The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has, throughout history, been a theater of intense endeavor, enterprise, competition and friction. The IOR has long been a pivot in global power equations, whose domination or control has facilitated prosperity, and even mastery, of the greater global commons. With the fast growing economies of India and China vying for their share of this resource rich ocean, their global hunt for energy and the ever growing importance of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) via the volatile Strait of Hormuz and narrow Strait of Malacca have made this ocean the global cockpit of great power rivalries. With the imperative of geoeconomics over geopolitics, and the shift in the balance of power from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific (earlier referred to as the Asia-Pacific by the western world) combined with the strategic location of the Indian Ocean, the IOR, as U.S. strategic thinker Robert D Kaplan opined in his work “Monsoon,” is the “center stage for the 21st century.” This revisits the Mahanian terminology concerning the importance of sea power in the future, in which the “new great power game” in the IOR is slowly but steadily unfolding.
The Indo-Pacific region is an area of both relative insecurity and strategic instability. It contains some significant flashpoints and has its share of border issues, acts of terrorism and overlapping maritime claims. The Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific region possesses significant multilateral structures, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Most regional institutions revolve around ASEAN, including the East Asian Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the various “ASEAN Plus” groupings. The membership of the EAS includes India, but the various ASEAN-centric institutions have focused mainly on East Asia, while the IOR has received less attention. Southeast Asia is often regarded as a distinctively maritime sub-region, and as a maritime bridge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In many ways, it is the geographic center of gravity for the wider Indo-Pacific region.
Increasingly, it makes sense to conceive of a wider Indo-Pacific region rather than the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific and its various sub-regions. Economic connectivity across the Indo-Pacific region depends largely on maritime links, for the trade and energy supplies needed to propel future growth. The IOR in many ways is the geographical center of gravity for the wider Indo-Pacific region. Sitting astride significant choke points between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Southeast Asia also surrounds the South China Sea, and is thus economically and strategically vital to the emerging economies of Asia. With widespread concern for the security of SLOCs across the IOR and Southeast Asia, there is no doubt that there will be a renewed interest among extra-regional countries in the IOR.
The importance of maritime security has been highlighted by the recent establishment of the ASEAN Maritime Forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security. Established in 1967, ASEAN has proven to be a very successful regional association. It has much to offer the IOR and its sub-regions, as the larger region moves toward a new era of development and regional institution-building. It could play a useful role in dampening some of the instability that is emerging in the IOR.
In the spirit of the Indo-Pacific regional concept, ASEAN should be more active in pursuing its common interests and links with the IOR, by helping to provide greater strategic certainty within the region. ASEAN should promote regional institution-building by supporting moves to rejuvenate the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and others. It could then focus on a wider range of regional issues, including energy security, as the region is teaming with multifaceted security risks ranging from maritime piracy to arms smuggling, and threats from both state and non-state sponsored terrorism. With security forums like ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEANPOL and others, ASEAN should support cooperative measures for shipping security by strengthening the role of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in the IOR, which is pivotal for energy security that fuels the growth of ASEAN’s economies.
With a view towards enhancing the provision of speedy, responsive and effective humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations across the IOR, the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) might give some attention to these issues within the IOR, beyond its own immediate interests. Learning from the devastating tsunami of 2004, a study should be initiated by ASEAN concerning the maritime needs of the less developed countries within the IOR, and the potential for ASEAN to provide assistance, including training and human resource development, to these countries in areas such as port development and management, coastal zone management, EEZ management and the mitigation of maritime natural disasters.
The IOR is home to about 2 billion people and serves as a global energy highway with nearly 50 percent of the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of the world’s petroleum products traveling through its waters. In a complex, globalized and interdependent world, the IOR could be the global commons that is most contested amongst the great powers.
ASEAN, as a potential stabilizer in the region, and its member countries cannot afford to ignore these trends, and should pay increased attention to promoting links with all important actors in the IOR, and particularly with an emerging great power like India. Rather than being able to pick and choose policy options, this has become a security imperative for ASEAN. China’s naval inroads in the region via its string of pearls strategy, and its “historical” claims to “own” the entire South China Sea, together with the benignly viewed rise of democratic India’s naval prowess, are fraught with the prospect of protracted maritime disputes. This resource rich but highly volatile region will shape Asia’s strategic destiny in the 21st century, and be driven solely by the power of geoeconomics, as foretold by Mahan or Panikkar in the past, or as retold by Robert D Kaplan or C Raja Mohan in the present. Is ASEAN ready for this coming “new great power game” in the IOR, and in its backyard in the South China Sea?
Sourabh Jyoti Sharma is a research scholar pursuing a PhD, and is currently working on “Chinese Navy in Indian Ocean and Strategic Implications for India,” at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University. He can be contacted at [email protected].