Pakistan. India’s Great Power ambitions and enmity with Pakistan pose a risk of conflict between the nuclearized adversaries. The problematic variable is mistrust and increasing inventories of their nuclear weapons. They have developed tactical nuclear weapons. Both states have been perfecting the naval tiers of their nuclear doctrines. Moreover, the potential shift in India’s sea power as it acquires a major blue water navy and the potential ability to project air and missile power throughout the Indian Ocean would alarm both China and Russian Federation. Precisely, Indo-Pacific strategy would stimulate a new set of intricacies. It would cause the intersection of many great powers and their competition in the Indian Ocean such as US and Russia; Russia and China; China and Japan; US and China; and China and India.
The Indian Ocean Region is having immense political and economic opportunities for Pakistan. The cashing of these external opportunities requires stability in the region and intelligent engagement with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi would remain the key actors on the Indian Ocean strategic chessboard. Realistically, the destabilization in the Indian Ocean Strategic environment cannot be ruled out in the near future. Therefore, the vigilant decision makers ought to be remained cognizant of risks/developments that would be having potential to destabilize and insecure the Indian Ocean Region.
To conclude, the political and strategic competition among the Great Powers and leading actors of the Indian Ocean could destabilise the safety of sea-lanes. In addition, a few fragile and failing littoral states; piracy; terrorism; etc. are detrimental for regional security. The insecure India Ocean, certainly, perilous for the national interests of the littoral states and the nations, that relies on its sea-lanes.
— The writer is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
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