The strategic environment in the Indian Ocean is changing fast. In the last few years we have seen growing strategic rivalry between major powers such as China and India as they expand their roles in the region. We are now also seeing new players competing to build their own areas of influence and blocs in the Indian Ocean.
These developments may presage the beginnings of a new Indian Ocean strategic order – a much more complex and multipolar region, where a number of major and middle powers jostle for influence and position. Although the United States remains the biggest military power in the region, it will increasingly need to deal with a much more complex environment, one in which it will not always have a leading role.
China’s Rapidly Expanding Military Presence in the Indian Ocean
It is no surprise that the biggest change in the regional strategic environment is being caused by China. China has long been excluded from the Indian Ocean by the tyranny of geography. Cut off from easy overland access to the ocean, China’s maritime access to the Indian Ocean is long and uncertain. But given the level of China’s dependence on foreign oil and other interests in the region, it has been considered almost inevitable that China will pay a lot more attention to the Indian Ocean in the long term.
But China is now moving faster than many expected to build a military role in the Indian Ocean. This includes the development of a network of naval and military bases around the Indian Ocean littoral, starting with Djibouti (opened last year) and a new base likely to be built at or near Gwadar in Pakistan. Further Chinese bases are likely in East Africa and perhaps in the central/eastern Indian Ocean. A network of bases — of varying types and size — will help maximize China’s options in responding to contingencies affecting its interests, including support for anti-piracy operations, noncombatant evacuations, protection of Chinese nationals and property, and potentially, interventions into Indian Ocean littoral states or other regional countries.
It is unlikely that China will be in a position to challenge U.S. dominance in the Indian Ocean for some years to come. But it will be poised to take advantage of strategic opportunities or step into any perceived power vacuums.
India is particularly alarmed by the growing Chinese presence in the region and is responding. This includes building forward operating bases or staging facilities in India’s own Andaman and Nicobar Islands – near the Malacca Strait – as well as in island states such as Seychelles and Mauritius. The recent finalization of a logistics exchange deal between India and France also potentially opens up French facilities in the western Indian Ocean (such as Djibouti and Reunion) for use by India. The latest development is a deal between India and Oman, under which the Indian Navy will have access to the port of Duqm in Oman for logistics and maintenance. The deal may also include the development of oil storage facilities near Duqm for use as part of India’s strategic oil reserve.
China’s moves, and U.S. and Indian responses, have led some analysts to worry about a “new Cold War” brewing in the Indian Ocean. Although the Trump administration has recently announced its new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy” it is not clear what this means in practice for the Indian Ocean. There is little evidence as yet that the United States is a serious player in countering the influence that Beijing is buying with its Belt and Road Initiative.
New “Nontraditional” Players in the Indian Ocean
But China is not the only new factor in the Indian Ocean. Several new “nontraditional” players have become active in the Indian Ocean region, which may make the regional security environment much more complex than in the past. These include regional middle powers such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Iran, which have played little or no security role in the Indian Ocean in modern times. Those countries were previously preoccupied by domestic or local problems, but for several reasons they are playing a more active role in Indian Ocean affairs, and will likely play an even greater role in future.
We are currently seeing a race by new players such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Turkey to build naval and military bases right across the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia has recently finalized a deal to establish a naval base in Djibouti. Its ally, the UAE (which U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis once dubbed a “Little Sparta”), has just built major naval and air facilities at Assab in nearby Eritrea and runs a training center in Mogadishu, Somalia.
For its part, Turkey has recently signed a defense deal with Sudan under which Turkey will rebuild the old Ottoman-era port of Suakin on the Red Sea, reportedly to include the development of naval facilities. This would come on top of Turkey’s existing military facilities at Qatar (where some 3,000 troops are now stationed) and at Mogadishu.
The immediate imperative behind these moves in the Horn of Africa is rivalry between two new Middle Eastern power blocs: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt on one side and Turkey, Iran, and Qatar on the other. The proxy conflict between these rival blocs in Yemen has a strong naval element, including a naval blockade of rebel supply routes from Iran. This has put a premium on the parties having naval bases in the area.
The rivalry between these two blocs has also reopened a number of other long-standing rivalries and disputes in the region. The recent deal between Turkey and Sudan, which includes a raft of defense and intelligence cooperation, has reignited tensions between Sudan and Egypt, including over an unsettled border and accusations over support for terrorism. Only a few days after the Turkey-Sudan deal, Egyptian troops (with the support of UAE) deployed to Eritrea, apparently in connection with a dam that Ethiopia plans to build a dam across the Nile river and which Egypt regards as an “existential threat.” If this sounds tangled, that’s because it is.
