Evolving Strategic Competition in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean area will be the true nexus of world powers and conflict in the coming years. It is here that the fight for democracy, energy independence and religious freedom will be lost or won.”

            (Robert D. Kaplan)

The Indian ocean once regarded as a ‘neglected ocean’ has, today, become the hub of political, strategic and economic activities because of the presence of conventional and nuclear vessels of the major powers in the area and because of its own economic and strategic significance. The Indian Ocean has 36 States around its littoral belt. In addition, there are eleven hinterland states e.g, Nepal and Afghanistan, which though landlocked, are keenly interested in the Indian Ocean politics and trade. The ocean contains several important minerals: 80.7% of world extraction of gold, 56.6 % of Tin, 28.5 % of manganese, 25.2 % nickel and 77.3% natural rubber. Highest tonnage of the world goods, 65% of world oil, and 35% of the gas, located in the littoral states, passes through it. The region today is an arena of contemporary geopolitics. Strategically the Indian Ocean occupies a crucial importance, especially because of the presence of major powers in the region and potential of the regional powers, three being nuclear powered: Pakistan, China and India. That is why key regional powers are placing great reliance on the deployment of fleet missile submarines and SLBMs for second strike capability as well as for maintain balance of power in order to deter hegemony of any power whether territorial or extra-territorial. USA has established its naval base in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia which poses a threat to the regional states as well as stands to protect the US’ vital interests in the region. Political relations in and around the Indian Ocean can have significant implications for the US as far as its new “Asia Pivot” strategy is concerned. The new US Strategic Guidance 2012 has linked the US economy and security to developments in the Indian Ocean, elevating India to the position of a long-term strategic partner serving “as a  regional anchor” in the region. The official documents also declare Iran and China as two potential states most susceptible to using asymmetrical means to counter US’ areas of interest. The Indo-US collusion in the Indian Ocean has made Pakistan and China wary of their semi-hostile overtures, hence ensuing strategic competition in the region and employment of resource-dependent strategies to counteract and counterbalance the enemy state’s manoeuvers.

Great Power Indian OceanWorld is said to be entering Geo-energy era in which questions of energy security (security of demand and security of supply) will condition both inter-state relations and may lead to re-configuration of world power hierarchy. Energy security will play decisive role in creating conflict and co-operation situations. The Country which holds paramount position in the Indian Ocean is likely to control the flow of energy not only to the East Asia, the future center of the world economic power, but also to other regions. Currently, USA, the world’s mightiest naval power is dominating the region and the regional states, especially China, is trying to balance US power in the region in order to protect its interests with regard to its growing economy and energy needs. The question why it is so important to dominate the Indian Ocean can also be answered by highlighting the fact that oil is shipped from the Persian Gulf  to almost entire world via the Indian Ocean, and through the Straits of Malacca to China, Korea, and Japan. If another [power] holds the lifeline, oil-importing countries will suffer severe blows. Because [the U.S.] strategy is to hold sway over the oil route, the US has in recent years showered attentions on India, Vietnam, and Singapore, all of which lie on that route.

Pakistan’s only coastline is on the Indian Ocean, which is therefore a vital access point for trade and specifically for energy supply. Pakistan’s major interests in the Indian Ocean are preventing India from dominating the areas closest to Pakistan itself, and protecting its vital import and export routes. Pakistan by itself can do relatively little about India’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean; therefore, it has turned to two things: developing its naval power and having large external balancers. The United States is probably not looked on by Pakistan as a reliable partner in shoring up its Indian Ocean security, especially in light of the high profile of the Indian Ocean in the growing U.S. security dialogue with India. The more important balancer is China. Pakistan stands to benefit from the “string of pearls,” and has therefore handed over the operational rights to China. Pakistan’s economic stake in Indian Ocean security, like India’s, is considerable: its fragile balance of payments is dependent on sea trade; 95% of its trade and 100% of its oil import is transported through the Indian Ocean. As such Pakistan’s main goal is to neutralize India as well as secure its economic and Energy interests and at the moment it is doing in alliance with China and at the same time improving its Naval and military power.

