Indian Ocean Region – Nucleus of Maritime Realpolitik

Nichols Spyman coined the Theory of Rimland, in 1942 countering Mackinder’s Heartland theory. Spyman stated that Eurasia’s Rimland, the coastal areas, is the key to control the World Island. Spyman said that ‘whoever would control the Rimland, would eventually control the World Island. Whoever would control the World Island would soon control the world’.

United States’ (US) famous naval strategists and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan further endorsed this idea with his sea supremacy theory. Mahan formulated that attaining supremacy of sea‐power and establishing land‐bases along the shore‐lines of different seas and bays of international waters will give countries the edge to rule the world. This trend can be seen in Indian Ocean Region (IOR), as different actors are contesting to achieve maximum benefit giving rise to tensions and competition.

The world today is witnessing power struggle in the same context. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has long transformed into a competitive zone for existing and emerging powers of the world. Regional as well as international power are viewing their destinies in the high waters of an ocean that is the third largest on the globe. Indo – China rivalry in the IOR has grown with the passage of time highlighting the importance of this region.

The geopolitical features of the Ocean make it vulnerable to control at five main points: (i) the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa; (ii) the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea; (iii) the Strait of Hormuz at the southern end of the Persian Gulf;(iv) the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia; and (v) the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

Huge amounts of resources are lying under the IOR in the form of crude oil, natural gas, minerals, and fisheries. The Bay of Bengal (BoB) contains a wide range of fossil fuels and hydrocarbons. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the major assets located at the juncture. More than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through the Indian Ocean choke points; with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait.

Both of them are striving hard for the control since the relative disengagement of the United States (US). The two have had strong historical and cultural ties to the Indian waters. India cogitates it as ‘Ratnakara’, Sanskrit for the ‘mine of gems’ whereas the latter sees it as the very connection that would revive the Old Silk Route.

IOR holds paramount significance for China. A strong presence is pertinent for China to pursue its economic and political interests, constrained by adversaries in the South China Sea. The Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) are essential for the energy consuming country which relies on the Middle East to fulfill 80 percent of its oil requirements. Six out eight million barrels of oil per day are transported through sea routes in China.

In this scenario, any cordon of Strait of Malacca and Hormuz is highly unacceptable for an economy that is projected to surpass the US in decades to come. In addition to China, many other chief states in the South Asian region such as Japan and India are dependent on the Middle East for petroleum. Any disruption in these SLOC can lead to economic cessation of major powers, similar to what was witnessed during the First and Second World War.

China has pursued the ‘Strings of Pearls’ safeguarding its dominance from South-China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, from the Arabian Sea to Gulf of Aden & further to Bab-el-Mandeb in the Red Sea. China has leased a port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka following this strategy. The Chinese presence in Gwadar Port gives it access to maintain steadfastness over Strait of Malacca in addition to having an eye over Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. China also maintains a logistics facility in Djibouti near Bab-el-Mandeb for anti-piracy sea patrols in the region.

To get hold of the resources, India has heavily militarized these islands and is increasing its presence at a fast pace. It has also stationed its special naval forces in the territory and aims to increase the patrolling networks in the region. India has also made an agreement to acquire drones for monitoring the Chinese advancements in the region. India has tried to counter the Chinese strategy & has established adjacent or near-by bases with China; for surveillance and competing with China on all fronts.

Going by the aphorism ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend’, China has cultivated and cemented relations with Pakistan while India has partnered with the US openly with a ‘Look East Policy’ which allows it to gain new allies, most of whom are China’s adversaries in the troubled waters of the South China Sea.

The relative decline of the US has allowed India and China to maneuver more amenable in a region that is home to three nuclear powers: the former, the latter and Pakistan. US’ decline, deliberate as termed by some analysts, has bolstered India’s footing in the region. The US, while backing India, wants it to follow a more aggressive policy while competing in China. The strong alliance mechanism pursued by India in the form of ‘Look East Policy’ & the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, however, has not been able to contain China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Chinese development in Gwadar via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with Pakistan, has made its presence firm in the area. China has collaborated with developing states portraying itself as a fellow developing country. It has not only developed their infrastructure, military, and technology sector but has also offered economic aid plus soft loans, as & when required, boosting their economies.

China’s excellent use of soft power has also led to gelling of its interests with these states. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision behind these collaborated projects with the developing world is to ensure that their economic interests are safeguarded. The Indian Ocean allows China to achieve its long-term goals to sustain immense fiscal growth, providing it a stronger position to deter enemies and contenders alike. China has also carried out genuine efforts to curb ocean piracy, especially to counter the Somalian pirates, who dented a lot to the passing cargo fleets.

On the other hand, Indian focus has largely remained on economic & strategic domains. It has pursued a more self-serving approach, trying to attract investors and uplift its trade in order to generate maximum revenue instead of mutually benefitting the partner. Indian cooperation is mostly aimed to augment its political clout over the states for containing China.

India signed a nuclear cooperation accord with Japan in November 2016, opening the door for Tokyo to supply New Delhi with fuel, equipment, and technology for nuclear power production. For the first time, Japan concluded such a pact with a country that is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Japan also became a regular member of the annual US–India Malabar exercises in the BoB in 2015 for the first time in 8 years, during which three countries conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises.

The IOR is mounting to become the nexus of world power and conflict in the coming decades. Both India and China are rising military and naval powers in the IOR, apart from the United States Navy, which has remained predominant since the 20th century. If the dots are connected, the United States and Japan are almost directly working with India to upgrade its military potential and capacity. On the other hand, Pakistan is China’s staunchest ally in South Asia in addition to other smaller nations which may fall back to China for both economic and military support. India is also actively trying to woo over the smaller nations in the IOR, including the island nation-states, so a tug-of-war between India and China is clearly visible.

To conclude, two Asiatic giants i.e. India and China would be or have already reached the Great Power Status in IOR. The ‘Great Game’ involves, apart from a leadership role, territorial disputes, competition for accessing resources, military alliances, alignments, ententes and so forth, economic influence, soft politics, and value diplomacy. Chinese concerns over both the oceans i.e. the Pacific and Indian emanate from its South amid which an emerging India becomes a potential threat. However, India, on its own, cannot be a match to China in the foreseeable future. But like all social sciences, uncertainty prevails in what lies ahead in international relations. As far as the law of the sea is concerned, the oceans are international waters that remain open for all states, no one party has the exclusive right or jurisdiction to impede in any way the right of other states beyond what is permissible. However, historically speaking international law has had little effect on the power politics of great powers. Mostly, the state with more strategic power and political clout fills the lacuna provided by international maritime laws.

Published in Melange Intl. Magazin in July 2018.


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About Sarmad Ali Khan 5 Articles
The writer is Staff Reporter & Content Writer in ‘Mélange Intl. Magazine' & ‘ The Asian Telegraph’ (COPAIR).