Power Politics in Indian Ocean.
Global politics will always retain its relevance and global powers are always in search for a platform to vie. Indian Ocean has become such a platform for the global leadership. Global shift from geo-politics to geo-economics and use of sea lanes for global trade and energy transportation have rendered the importance of ports and seas more discernible. It is in this backdrop that the maritime security domain of Asia and the Pacific is changing rapidly primarily driven by the rise of middle powers, growth and expanding ambitions.
Indian Ocean region is considered significant for the major powers in the international political arena. These powers see their security, economic and political interests connected to the region tightly; particularly, because of the large resources, dense population and consumer markets. Their initiatives and policies towards the region determine the course of the international relations, and also those of the region. Therefore, it is necessary to see how these powers design their strategies towards the region and what initiatives they take to pursue their interests, and what can be the possible consequences of these strategies on the region as a whole.
- The United States
The strategy of the United States in Indian Ocean is security-oriented, which pursues more military strength in the region. The strategy can be comprehended through what Trump administration termed Indo-Pacific Strategy, also Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, which considers the Indian Ocean and Pacific region together. Though given a new name, this strategy is not much different from the one adopted by the Obama administration – the Asia-Pacific Rebalance. The projects and initiatives that were the part of Obama strategy are also the main components of Indo-Pacific Strategy, except that in the latter, the US withdrew from the Tans-Pacific Partnership.
A significant aspect of this strategy, keeping in consideration the Indian Ocean region (IOR), is its motivation for a larger role of India here. In fact, this aspect is linked to the George W. Bush’s idea of Quad – a coalition of Australia, Japan, US and India. The basic aim of such a priority is to exert influence in the region and also to counter the growing influence of China. As a matter of fact, the US has been looking at India for a balance of power strategy in South Asia and the IOR.
However, to understand the overall strategy of the US in the IOR, it is vital to see it in connection to their South Asian policy, that sees to exert pressure on Pakistan for the war against terrorism and also to seek solution for the Afghan issue. The policy sees better economic and military relations with India and a stricter role against Pakistan – one of the reasons being the development of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Through CPEC, China’s vision of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is being realized, which can further strengthen China’s economic relations with Gulf and African countries. It also puts Pakistan in an important position, and makes it a key state in the realization of BRI.
As far as US policies towards Gulf and African countries are concerned, they are highly military-based. The US has established many military bases at Diego Garcia and in the Persian Gulf. Some of its bases are also located at Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and in Ethiopia. These bases can house around 5,000 personnel at a time, and can be moved quickly for military manoeuvres in the region. The military bases at Persian Gulf are mostly directed towards Iran because of its sour relations with the country. Moreover, the same can be used against Russia and China that seem to be making their military presence felt in the region. These military bases have also supported the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE, to strengthen their military capabilities against Iran.
Thus, the role of the US in the IOR can be considered security-oriented, mostly to create a balance of power against China, Russia and Iran.
China sees the Indian Ocean region vital for its grand strategy and significant economic interests. The IOR is indispensable for its Maritime Silk Road initiative which is a sea-based part of the greater BRI. China’s Indian Ocean policy includes all the areas around the ocean, stretching from East Asia to Persian Gulf and then to the African continent. An important part of this initiative is CPEC, which is the trade corridor from western China, through Pakistan and reaching Indian Ocean through Gwadar Port. The initiative is a multi-billion-dollar programme, including development and infrastructure projects, with the aim to facilitate economical and speedy Chinese trade to the Middle East and the African countries.
China has been establishing important trade links with the Gulf countries and Iran as well.
China’s technology business has huge markets in Gulf countries. However, the country has made sure that its relations with countries like Saudi Arabia do not influence those with Iran. Moreover, China has reached to African countries as well, and it is the most-favoured trading partner of the countries in Africa. Recently, China has established military base in Djibouti – the only military initiative by China in recent years. Moreover, it has participated in military exercises in Indian Ocean with Russia. However, China has always placed more importance to economic priorities in the IOR.
In the light of above information, it is not difficult to see an intense power struggle in the Indian Ocean region between the two great powers of the world – US and China. However, it is vital that this competition must not turn into military adventurism. Competition in the economic sphere can help countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran to benefit to a large extent; however, untamed power politics based on military dominance can only lead to further misery for the South Asian, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and the Southeast Asian regions.
Russia has been emerging as an important military power at the international and regional arena, particularly, under Vladimir Putin. Though it has lost the glory it once possessed within USSR, it has gained new political and military role since the dawn of the 21st century.
