How to Live in a Multipolar World

The Indian Ocean is a microcosm of multipolarity in the twenty-first century.

Many analysts believe that the international system is sliding towards multipolarity, a world in which no single great power is in a position to dominate its peers. But among those who subscribe to this view, there is some debate over just how the coming multipolar order will operate. Will great powers work together to uphold order? Will they instead descend into military and economic competition with one another? Or can planet Earth support multiple world orders, co-existent yet separate, each under the sway of a particular great power?

There are no iron-clad answers to these questions. Yet current geopolitics does, perhaps, allow for a glimpse into the future. In particular, the international politics of the Indian Ocean can be considered something of a microcosm of multipolarity in the twenty-first century. For this region—what Robert Kaplan calls “center stage” in the contest for the next world order—is critical to both world trade and global security, and so how the great powers conduct their affairs here promises to say some important things about how they will organize their relations more generally.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, the Indian Ocean was the practical preserve of the British Empire. Almost all of the major cities and strategic ports along the ocean’s littoral were under British rule or influence: Durban, Zanzibar and Mombasa along the east coast of Africa; Aden and Muscat on the Arabian Peninsula; Bombay and Calcutta on either side of the Indian subcontinent; Perth in Western Australia. The Royal Navy controlled access to the Indian Ocean from Suez, Singapore and Cape Town, and the Union Flag flew over most of the ocean’s major islands: Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Mauritius, the Chagos, Seychelles, Maldives, Andaman and Nicobar.

After World War II, one hegemonic power was exchanged for another as the United States slowly but surely became dominant in the Indian Ocean. To be sure, the British withdrawal from the region was piecemeal; decolonization—and especially the independence of India in 1947—removed much of the strategic rationale for Britain’s presence in the Indian Ocean, but the nation was slow to draw down its commitments. It was only in the late 1960s that Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw “East of Aden,” thus beginning the terminal decline of Britain’s bases in South Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Either way, the United States had firmly replaced Britain as the region’s preeminent power by the mid-1970s. The western half of the Indian Ocean, in particular, became enclosed by a string of U.S. bases such as those in Bahrain, the Horn of Africa and the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia, while the ocean’s eastern expanses were drawn into Pax Americana by virtue of Washington’s defensive ties with Singapore, Australia, Thailand and its Pacific bases in Guam and the Philippines.  Despite close relations (at times) with littoral states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, the Soviet Union never came close to rivalling this massive geostrategic footprint.

Today, centuries of relative unipolarity are giving way to noticeable multipolarity. India’s announcement of a base in the Seychelles is another important step in this direction—a sign that New Delhi is doubling down on its blue water navy and attendant power-projection capabilities.  From the Seychellois island of Assumption, which is already equipped with an airstrip, the Indian military—even if it is limited by geography to maintaining only a tiny military presence—will boast a central position in the Western Indian Ocean, close to the East African coastline and astride the important maritime trade route that runs from the Mozambique Channel to the Arabian Sea.

It is not just India that is beefing up its presence in the region, of course. Late last year, China announced the creation of its first permanent overseas base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, and Beijing continues to expand its naval capabilities (most recently by announcing the construction of its first Chinese-made aircraft carrier). With the United States also present in Djibouti—as well as Bahrain, Diego Garcia and elsewhere—this means that at least three of the great powers are demonstrably seeking to expand their military reach in the Indian Ocean.  And middle powers such as Britain and France also boast considerable military assets in the wider region.

Of course, the U.S. navy is still far superior to its potential competitors and America’s overseas basing system continues to be unsurpassed. Moreover, no other power can compete the number and quality of Washington’s military alliances in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere. But with the United States, China and India all boasting overseas nascent basing structures in the ocean—and with America’s rivals looking to improve their own portfolios of alliances and client states—the outline of a coming multipolar world is clear to see. What will be the result?