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.

When Kaplan’s article was published, China had recently begun counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. Five years later, Beijing has deployed sixteen task forces, with counterpiracy providing the rationale for a regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy presence in the Indian Ocean. Since 2010, the PLA Navy has also performed humanitarian-assistance missions with its hospital ship Peace Ark to various Indian Ocean countries in Asia and Africa. Beijing continues to provide security assistance and sell defense equipment to regional states, mostly to Pakistan but also to Bangladesh, including the sale of two Ming-class submarines scheduled for delivery by 2019. No doubt, China will increase its naval activities in the Indian Ocean and perhaps someday operate its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, here as part of naval diplomacy and disaster relief missions. But for the foreseeable future, the carrier remains firmly in Pacific waters.

China’s commercial efforts in the region are more impressive than its naval activities by offering Indian Ocean countries billions of dollars in loans for the construction of infrastructure such as ports and roads by Chinese, state-owned enterprises. For example, the Chinese-built gas pipeline from Kyaukpyu, Myanmar to Kunming, China that Kaplan discussed in 2009 became operational in 2013, with a parallel, crude-oil pipeline near completion. The mere “fueling station” that Kaplan discussed in southern Sri Lanka has resulted in much more: a multibillion-dollar deep-sea port, an airport, and a bunkering terminal in Hambantota. China developed this location after the Indian government and U.S. investors passed on Colombo’s requests. Interestingly, Hambantota port is mostly occupied with transshipping automobiles from Indian factories to East African destinations. Chinese state-owned companies have subsequently built highways in Sri Lanka and a terminal at the congested Colombo port, which is expediting trade in one of the busiest ports in South Asia. Construction of a port is expected to begin in 2015 in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, to relieve Dar es Salaam and to facilitate mineral exports.

However, Kaplan’s argument that China was creating a “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean that would drive Indian-Chinese competition has not been borne out. Of the so-called pearls Kaplan described in 2009, Pakistan’s Gwadar port—seen by analysts as the most potentially threatening site of Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean—still remains only somewhat functional and unconnected to road infrastructure, with no PLA Navy vessels having paid a port call. Operational control of Gwadar transferred to a Chinese state-owned firm in 2013, although no progress is evident. Development of Chittagong, Bangladesh, another port cited by Kaplan, has not progressed given growing recognition of how silted it is and ill-suited for deep-water port development. Dhaka is pursuing an inclusive multinational consortium structure to build an alternative port in Sonadia, with the United Arab Emirates likely to be most involved. Despite the progress in China’s energy projects in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar’s 2011 political reforms have resulted in a fundamentally less dependent relationship with China, as Kaplan reasoned five years ago.

China has made some important commercial strides in the Indian Ocean, but at this stage, these projects are not objectively menacing to India or other countries. Any Chinese infrastructure that could be turned into military bases would be vulnerable to proximate Indian air and submarine power. Moreover, China would need to harden infrastructure and provide significant command and control facilities and air defenses. Doing so would be a costly, lengthy public activity that observers could track, as James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College has argued.

It is also important to remember that there are other countries making similar types of investments and construction in the Indian Ocean region. For example, Japan, India and Thailand have invested in port and special economic zone projects across Myanmar, while South Korean companies are in a consortium with Indian firms to extract natural gas from Myanmar’s Shwe fields. India is investing in the rehabilitation of Kankesanthurai port in northern Sri Lanka and has renewed its pursuit of developing Chabahar port in Iran. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also visited Mozambique and Oman in early 2014 to deepen energy cooperation.

Although eager to accept Chinese and other economic, diplomatic, and military assistance, smaller Indian Ocean countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives—all with long memories of the Indian military’s operational reach in their countries, whether during disaster relief or combat missions—cannot avoid acknowledging India’s traditional dominance in the region. At the moment, there is no significant manifestation of the Indian-Chinese rivalry in the Indian Ocean that Kaplan predicted. Nonetheless, it will be important to continue to track both countries’ actions.

Beyond Indian-Chinese Rivalry

The crux of Kaplan’s 2009 article was the prediction that Indian-Chinese rivalry would be the predominant reality shaping future Indian Ocean security. However, this view overlooks the possible emergence of other extraregional players with growing commercial and resource interests in the region. The future might not necessarily turn out to be an Indian-Chinese “maritime Great Game,” as envisaged by Kaplan. Like China and India, Japan and South Korea are highly dependent on imported oil and gas that transit the Indian Ocean. Both nations have companies that are undertaking exploration activities in the Bay of Bengal and western Indian Ocean, while their navies have conducted escort operations in the Gulf of Aden. Japan also built a counterpiracy base in Djibouti in 2011.

