The battle for the Indian Ocean

‘Whosoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided upon its waters’, India defines. ‘That is no over-statement: globalisation depends on the cheap shipment of seabound containers: more than 50% of the world’s container traffic sails the Indian Ocean, as does 70% of the world’s petroleum products’, says Africa-Asia Confidential. One could, therefore, argue that recent events in Somalia are part of the game of the great powers and USA’s aim to solely control the strategic Horn of Africa; and more importantly to get cheap resources.

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The battle for the Indian Ocean

Competition for strategic advantage in the world’s most important shipping lanes draws Africa and Asia into a regional stand-off

For the next few decades, the Indian Ocean will be the setting for competition between three great powers: the United States adjusting to an increasingly multipolar world, and the rising military and economic powers of India and China.

India defines the stakes clearly in its 2007 Maritime Military Strategy paper: ‘Whosoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided upon its waters.’ That is no over-statement: globalisation depends on the cheap shipment of seabound containers: more than 50% of the world’s container traffic sails the Indian Ocean, as does 70% of the world’s petroleum products.

The Indian Ocean’s strategic importance as the world’s most important oil shipping lane will increase still further over the next three decades, when higher energy consumption by India and China will account for more than half the growth of world energy consumption. Almost all China and India’s imported energy requirements – whether oil from Africa and the Persian Gulf or coal from Mozambique and South Africa – are transported across the Indian Ocean.

Currently, there is no hegemonic power with dominion over the Indian Ocean and that is unlikely to change in the short-term as the region gives the first indications of how a multipolar world might look.

The US Navy focuses on its interests in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Indian Ocean states are plagued by terrorism, drugs, arms trafficking and piracy. The region also hosts the vast majority of the world’s Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

The crises unfolding in Indian Ocean region states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand are far more threatening than the political instability in Africa. In the countries at greatest risk – Pakistan and Burma – there is growing competition between China and India. Instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan affects East Africa, as Islamic extremists flee and set up in the Horn of Africa, General William ‘Kip’ Ward, the head of the US’s AfriCom military command warned in April.

Delhi and Beijing are not naturally inclined to cooperate: at US$51.8 billion, India and China’s bilateral trade is less than half that of China’s trade with Africa, which stands at $106 bn.

One hotspot is the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is administered by India but claimed by China as part of southern Tibet. Although the countries agreed on guidelines to resolving the territorial dispute in 2005, China is reluctant to deal with the issue because of its concerns about India’s support for the exiled Dalai Lama (AAC Vol 2 No 6).

The great game on the sea

India and China try to block each other from joining multilateral bodies. China has pledged to fight for permanent African representation on the United Nations Security Council, as has India. However, China does not want India to join the ranks of the permanent members and India will require African support to back reforms at the UN.

The World Bank calls Africa the ‘new economic frontier’ for India and China. Africa has important political and economic roles to play in the shaping of global power, and it is key to the Asian powers’ peaceful rise. Whether through the supply of energy and natural resources for Asian economies or voting for expanded representation at the UN Security Council and the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s alliances are shaping the politics of the Indian Ocean.

Ma Jiali, South Asia Researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, says rivalries between China and India over African resources are not yet ‘a direct kind of competition. There are many other countries who are also using African resources. Because of this, China does not worry about India growing its relationship with African countries. Both countries need to develop and this does not strategically harm China’s interest.’

David Zweig, Director of the Centre on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, disagrees: ‘They do find themselves challenging each other overseas. The problem is China tends to win all the time. The Indians are much more worried about the Chinese than the Chinese are worried about the Indians.’

With China ahead of India in Africa, the rivalry is felt more closely to home. Despite a lack of clear policy on the region, there are signs that China would like to expand its role in South Asia. It has applied to join the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the world’s largest regional economic and political organisation, representing almost two billion people, but met with resistance from India and so remains just an observer.

The SAARC’s effectiveness has been limited by the animus between Pakistan and India, but Chinese allies in Islamabad and Dhaka would like to see China join as a full member. There are hopes for cooperation as China may be forced to negotiate with India or Nepal for access to water resources in the Himalayan region.

China’s growth and diplomatic weight is already turning past alliances on their head. India has traditionally been Sri Lanka’s strongest ally, but the Chinese government has pushed more than $1 bn. into the building of a port and refuelling station for Chinese ships at the village of Hambantota. Since the agreement was approved in 2007, Beijing has been supplying the government in Colombo with arms, aid and other support in its apparently successful mission to eradicate the Tamil Tiger rebels.

China is pursuing its own military build-up, based on a ‘string of pearls’ – naval bases, refuelling stations and friendly ports. So far, the Chinese focus has been on the Taiwan Straits and shaping a deterrent force against the possibility of a US reprisal if Taiwan were attacked, rather than competing with the rising military power of India.

Map: Great Power Competition in the Indian Ocean


Yet an increasing presence in India’s traditional territory is evident in Chinese plans for Hambantona, the upgrading of the Pakistani port of Gwadar and similar projects at Sittwe, Burma and Chittagong, Bangladesh. Chinese generals argue that if they can build a large enough force to deter the US from coming to Taiwan’s rescue (by making the operation so perilous militarily), then Beijing can pay more attention to its other interests.

Although its geography gives it a dominant position in the Indian Ocean, India has developed ties with countries on the periphery of the east and west coasts of the Indian Ocean. It has set up listening posts and alliances in the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius to stake its claim in the face of China’s engagement with Africa. India signed defence agreements with Australia in 2007 and jointly patrols the Malacca Straits with the navies of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The next few decades will be shaped by a strategic triangle of the US, China and India. The US will seek to balance the rise of the countries with the world’s largest populations and the world’s fastest-growing economies. For now, the US Navy remains the largest and most powerful in the world, but both India and China have made the expansion of maritime capacities a cornerstone of their international relations. Only when countries are secure in their position on land can they successfully project power on the seas.

Great powers: India

India is on course to become the world’s most populous nation by 2030. Another successful election in India in early May and predictions of 4.5% gross domestic product growth this year confirm that India is developing a more assertive role. India is cultivating a policy of developing security alliances in the region rather than the defensive posture of weakness shown in the non-aligned movement during the Cold War.

It regards itself as having an exclusive right to intervene in South Asian crises. This is New Delhi’s version of the USA’s Monroe Doctrine. Formulated by Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s version says that outside intervention in the Indian Ocean interferes in an exclusive zone of Indian interests. Indian politicians regard neighbouring countries such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka as being in New Delhi’s sphere of interest. India’s maritime policy in the Indian Ocean argues that ‘choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.’

Since the end of the Cold War, the US Navy has been declining – from about 600 warships to just under 300 – while the China and India have been buying and manufacturing their own ships. India is expanding its regional influence but its domestic military and shipbuilding industries are far behind those of China.

However, with about 150 ships, the Indian Navy is a major force, though well behind the navies of the US and China. A major naval build-up is underway: New Delhi expects to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers within the next five or six years. Its emphasis on developing mid-air refuelling capability and long range missiles also worries China because Asia’s two hyper-economies are seeking to strengthen their militaries in much the same way.

An arms race is looming. India has been the developing world’s largest arms buyer for much of the last decade. Indian Navy (IN) sources told Africa-Asia Confidential that their intelligence on the strategically-located and expanding Chinese naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island will hasten India’s long-delayed indigenous, nuclear-powered submarine programme that is due to begin sea trials in 2009-10.

India is also expected to accelerate the early introduction of a Russian nuclear-powered submarine (nearing completion at Komsomolsk-on-Amur) in its fleet on a 10-year lease. There are many unresolved Chinese territorial claims in the region. The Sanya base has extensive underground facilities for nuclear submarines. Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing look set to rise as the gap in power between them diminishes.

Great powers: China

China is using its continued GDP growth, even at its diminished rate of 6.5% for 2009, to consolidate economic gains and to turn them into political ones. Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband sent the strongest signal – from any Western politician – that this had already happened, when he said that ‘America and China are the powers that count.’

China is continuing with its naval development through higher budget allocation and procurement. It aims to field a ‘blue water’ navy with longer sea legs based on carrier-borne task forces, nuclear and ballistic-armed nuclear submarines. These were showcased at the Chinese International Fleet Review in April 2009 to mark the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 60th anniversary off Tsingtao port in Shandong Province.

While technologically behind the US fleet, the PLAN is due to become numerically superior within the next few years. President Hu Jintao is quick to deny that China’s moves should be seen as a quest for hegemony or the beginnings of an Asian arms race, but the military’s rapid modernisation will not be ignored. China is currently producing and buying submarines at a rate five times faster than that of the US.

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