As the Indian Ocean is a hub of energy, India is seeking to enhance its involvement in the region, seeking to increase its influence from the Plateau of Iran to the Gulf of Thailand. India is soon to become the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, after the United States, China, and Japan — is dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs, 65 percent of which it imports, and 90 percent of its oil imports could soon come from the Persian Gulf. Another reason behind developing naval power is India’s “Hormuz dilemma,” its dependence on imports passing through the strait, close to the shores of Pakistan’s Makran coast, where the Chinese are helping the Pakistanis develop deep-water ports. To protect its vital interest as well as to establish itself as a super-power, India is enlarging its navy in the same spirit. With its 155 warships, the Indian navy is already one of the world’s largest, and it expects to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers to its arsenal by 2015, making India’s a Blue Water Navy. The critical objectives of India in establishing its navy are not economic and security but also “strategic autonomy” this policy is in harmony with Indian goal of achieving the super power status and it is in this context that we see India ever now and then opposing the presence of extra regional powers in the Indian Ocean. For India, presence of extra regional powers creates tension in the region which is detrimental to its sensitive interests, India wants to replace those powers and make it dominant in the region. Among the latest developments which Indian Navy has effected is the inauguration of the Indian Navy’s latest naval base – INS Dweeprakshak – in the Lakshadweep Islands under the Southern Naval Command on 1st of May 2102. It is meant to face Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy to cut-off India from the other nations of the Indian Ocean. We can gauge the extent of India’s anxiety to project itself as an emerging super power by looking at its spending in this aspect of power.  India is planning to spend almost $45 billion over the next 20 years on 103 new warships, including destroyers and nuclear submarines. By comparison, China’s investment over the same period is projected to be around $25 billion for 135 vessels.

Indeed, as India extends its influence east and west on land and at sea, it is bumping into China which is also concerned about protecting its interests throughout the region and is expanding its reach. The paramount concern animating Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean is energy security, an imperative that has been widely debated in media and academic studies.  It is facing “Malacca Dilemma” (that is China’s too much dependence on this strait and conversely USA’s objective to control this strait politically to manipulate China’s energy needs.) It is no exaggeration to say that whoever controls the Strait of Malacca will also have a stranglehold on the energy route of China. Excessive reliance on this strait has brought an important potential threat to China’s energy security. The Straits of Malacca is without question a crucial sea route that will enable the United States to seize geopolitical superiority, restrict the rise of major powers, and control the flow of the world’s energy. The Chinese government hopes to eventually be able to partly bypass that strait by transporting oil and other energy products via roads and pipelines from ports on the Indian Ocean into the heart of China.  The Chinese government has already adopted a “string of pearls” strategy for the Indian Ocean, which consists of setting up a series of ports in friendly countries along the ocean’s northern seaboard like, Gwadar, Pakistan, a port in Pasni, Pakistan, 75 miles east of Gwadar, which is to be joined to the Gwadar facility by a new highway; a fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka; and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The Chinese government is also envisioning a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, in Thailand, to link the Indian Ocean to China’s Pacific coast — a project on the scale of the Panama Canal and one that could further tip Asia’s balance of power in China’s favor by giving China’s burgeoning navy and commercial maritime fleet easy access to a vast oceanic continuum stretching all the way from East Africa to Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Besides this strategy, China is cultivating its relations with the countries of the region through aid, trade and defense agreements. One important factor pushing China to built alternative routes is the fact that  Indian navy, soon to be the third largest in the world after those of the United States and China, will function as an antidote to Chinese military expansion. PLA Navy has also been expanding itself and reconfiguring its role in view of changing circumstances and the growing importance of the Indian Ocean. The PLA Navy has progressively increased its maritime influence by transforming itself from a coastal defence navy to a force capable of sustained open-ocean operations, which is reasonably commensurate with China’s super-power status.

