The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the focus of international maritime rivalry as various powers joust for advantage and influence in one of the global economy’s most vital transit routes.
As if to highlight this trend, the Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted the fleet commander as saying that his ships “carried out strikes against ‘enemy’ surface ships.” Earlier this year, a Chinese fleet carried out similar live-fire drills in the eastern Indian Ocean.
As these exercises show, the geostrategic maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is changing fundamentally. A 1971 United Nations resolution declaring it a “zone of peace” has fallen by the wayside.
China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” carried out in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests. This mirrors the evolution of its land-combat strategy from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory, where they can be annihilated) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight on enemy territory).
Beijing is also pursuing ostensibly economic initiatives to advance its geostrategic ambitions, including implementing its Maritime Silk Road project to gain a major foothold in the Indian Ocean and chip away at India’s natural geographic advantage.
The growing importance of the Indian Ocean’s resources and sea lanes is apparent. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits. The Indian Ocean is also rich in mineral wealth, with deep seabed mining emerging as a major new strategic issue.
The dangerous rush to exploit its mineral and fishing resources threatens to exact a considerable environmental cost and may spark new conflicts. For example, several studies have indicated that commercial fishing by foreign fleets, by depleting local resources, has driven poor Somali fishermen to piracy.
The rise of nonstate actors such as pirates, terrorists and criminal syndicates off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere is also linked with the increasing density and importance of maritime flows through the Indian Ocean. At the same time, this development has become a pretext for outside powers to intervene and project their naval power. China, for example, has cited piracy as an excuse to launch naval operations around the Horn of Africa and to set up its first overseas naval base at Djibouti.
China’s increasing boldness in the Indian Ocean is inspired by its success in changing the status quo in its favor in the adjacent South China Sea, where it has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done elsewhere. By erecting military facilities on man-made islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has positioned its naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.
It is now rapidly expanding its Indian Ocean footprint. In addition to setting up the Djibouti base, it is also investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar, in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. China’s fast-growing submarine fleet is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area.
Beijing is looking to repeat its aggressive success in the South China Sea
It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration allowed China to forcefully change the status quo in the South China Sea with impunity. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has shown no desire to rectify the situation. As a result, China is solidifying its dominance there while the U.S. conducts symbolic freedom-of-navigation operations.
NO CONSEQUENCES In effect, China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism carries no costs. This has left countries bearing the brunt of Beijing’s aggressive policies with difficult choices. China’s actions have, however, prompted Japan to reverse a decade of declining military outlays and India to revive stalled naval modernization.
Japan, which is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean region for supplies of energy and raw materials, has also stepped up its regional engagement. For example, it is investing in eight port construction or renovation projects in Indonesia, India, Iran, Oman, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Japan is also seeking to play a more active role in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes.
India, despite its strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, faces a new threat from the oceanic south. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard, New Delhi must devise concrete steps to deal with China’s growing presence. It needs a comprehensive maritime security strategy backed by naval capabilities that can take on tasks ranging from protecting and securing the seas to projecting power across the Indian Ocean region.
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal, is a critical asset for India to counter China’s growing maritime presence and to blunt its increasing land-based, trans-Himalayan military threat. Located next to the Strait of Malacca, the archipelago offers control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. Just as the Chinese military harasses and threatens Indian border patrols in the Himalayas, India can potentially play the same game off the Andaman and Nicobar chain, including by establishing China-style civilian maritime militias backed by the Indian Coast Guard.
The importance of this chokepoint can be easily stated: A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquid products transported on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports.
More fundamentally, greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers is becoming an unavoidable necessity. Cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. must extend to guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean by exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. The aim should be to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing Sinocentric Asia. The common observation that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia” is unattributed but nonetheless true.
Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review