This is the fourth entry in our series on understanding Asia-Pacific sea power.
As the third-largest body of water in the world, and containing vital sea lanes that help feed some of Asia’s largest economies, the importance of the Indian Ocean has long been clear.
However, the relative decline of US power in the region has left a void that is increasingly being filled by China and India, both eager to secure their position as major powerbrokers in global affairs. It’s this confluence of events and interests that’s starting to make strategic developments in the region particularly interesting right now.
The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are considered among the most strategically important in the world—according to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through 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.
But it’s not just about sea lanes and trade. More than half the world’s armed conflicts are presently located in the Indian Ocean region, while the waters are also home to continually evolving strategic developments including the competing rises of China and India, potential nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamist terrorism, growing incidence of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa,and management of diminishing fishery resources.
As a result of all this, almost all the world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in the Indian Ocean region. For example, in addition to maintaining expeditionary forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US 5th Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and uses the island of Diego Garcia as a major air-naval base and logistics hub for its Indian Ocean operations. In addition, the United States has deployed several major naval task forces there, including Combined Task Force 152, which is aimed at safeguarding the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf,and Combined Task Force 150, which is tasked with countering piracy from the Gulf of Oman to Kenya.
France, meanwhile, is perhaps the last of the major European powers to maintaina significant presence in the north and southwest Indian Ocean quadrants, with naval bases in Djibouti, Reunion, and Abu Dhabi. And, of course, China and India both also have genuine aspirations of developing blue water naval capabilities through the development and acquisition of aircraft carriers and an aggressive modernization and expansion programme.
China’s aggressive soft power diplomacy has widely been seen as arguably the most important element in shaping the Indian Ocean strategic environment, transforming the entire region’s dynamics. By providing large loans on generous repayment terms, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, dams, ports, power plants,and railways, and offering military assistance and political support in the UN Security Council through its veto powers, China has secured considerable goodwill and influence among countries in the Indian Ocean region.