Meanwhile, Europe has strong economic and security interests in the Indian Ocean. The UK and France hold territories and military bases in the Indian Ocean and have provided critical support to counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations through NATO, the EU and Combined Maritime Forces. European countries are working to obtain rights to mine the seabed of the Indian Ocean for valuable metals, with some foreseeing a rush in deep-sea exploration in the coming years. In addition, European countries have substantial fishing interests; Sri Lanka’s fisheries minister estimates they harvest 48 percent of fish resources in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean as an Idea

One of Kaplan’s primary contributions in 2009 was to ask readers to consider the unique attributes and history of the Indian Ocean: “more than just a geographic feature, the Indian Ocean is also an idea.” Many Western security analysts traditionally conceive of the Indian Ocean as a highway, starting and ending in places more interesting than the journey. This view certainly holds merit because the Indian Ocean is an important conduit in the world’s commerce. But this is an extraregional perspective, focused on the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca choke points. Kaplan helped provide a conception of the Indian Ocean as a coherent entity, despite being home to disparate subregions and even continents.

Kaplan’s narrative helped inspire more discussion of the region, an outcome of which has been greater talk, especially in Washington, of the Indian Ocean being part of a larger “Indo-Pacific” region. Depending on the speaker’s intent, the “Indo-Pacific” could be a way to conceptually unite all maritime Asia, connect India’s hitherto growth and promise to the economic successes of the “Asia-Pacific,” and showcase Australia’s and Indonesia’s positions as linking the two bodies of water. Last year, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command started using the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” to characterize its area of responsibility. The U.S. State Department similarly began speaking in 2012 of the possibility of an “Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor” linking South Asia to Southeast Asia.

Even though the term “Indo” technically involves all Indian Ocean countries, U.S. officials who have invoked this concept appear primarily intent on reaffirming to New Delhi Washington’s high hopes for the bilateral political and defense relationship while encouraging India to “act east” rather than just “look east” by deepening its involvement in the security and economics of Southeast and Northeast Asia. One drawback to the idea of the Indo-Pacific, however, is that Africa’s eastern littoral and growing linkages with other Indian Ocean stakeholders such as China, India and Japan are often not discussed. It is largely an Asia-centric concept. Second, to some extent, the Indo-Pacific relegates the Indian Ocean to being part of the Pacific, in that the Indian Ocean derives its import from association with the Pacific.

The U.S. in the Indian Ocean: Elegant Decline?

Writing before the 2013 battles over budget sequestration and the government shutdown, Kaplan posited in 2009 that the U.S. is following Great Britain’s example in the late-nineteenth century in “beginning an elegant decline by leveraging the growing sea power of allies such as India and Japan to balance against China.” He questioned “how much longer U.S. naval dominance will last.” Indeed, increasingly constrained defense resources are compelling the United States to share more maritime security responsibilities with partners and through coalitions such as Combined Task Forces 150 and 151 (CTF-150 and CTF-151), which combat terrorism and piracy, respectively.

Still, the United States, as a superpower, continues to see itself as the “guarantor of international commerce and maritime security.” In the Indian Ocean region alone, the United States has a naval presence in Bahrain, Djibouti and Diego Garcia—across three combatant commands—and engages in exercises with various African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries along the Indian Ocean coastline. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2012 Strategic Guidance states the importance of the Indian Ocean and South Asia to U.S. economic and security interests, and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review reaffirms Washington’s engagement with the Indian Ocean region.

Indian Ocean Cooperation

Kaplan observed that the United States would retain “the leverage to act as a broker between India and China in their own backyard.” In the last five years, the United States has not needed to play this role but has instead functioned as a facilitator of cooperation. In the Indian Ocean, the United States has effectively been a “coalition builder supreme,” as Kaplan put it, through Combined Maritime Forces, which is commanded by a U.S. Navy vice admiral, and will continue to play a critical role in pursuing cooperation in the region. But this is also an important point not to overstate given the strengthening of cooperative activities led by resident Indian Ocean stakeholders but in which the United States participates without leading. Key examples are IORA and IONS, both of which Australia currently chairs, but where Washington became a dialogue partner in IORA only in 2012. Formal observer status has eluded the United States in IONS, although it sends naval officers to observe meetings.

Kaplan observed in 2009: “coalitions will naturally form in areas where shipping lanes need to be protected.” Despite not participating in the CTF-151 counterpiracy grouping at the time, India, China and Japan concluded an agreement in 2012 to coordinate the movements of ships and escort schedules for their independently deployed forces in the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, Pakistan, for example, has shown leadership in Indian Ocean security through command of CTF-150 six times and CTF-151 four times and through the Pakistan Navy’s biennial AMAN exercise, which in 2013, brought together navies from the United States, China, Bangladesh, Australia, Indonesia, Japan and the UK, among other nations. Regarding disaster relief, Washington played an important role in enabling cooperation in 2004 through the Tsunami Core Group of major powers: the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Yet, the world still saw vital first-responder efforts from various countries including the Indian Navy’s provision of aid to Sri Lanka within twelve hours of the tsunami. Subsequent cyclones and flooding in the region were also followed by multinational disaster-response operations.

The increasing use of international law and institutions has been another way Indian Ocean countries have advanced cooperation without relying on the United States. In March 2012, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) set a critical legal precedent through its first maritime delimitation decision over a dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar, thereby bolstering the role of international law in the Indian Ocean. Similarly, India and Bangladesh’s decision to seek arbitration for their maritime dispute under Annex VII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—which Washington has not ratified—is another victory for the furtherance of legal norms in the Indian Ocean. This decision is expected to be handed down this summer. Finally, China sought and won rights from the International Seabed Authority in 2011 to mine for polymetallic sulphides in the southern Indian Ocean.

These cooperative successes underscore the lower potential for fallout from interstate conflict in the Indian Ocean than in the Pacific, where disputes have escalated since Kaplan’s 2009 article. The most recent manifestation of tension is the May 2014 stationing of a Chinese, state-owned oil-drilling rig off the Vietnamese coast. In fact, we have witnessed cooperation in the Indian Ocean between countries that have difficulties elsewhere in their relationships. For example, U.S. and Chinese forces undertook counterpiracy exercises in 2012 and 2013. India, China and Japan agreed to coordinate convoy operations in the Gulf of Aden, despite the fact that both India and China have contested land borders, and China and Japan are engaged in a heated row in the East China Sea. The Korean Navy is also working with them on such coordination, even cooperating well with Japanese forces despite ongoing tensions between their capitals. Kaplan augured in 2009, that “piracy has the potential to unite rival states along the Indian Ocean coastline.” Given successful examples of nations collaborating to address the threats of piracy, natural disasters and maritime boundary disputes, one could see the Indian Ocean as a laboratory for the art of the possible.


Robert Kaplan’s 2009 article contributed to our understanding of the Indian Ocean by providing a narrative for an increasingly important region that has often been seen as a place to pass through to places of greater geopolitical consequence. Yet, the “dynamic great-power rivalry” that Kaplan augured in 2009 has not yet materialized between India and China in the Indian Ocean, despite observers’ understandable anxieties.

Without a doubt, India will continue on its path of growth in terms of its naval capabilities and regional leadership. Meanwhile, China is here to stay in the Indian Ocean; economic interests have driven it westward, and the PLA Navy will be a regular presence. We will likely see more security cooperation between China and smaller Indian Ocean countries, whose navies and coast guards need greater capacity to carry out their maritime-security responsibilities. How uncomfortable will New Delhi be with increased Chinese security ties with Indian Ocean nations, including exercises? In the meantime, can India pursue regular naval exercises with China? The two sides already interact in counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and engaged in search and rescue maneuvers off Kochi, India in 2005. On the heels of their April 2014 interaction as part of a multilateral exercise off Qingdao, China and India should consider a bilateral Indian Ocean exercise in 2015 to mark the tenth anniversary of their first naval maneuvers in the Arabian Sea. Given overlapping interests regarding counterpiracy, counterterrorism and disaster relief, regularizing these kinds of interactions is one way to reduce the potential for the competition Kaplan discussed.

Security analysts are naturally drawn to great-power rivalry, but the Indian Ocean may become the place where great powers can alternatively practice working together to address transnational security challenges. Rather than “beginning an elegant decline,” the United States will likely maintain forward-deployed naval forces ready to respond to emergencies inside the Indian Ocean and beyond, while bolstering the role of other navies. Equally important, it will be willing to act as one of many participants—including resident as well as extraregional players, such as Japan, South Korea and European countries—in ensuring the security of these waters.

Seeing the Indian Ocean as a testing ground for collaboration, especially in the context of heightened tensions in the Pacific, opens the possibilities for a new era of maritime-security cooperation that transcends continental divisions and traditional power politics. Of course, the danger always exists that rivalries in the Pacific could spread to the Indian Ocean or that Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean could become confrontational. Although neither contingency appears likely in the foreseeable future, to manage such risks, it is worthwhile for stakeholders to build cooperative habits by drawing on shared interests in the Indian Ocean’s dynamic confluence of geopolitics and commerce.

Nilanthi Samaranayake is a strategic studies analyst at CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Indian Navy/CC by-2.5-in