These rivalries are also bleeding further into the Indian Ocean. Saudi Arabia has been engaging in active checkbook diplomacy with the tiny (Muslim) island states of Comoros and the Maldives in an effort to outflank regional rival Iran. Both those countries have severed diplomatic relations with Iran and Qatar and have also signed up to the Saudi’s Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism (IMAT). Although many would consider it unlikely, the potential for a Saudi naval base in the Maldives would significantly increase pressure on Iran. Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with the Maldives is also of growing concern to India.
The UAE, a close Saudi ally, is also spreading its wings. The UAE has long provided financial and political support to small Indian Ocean island states, including giving significant defense assistance to the Seychelles. The UAE is now building a broader political role in the Indian Ocean, including taking the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – the Indian Ocean’s pan regional political grouping – from 2019. This will give the Emirates an important platform to shape the regional agenda. On the other hand, Iran, the UAE’s enemy, will shortly take the chair of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the panregional naval grouping. This bodes ill for attempts by other countries in the region to improve the effectiveness of those groupings.
Not to be outdone, Turkey is also rebuilding a role in the Indian Ocean. Turkey has not been seen near the Indian Ocean for almost a century since the days of Lawrence of Arabia. But over the last few years the country has been undergoing a “global reawakening,” which includes a national remembering of the glories of the Ottoman Empire. In their heyday, the Ottomans exerted influence across the Indian Ocean, including conducting naval expeditions to the Strait of Malacca and beyond. The Ottomans even boasted a protectorate in Aceh, in modern-day Indonesia (one of the most fundamentalist and separatist regions in that country). This rich history is now being disinterred and we should expect to hear more about it in coming years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting himself up as a protector of beleaguered Muslim peoples across the region. Turkey has been one of the most prominent international supporters of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar, and in September 2017 was the first country to deliver aid to the Rohingyas during the latest bout of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar regime.
The Turkish Navy has also come back to the Indian Ocean and has been an active participant in anti-piracy operations, including three stints in command of Combined Task Force 151, the multinational naval coalition that escorts commercial shipping through the Gulf of Aden. The development of a Turkish naval base at Suakin on the Red Sea would significantly expand the Turkish Navy’s regional presence and could even spark a minor race between Turkey and rivals such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia for naval dominance of the Red Sea.
These rivalries playing out in the Indian Ocean are to a large extent driven by rivalries centered in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. But, just as we saw in the Cold War, the jostling of richer and more powerful countries for influence among small and weak Indian Ocean states can spill over into considerable political instability right across the region.
Doubts About U.S. Staying Power
The changes in the Indian Ocean strategic environment also underline doubts over Washington’s commitment to the region, and some regional players appear to be positioning themselves for what they see as an inevitable drawdown in U.S. forces.
America’s friends and competitors are very much aware that the U.S. shale oil revolution has put the United States on the path to becoming the world’s biggest net oil exporter within the next decade. This means that the Persian Gulf may become less of a strategic imperative for the United States, or at least give the United States more options. The U.S. role in the Persian Gulf is, of course, a key plank in U.S. global predominance, but it comes at a major economic cost. It is conceivable that the current (or future) U.S. administration may reach a point where they ask why the U.S. Fifth Fleet is protecting Chinese oil. These doubts have grown in many countries despite the continued commitment of U.S. defense forces to the region. They have only been amplified by the antics of the Trump administration.
A Complex and Multipolar Region
The confluence of these factors is pushing the Indian Ocean towards a much more multipolar and complex strategic environment. Unlike the Pacific, which remains a fundamentally bipolar strategic environment (plus the North Korea problem), the Indian Ocean theater is becoming much more multipolar. This includes the major powers such as the United States, India, and China and a clutch of Western-aligned middle powers such as Australia, France, and Japan. But “new” middle powers, including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and, over time, Iran and Indonesia, will increasingly make themselves felt. Some of these “new” middle powers may not necessarily be hostile to U.S. interests, at least for now, but all of them will ultimately pursue their own interests and agendas.
Dr. David Brewster is a senior analyst with the National Security College, Australian National University, where he works on Indian Ocean affairs. His latest book is India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean.