Unfolding geopolitical dynamic


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THE Indian Ocean Region has long been a major geopolitical theatre of the world. As home to some of the oldest civilizations, a source of many of the world’s great religions, and a record of expansive trade and connectivity within itself and the abutting regions, the IOR has been at the heart of the evolution of international history.1 Although its strategic significance has endured through the ages, the IOR is getting a fresh salience amidst the region’s role in shaping global economic integration, the changing distribution of power among the big nations, and the increasing political volatility in the littoral.

Meanwhile religious extremism, terrorism, the collapse of state structures, the transnational power of non-state actors, a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and a host of non-traditional security threats express themselves most virulently in the Indian Ocean Region. All these factors make the Indian Ocean a critical realm of world politics in the 21st century.2 Each of these factors and their interplay and impact on the region’s prospects are drawing close scrutiny from national policy makers and international relations scholars around the world. The focus of this paper is limited to the unfolding geopolitical dynamic within the Indian Ocean Region.

The current strategic debates about the Indian Ocean are somewhat similar to the ones that took place more than four decades ago, when Great Britain announced the withdrawal of its forces from East of the Suez.3 Then and now, the big question is about the meaning and consequences of a power transition in the Indian Ocean. In the late 1960s, there was no doubt over who might replace Great Britain as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. The only issue then was how the United States would organize itself to manage the affairs of the Indian Ocean. The change of guard four and a half decades ago was a relatively smooth one for it shifted the burden of securing the Indian Ocean from one Anglo-Saxon power to another. That the two were strong allies and shared basic values helped make the transition quick and decisive. The current power transition, however, could well be longer and more complicated and, therefore, likely to be accompanied by considerable instability.


The decline of the old powers and the rise of new ones provides the context for reordering power hierarchies, recasting norms and restructuring institutions. At the present juncture, there are many who argue that the decline of the United States is inevitable and a reorganization of the balance of power in the Indian and Pacific oceans is necessary amidst the rise of China and the emergence of India. Others argue that structural change in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean may be inevitable, but is not imminent. They insist that the United States will remain the pre-eminent power in the world and in our own littoral. They also point to the fact that even if American power is in relative decline, there is no single power or coalition that is capable of replacing the United States as the main provider of regional security in the IOR.

Although assessments of the IOR’s strategic future will continue to be contested for a long time, some trends are indisputable. The overall size of the U.S. Navy is on the decline and the cost of deployment in the Indian Ocean can only rise. While the American lead in military and naval technologies is undeniable and likely to endure for some time, many argue that the kind of primacy that the United States has enjoyed in the Indian Ocean littoral since the early 1970s will be difficult to sustain.4 Meanwhile, there is a significant decline in American public support for interventionary operations around the world. The failure of the expensive American military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade has also divided the American foreign policy establishment, many of whom believe the U.S. should focus on its internal challenges and exercise greater restraint in the conduct of foreign policy.5


The world is factoring in the growing economic and naval capabilities of China and India. China is now the second largest economy in the world. India is inching its way to becoming one of the top five in the next decade. The rapid accretion of economic power means Beijing and Delhi will be able to devote a part of it to acquiring a stronger military muscle. An increase in the economic mass of China and India will intensify their gravitational pull and most certainly reconfigure the geopolitical space in the littoral of the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific. The widening circle of their national interests also means that China and India are today more reliant on the seas than ever before in their history. The more integrated China and India become with the world economy, the greater are their stakes at sea. If oceans are the lifelines for the economic well-being of nearly two and a half billion people, Beijing and Delhi are bound to invest heavily in building naval power and moving towards blue water capabilities.

It is, however, unhelpful to focus excessively on the power of rising China and emerging India. While Chinese naval power is growing, its ability to establish authority over the IOR is constrained by the tyranny of geography if nothing else. Beijing’s naval operations in the IOR must secure long lines of communications and in the absence of a home-port in the littoral, they remain vulnerable. While India is emerging as a major power, and has many geographic advantages in the Indian Ocean, its priorities must for quite some time remain the stabilization of the subcontinent and the construction of a peaceful periphery in South Asia. Although India’s maritime interests are growing, they must be balanced against the enduring continental challenges.


Meanwhile other major powers like France, individually, and the European Union, collectively, have stakes in the Indian Ocean. The Russian interest in the Indian Ocean too has revived after some decades. China is not the only East Asian power interested in the Indian Ocean Region. Japan and South Korea too have a great stake in the stability of the IOR and the security of the sea lines of communication there. Besides the major powers, the region is also home to some of the world’s largest nations, including Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and South Africa, to name a few. Many of these countries are rapidly transforming their military/naval capabilities. Even small countries today are acquiring powerful submarines and other instruments of sea denial against major powers. Some of them are locked in a conflict with their neighbours. Along with the reordering of great power relations, there is a power shift in all key sub-regions of the IOR.

