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?   

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.