With the onset of globalization, the frequency of maritime trade of resources, rapidity in communication and, timely, but purposeful interaction among states in the international system has become the common norm; correspondingly the significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has become more prominent for the international community.
IOR consists of the Indian Ocean, its forty-seven littoral states, and several strategically important islands. Geographically, it covers the twenty percent of earth’s surface, that is about seventy-four million square kilometers in the terms of area. This region habits one-third of the world’s human population. It’s possession of the world’s one-third of gas reserves and more than half of the strategic resources makes it one of the most resource-rich regions of the world. Huge deposits of gold, diamond, uranium, iron, coal, tea, jute, and etc. are also present here.
This maritime region is home to not only nine strategically, but also economically important choke points that include Strait of Malacca, Lombok, and Sundas in the East, Red sea Corridor, Suez Canal and Strait of Hormuz in the West, and Cape of Good Hope in the South. The access to IOR is controlled by these passages with five Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs). These SLOCs are used to transport energy. The Indian Ocean links the flourishing economies of Asian countries and the developed economies of Europe with the carbon-rich fields of the Middle East and the raw materials of the African continent.
According to a study, forty percent of the world’s energy supplies are either found in this region or pass through the Indian Ocean via the Persian Gulf to Europe and Asia. (Peter Dombrowski, Andrew C. Winner, The Indian Ocean, and US Grand Strategy, 2014)
Many powers of the world tried to assert their influence the Indian Ocean region through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements. Most prominent power of all — United States of America — which is also the largest importer of energy resources from the African continent and the West Asian region. The USA holds an important base — Diego Garcia — in the heart of the IOR. The Diego Garcia was used in the Cold War era against the Soviet expansion. Recently, this base is being used for the USA-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
USA’s interest and involvement in the oceans began when Washington brought its troops, war materials, and goods to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean during the World War I. Though, the Indian Ocean did not achieve the significant attention of American policymakers and strategists until World War II. The US policymakers’ primary interest has been to protect the flow of Middle Eastern oil and to initially contain the advances of former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in warm waters of Indian Ocean. Now Washington is considered to be the “de facto security provider” for Indian Oceans’ five sea lines of communications (SLOCs), which are used to transport energy, since the 1960s.
Ashley J. Tellis argues that USA’s grand strategy has had three fundamental goals since World War II i.e. to prevent — external hegemonic control over critical geopolitical areas of the world, the rise of other threats to the global commons — and to expand the liberal political order internationally to sustain an open economic regime. According to him, these three fundamental goals of the USA in the Indian Ocean Region are still unchanged and are likely to remain unchanged in the future as well. The formerly ignored Indian Ocean is, in Robert Kaplan’s view, on the verge of becoming a new international strategic locus for the USA.
Besides the USA, the IOR is perhaps equally more important strategic region for the rising power — China — as it provides access to the Beijing’s massive manufacturing capabilities with wealthy European markets.
Since China is gravely dependent on oil, the Middle Eastern region emerges as a Beijing’s largest source for its oil imports. According to Andrew Winner and Peter Dombrowski, its dependence on the Middle Eastern oil is predicted to increase to seventy-five percent by 2035 and almost all of it will pass through the Indian Ocean.
The evolving contest for power between rising resources-hungry-China and the world’s sole-superpower-USA is the recent development in the IOR. This power contest between the Washington and Beijing can be realized from their two strategies (i.e. former USA president, Barack Obama administration’s “rebalance strategy” with the idea of Indo-pacific and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s maritime Silk Road initiative). These strategies of both states are different from traditional security challenges such as piracy, and natural disasters.
To conclude, the increasing dependence of two great powers and several other regional powers on the Indian Ocean has replaced the place of the world’s second largest ocean, Atlantic Ocean, as a central artery of commerce. This immense economic and strategic significance of IOR compels the policymakers of established power (USA) and rising power (China) not to ignore this region while formulating their foreign and defense policies. As IOR has a great significance for the USA and China, any future conflict or cooperation among Washington, Beijing, and the other Littoral States in the Indian Ocean Region will have regional and International consequences.
Anwer Ali Bhurgri is pursuing his M.Phil degree from Department of International Relations, National Defence University Islamabad. He can be contacted at email@example.com.