If these structural changes make it difficult to assess the strategic prospects of the IOR, and the dynamics of great power relations have once again become quite fluid, it would seem logical that the IOR should explore collective security measures and multilateral confidence building measures. The fact, however, is that there is no tradition of collective or cooperative security arrangements in the IOR. Nor has there been a credible effort in the littoral to build regional institutions that could mitigate the great power rivalry and other traditional and non-traditional threats to security.


Although the IOR has looked for such measures in the past, there was little success. When the transition from the United Kingdom to the United States was being organized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Indian Ocean littoral states called for a zone of peace in the region with the approval of the UN General Assembly. The Anglo-American powers and the West viewed the somewhat weak and incoherent effort led by the non-aligned states as a threat to their primacy in the IOR and as supporting Moscow’s effort to delegitimize their presence in the region. While many developing states paid lip sympathy to the concept of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ), they were driven by their national logic to align with either Washington or Moscow or play one against the other during the Cold War. Political differences within the littoral also prevented a consensus on constructing an agreement on the IOPZ.6 The popularization of the slogan of IOPZ in the 1970s, nevertheless, saw a brief set of negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on limiting their naval and nuclear arms in the Indian Ocean. Needless to say the talks never really took off as the U.S.-Soviet détente collapsed and renewed confrontation between the superpowers took hold of the IOR at the end of the 1970s.7

The end of the Cold War saw a renewed effort to build regional organizations in the littoral. Notable among them was the creation of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) that was set up in 1997. Unfortunately there was not much momentum behind the organization until recently.8 Over the last few years, there has been renewed interest in the IOR-ARC which has been renamed as IORA and is getting some push from the regional countries, including India, Australia and Indonesia. Expanding economic activity within the IOR, amidst the rapid globalization of the economies of Africa and the subcontinent, and the growing interdependence between the oil producing economies of the Gulf and the resource-rich African countries on the one hand, and the dynamic East Asian economies, on the other, have led to renewed interest in regional economic cooperation.9


Many analysts of the Indian Ocean recognize the extraordinary diversity of the region and the difficulty of constructing a comprehensive regional framework for security management. There is no denying that the IOR is way behind the Western Pacific and East Asia in creating effective regional mechanisms for security consultations. Yet, there has been a growing recognition of the need for multilateral engagement on maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean. Since the early 1990s, India has been convening biennial Milan exercises in the Bay of Bengal. Initially meant as a confidence building exercise with India’s neighbours, the Milan series now draws participation from all across the Indian Ocean.


In March 2008, India undertook a much larger initiative of convening all the chiefs of navies from the littoral, called the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. Since then the forum has met every two years and has become an important platform for professional exchanges between the naval establishments of the region. In the wake of the growing piracy challenge in the Gulf of Aden in the last decade, there has been considerable maritime security cooperation among the regional and extra-regional powers.

The littoral has also set a better example than East Asia on some issues. While territorial disputes have undermined peace in the East and South China Seas, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar have resolved their territorial disputes through international arbitration.10 Although these trends need to acquire much greater traction, they signal the emerging possibilities for expanded regional cooperation in the IOR. The regional countries were unable in the late 1960s and in the early 1990s to seize the moment for building a lasting security framework for the littoral that is owned by the region itself. Today amidst new geopolitical uncertainties, the littoral needs security cooperation more than ever before. And unlike in the past, they might be much better placed this time around to construct such a cooperative security order in the Indian Ocean.



1. For a classic history, see Michael Pearson, The Indian Ocean. Routledge, London and New York, 2003.

2. See for example, Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Random House, New York, 2010.

3. Jeffrey Pickering, Britain’s Withdrawal from East of Suez: The Politics of Retrenchment. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998.

4. For a strong viewpoint on the challenges facing the U.S. Navy, see Seth Cropsey, May Day: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy. The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, New York, 2014.

5. See for example, Richard N. Haass, Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order. Basic Books, New York, 2013; Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2014.

6. For a review of the debates, see Dieter Braun, The Indian Ocean: Region of Conflict or ‘Zone of Peace’. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983.

7. Rodney W. Jones, ‘Ballistic Missile Submarines and Arms Control in the Indian Ocean’, Asian Survey 20(3), March 1980, pp. 269-79.

8. Saman Kalegama, ‘Indian Ocean Regionalism: Is There a Future?’ Economic and Political Weekly 37(25), 22 June 2002, pp. 2422-25.

9. For a contemporary assessment, see the forthcoming volume by Dennis Rumley and Timothy Doyle (eds.), Indian Ocean Regionalism. Routledge, London, 2014.

10. Zacahary Keck, ‘How South Asia Resolves Maritime Disputes’, The Diplomat, 10 July 2014, available at http://thediplomat. com/2014/07/how-south-asia-resolves-maritime-disputes/