One of the biggest Challenges USA is facing in the world politics is in the Indian Ocean where both China and India are emerging as the major maritime and economic powers and posing challenge to USA’s many decades long hegemony. The task of the U.S. Navy will therefore be to quietly leverage the sea power of its closest allies — India in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the western Pacific — to set limits on China’s expansion. One of the major aims of USA is to reduce and slow down the increasing Chinese FDI in the regional countries and excite the areas of conflict. As it is obvious, USA is exciting regional states’ interests to obstruct China’s expansion in the South China Sea as well as in East China Sea to limit Chinese FDI and push countries away from Chinese Camp. USA does not want the region to be dominated by any single state because that would seriously jeopardize USA’s long term economic interests as well as disturb the balance of power in the region. This is specially in view of the shifting of economic center from the west to the east. If controlled by any [Asian] nation, key choke points in the Indian Ocean, including the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and Bab el Mandeb, could tilt the balance of trade further towards Asia. Piracy in the Strait of Malacca demonstrates what can happen when free and secure access through a choke point cannot be ensured. But USA’s dilemma is that it cannot prevent or block supply to China and India since it would dampen world economy, but it can monopolize energy supply by controlling Central Asian states. Another Dilemma of USA is that it cannot altogether sideline Chinese Navy. USA seizes every opportunity to incorporate China’s navy into international alliances; as U.S.-Chinese understanding at sea is crucial for the stabilization of world politics in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, to achieve objectives in the region, USA plays upon the India-china problem to its own advantage. It continues to engage India with itself as part of its strategy of encircling China. As a part of its strategy, it encourages India to establish relations with South-Eastern and Central Asian states. Its purpose is to contain Chinese influence. USA is also enhancing its naval presence in the region which is recognition of the fact that this region is gaining central position in world political affairs. It is in this context that the US’ “Asia pivot” strategic shift should be understood and analyzed.

Iran is the other emerging power of the Indian Ocean with control of the most crucial Strait of Hormuz, a transit passage which can potentially be the cause of triggering conflict in the region. As highlighted above, this transit route is responsible for the supply of oil to most of the world. Where control of this route is strategically significant for US, it is arguably a more crucial for Iran to hold its control over it and use it as a tool in extending its power as well as use it as leverage to bargain with USA and its allies over Iran’s nuclear issue. Whether or not Iran would choose to block the Strait is a moot question; however, it is obvious in many of Iran’s official statements that Iran does consider this option as practically viable as far as maintenance of deterrence is concerned. Responding to the onset of the European Union’s oil embargo with a defiant show of military strength and renewed threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Iran signaled to the West that it would not be a passive victim of economic warfare.  On the other hand, preserving the security in the Strait of Hormuz is a priority of Iran’s defensive deterrence strategy in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s policy there would certainly be a measured and rational one, based on taking full responsibility and taking into account the region’s geo-political realities, but in no way letting others jeopardizing its legitimate interests.

The discussion shows that Indian Ocean has assumed a central place in the strategies of the major powers of the world and the regional powers also. Like a microcosm of the world at large, the Indian Ocean region is developing into an area of both “ferociously guarded sovereignty” (with fast-growing economies and militaries) and “astonishing interdependence” (with its pipelines and land and sea routes). And for the first time since the Portuguese onslaught in the region in the early sixteenth century, the West’s power there is in decline, however subtly and relatively.  Although USA is trying to give it a new boost and reconfiguring it, it might not be able to assert its dominant position in the region. The Indians and the Chinese are likely to enter into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters, with their economic interests as major trading partners locking them in an uncomfortable embrace; while Pakistan would continue to assert its position by establishing alliance with China and by building its own capacity, especially naval power. In view of the circumstances and geo-political realities, USA will have to change its posture from that of dominance to a sort of indispensable relationship with the regional powers, including Iran and Pakistan.  It may, in future, act as a ‘balancer’ between China and India. What is becoming obvious as things unfold is that no single state would be able to dominate the region singularly; therefore, a sort of multilateral set up will have to be established whereby each country can “equitably” pursue its goals.


  1. Quadrennial Defence Review Report, February 2010, Department of Defence: Washington DC.
  2. Asia Pacific Research Centre, “Energy in China: Transportation, Electric Power and Fuel Markets” (Tokyo: Asian Pacific Research Centre, 2004)
  3. Robert D. Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-First Century”, (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2009) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64832/robert-d-kaplan/center-stage-for-the-21st-century (Accessed April 5, 2013)
  4. Nathaniel Barber, Kieran Coe, Victoria Steffes, Jennifer Winter, “China in the Indian Ocean: Impacts, Prospects, Opportunities”, (Robert M. Lafollette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison,  Spring 2011)
  5. Africa‐Asia Confidential, “The battle for the Indian Ocean.” May 2009. http://www.africa‐asia‐confidential.com/article‐preview/id/234/The-battle‐for-the-Indian-Ocean (Accessed April 7, 2013)
  6. Selig S. Harrison ed. Super Power Rivalry in the Indian Ocean: Indian and American Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

ORIENTAL REVIEW thanks Mr.Salman Rafi Sheikh, M.Sc in International Relations from Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad, for his kind contribution.

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