As far as Indian Ocean is concerned, Russia sees it in the light of striking a balance against the growing role of the US. Though it has not been able to counter that alone, it has made some important difference in cooperation with China. Russia, very recently, was involved in a military training with China and Iran in Indian Ocean. Iran has been an arch-rival to the US, which has always countered US interests in the Middle East, Central Asia and Afghanistan, and Russia has always backed Iran’s such initiatives. Moreover, it has been involved in serious confrontations with the US in North Arabian Sea recently. Russian and US ships hit with angry glare in the sea. The US Fifth Fleet claimed that the USS Farragut, was “aggressively approached” by the Russian Navy. While the Russian Ministry of Defense criticized the American accusation and said that the US ship “crossed the Russian navy’s traffic lane in a deliberate breach of international health regulations.”
Moreover, Russia has been trying to play a role in Sri Lanka so that it can convince the country for favourable relations with Russia and China. The US and India have been active in Sri Lanka to back the government of their choice, which could deal serious blow to the Chinese and Russian interests. However, currently, Russia and China seem to have more favourable circumstances in Sri Lanka, where China has an important sea port.
Thus, Russia’s role in Indian Ocean region also appears to be more security-oriented. It has an imperative role to balance the power against the US, and in cooperation with China, which can provide for the financial support, Russia can prove to be a serious challenge for the US.
India has always considered Indian Ocean as ‘its own’ and has been making efforts to establish its dominance in the sea. However, it has been facing severe challenges from China, in particular. India’s current strategy in Indian Ocean region can be understood through Narendra Modi’s so-called vision of “Security and Growth for All in the Region” or SAGAR. Within this vision, India considers the region to extend from the Gulf of Aden in the west to Burma and Thailand in the east. However, it excludes Pakistan from the region, placing more emphasis on Chabahar Port in Iran. India’s exclusion of Pakistan is because of the long-lasting troubled relations between both the countries. Moreover, as Pakistan has gained importance as a result of CPEC, India wants to counter it through Chabahar. In the process, India also wants to counter growing influence of China, with which it has serious border tensions that experienced further deterioration recently. India is also being backed by the US to create a balance of power against China in the region.
Another Indian tactic within the Indian Ocean region is its Look East policy that seeks to establish strong commercial ties with the South East and East Asian nations. At the same time, India has been able to establish closer trade relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Qatar and Oman to secure energy resources for its growing economy. Indian’s relations with GCC and Iran are imperative as far as Pakistan’s relations with them are concerned. Though GCC countries have always had favourable relations with Pakistan, they have prioritized India in certain cases because of its large consumer market.
Indian role in IOR currently has the backing of the US; however, it has also made sure that its role is not purely security-oriented. Though US will further push and support India for such a role, particularly, to counter China, it is very difficult and inappropriate for India to pursue it, as it will ultimately, put India in a difficult position as far as its economic relations are concerned.
- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan
Other important countries within the Indian Ocean region are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are two important countries in Persian Gulf. They have large petroleum resources, which have always kept them relevant in the region. Both the countries became the target of multinational European and American oil companies, that developed their oil reservoirs and, at the same time, utilized them for their own benefits. In fact, the oil politics in both Iran and Saudi Arabia kept both the countries under the control of Western powers. Unfortunately, both the countries also developed differences between each other on the basis of sect. Even today, they are arch-rival to each other because of the same, and also because the same has been utilized by the Western powers to further harm their relations.
Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have imperative role in Indian Ocean because they have huge transportation of oil through the region. These transportation routes and the important choke points in the Persian Gulf have been determining the role of regional and international players to a large extent, and will keep on doing so for some time in near future.
Pakistan is also being considered an important country in Indian Ocean because of its sea ports in Karachi and Gwadar. CPEC has further amplified this role and put Pakistan relevant in the regional and international politics. Pakistan’s strategic importance has always been accepted; however, because of certain politico-economic challenges, the country has not been able to leave its marks as it could have. China’s rising power, involving Pakistan’s role, and the US concerns and efforts to put a check on that power have brought Pakistan at a very crucial juncture of its history. Moreover, the US’s dependence on Pakistan to strike a peace deal in Afghanistan has also made Pakistan’s role significant. However, it is to be seen how the policy and decision- makers take advantages of these facts and scenario.
A cold war among major powers, which collectively account for nearly half the global economy, has already started. This will also lead to the formation of blocs in the Indian Ocean region, with China on one side and India on the opposing side. Such agreements and holding the exercise at Malabar under the Quad platform both in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea is a clear manifestation of the Indian desire to contain China in the IOR and dilute China’s growing influence over rim states. The Indian approach is indirectly aimed at marginalizing Pakistan’s role in the region while promoting its own role as net security provider. This state of affairs will have scathing economic, technological and military repercussions for the regional countries, including Pakistan.a