The Indian Ocean: A Great-Power Danger Zone?

May 30, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Asia

The Indian Ocean: A Great-Power Danger Zone?

Five years ago, Robert D. Kaplan detailed the promise and the peril of this vital part of the globe. Will it be a source of tension or trust in the 21st century?   

In 2009, emblazoned in large red letters on the cover of Foreign Affairs were the words “Rivalry in the Indian Ocean.” In this featured article, Robert D. Kaplan announced to the Western world the growing importance of a long-neglected geographic entity in the study of international politics. His essay, “Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean” continues to be cited in countless articles and paved the way for his 2010 book, Monsoon. Kaplan’s contribution was to explain the civilizational and political connections of disparate Asian, African and Middle Eastern players in the Indian Ocean. Although Robert Kaplan’s recent work examines the South China Sea, his influential 2009 article on Chinese-Indian competition in the Indian Ocean and U.S. interests in the region deserves to be revisited on its five-year anniversary.

In 2009, Kaplan saw energy security and geopolitics converging in the Indian Ocean. Because roughly two-thirds of petroleum traffic traverses this body of water, it will become increasingly important to numerous stakeholders, whose interests and infrastructure projects he detailed. Other than the United States, the countries commanding most of Kaplan’s attention were India and China. Given their size and growing dependence on the sea lanes for energy supplies and trade, Kaplan saw an inevitable geopolitical “great game” rivalry emerging in the Indian Ocean. As a solution, he argued that the United States should “act as a broker” to mitigate the likelihood of conflict between these two rising economic and military powerhouses, even though he foresaw the superpower as experiencing an unavoidable “elegant decline.”

Now, five years later, what is the state of relations in the Indian Ocean? What has changed and what has not? Has an Indian-Chinese rivalry emerged, as Kaplan envisioned? What is the role of the United States in the coming years? Is the “elegant decline” of the United States that Kaplan discussed coming to pass? The five-year mark is a good opportunity to reconsider this seminal article about the Indian Ocean, which continues to capture the imagination of strategists who want to see how power politics will play out in this comparatively underresearched region.

Energy and the Indian Ocean

Kaplan’s description of the Indian Ocean as “the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway” remains true five years later. Roughly 30 percent of all trade is handled in Indian Ocean ports, illustrating the region’s importance in global maritime trade. As Kaplan discussed in 2009, oil transiting the Indian Ocean is increasingly vital to China, India and Japan, as well as South Korea. In fact, China surpassed the United States in 2013 to become the world’s largest net oil importer.


Since the publication of Kaplan’s article, the revolution in shale oil and gas production has taken place, giving the United States more energy options. It is unclear, though , to what extent this will diminish U.S. imports in the long run. Nevertheless, Washington will continue to have Indian Ocean interests related to energy, and Asian countries will remain dependent on crude oil and petroleum products transported through the Indian Ocean and its choke points.

India Is the Big Story; China, Not So Much

In 2009, Kaplan predicted the emergence of “dynamic great-power rivalry” between India and China. 2013 witnessed a border standoff in the Depsang Valley, but are we seeing the manifestation of these tensions in the Indian Ocean? On balance, China’s entry into the Indian Ocean—though a significant accomplishment for its navy in learning how to operate in waters far from home for lengthy periods of time—seems less spectacular than India’s growth in naval power and pursuit of regional leadership during the same period.

Since reforms in the 1990s, India’s economic rise has fueled the country’s defense budget and strengthened its position in the Indian Ocean. Despite recent high-profile naval accidents, India again became the first Asian country since imperial Japan to have two fully operational aircraft carriers in May 2014. India expects to add an indigenous nuclear submarine to its fleet next year. Elsewhere, the Indian Navy provides critical training and equipment to numerous Indian Ocean countries, and its biennial MILAN exercise grew in February 2014 to include sixteen Asian and African navies and coast guards. Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has reconfigured its near-abroad division by adding a wider Indian Ocean focus.

India has also gradually been increasing its profile in multilateral Indian Ocean institutions and frameworks. The Indian Navy founded the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008 to foster dialogue between navy chiefs in the region. Although focusing on economic cooperation, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) assumed a broader security ambit under India’s recent chair. In 2013, India further solidified its security relationship with its smaller littoral neighbors by signing a trilateral maritime security accord with Sri Lanka and Maldives that appears likely to expand to a five-power grouping by including Mauritius and Seychelles. For the first time, India’s Chief of Naval Staff participated in the 2013 Galle Dialogue, a maritime conference hosted by Sri Lanka’s Navy with representatives from thirty-five nations in attendance.