Trans-Pacific View | Security

The US Needs a New Indian Ocean Strategy, Now

It’s time to prioritize the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific.”

By Louis Bergeron, Nick Iorio, and Jeff Payne for
The US Needs a New Indian Ocean Strategy, Now

The U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) maneuvers into formation with the Sri Lankan navy medium endurance cutter Sayura (620) and the offshore patrol vessel Samudura (621) while departing Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan Kirk Johnson

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) matters a great deal to the United States. Robert D. Kaplan said as much a decade ago with his book “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.” Spanning from East Africa and the Middle East to South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia, the IOR is the connective fabric, via sea lines of communication and telecommunications fiber optic submarine cables, linking the economies of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Asia, and Australia. It is also a priority route and theater for U.S. military global power projection capability and capacity. Absent an articulate strategy ruthlessly executed, the United States risks becoming an afterthought in the Indian Ocean, ceding half of the Indo-Pacific to China, which seeks to exert more economic and military presence in the IOR.

Several encouraging signs point to the “Indo” piece of the Indo-Pacific gaining attention in U.S. strategic thinking. The maturation of the “Quad,” a loose security partnership of the United States., India, Australia, and Japan, shows promise. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) has quantitatively and qualitatively enhanced military engagement in the eastern IOR. The new Biden administration has also tapped a collection of security professionals who understand the import of the whole Indo-Pacific to fill key roles.

These signs are helpful, but not sufficient. What remains lacking is a coherent and comprehensive view of the Indo-Pacific that incorporates the entirety of the “Indo” portion of the Indo-Pacific. U.S. strategic calculation for the Indo-Pacific currently stops at the western shores of India, wholly ignoring one half of the IOR (even though speaking at a New Delhi conference in January last year, then Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger had noted that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy covered the area from “California to Kilimanjaro”). As the new U.S. administration takes office, President Joe Biden’s national security team urgently needs to engage the whole IOR.

The Biden administration needs to take three actions to arrest the decline in U.S. relative power and influence in the IOR: First, redefine “Indo-Pacific”; second, develop an Indian Ocean regional strategy articulating short- and long-term ends; and third, put words into action – execute the strategy. In short, treat the IOR as a coherent region, reveal our aims to the region, and show up in support of those aims and our IOR partners/allies.

Redefining the “Indo-Pacific” 

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The first step is to correct the Trump administration’s errors and omissions in the next National Security Strategy (NSS). The White House’s December 2017 NSS made a half-way attempt at conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific region, but it was geographically and geostrategically narrow-minded by constraining the very definition of Indo-Pacific. The 2017 NSS declared that the Indo-Pacific, “stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States,” thereby excluding the entire western Indian Ocean, including Pakistan, the Middle East, East Africa, and many island states.

The 2017 NSS unfortunately set the parameters of subsequent U.S. strategies and actions, including the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and renaming U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. “Indo-Pacific Command” in May 2018 – all adhering to the NSS’s restrictive view of the Indian Ocean. The limited U.S. vision of the Indo-Pacific hobbled the United States from thinking and acting holistically in the entire IOR by prioritizing the avoidance of internal U.S. inter-agency, bureaucratic political strife – a gross oversight in judgment.

This determination likely had more to do with internal U.S. military and diplomatic administrative bureaucracy than real strategic foresight. The recently declassified Indo-Pacific Framework attests to the ramifications of this approach, as it limited any strategic implementation discussions to only half of the Indian Ocean, namely South Asia – and particularly India. Further complicating coherent strategic action is the military’s Unified Command Plan (UCP), which carves the IOR into three Combatant Command (CCMD) areas of responsibility – Central Command, Africa Command, and Indo-Pacific Command.

Notably, the United States’ allies, partners, and great power competitors do not share Washington’s myopic view of the Indo-Pacific. For example, Japan announced its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative in 2016 from Kenya, on the shores of the western Indian Ocean shores. France and India likewise see the entire IOR, from East Africa to Australia, as integral to the “Indo-Pacific.”

Perhaps most importantly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) does not restrict its ambitions to the narrow interpretation of the Indo-Pacific that align with Washington’s view. China sees economic and military opportunities in areas of strategic neglect by Washington, like the IOR, and has actively sought to exploit those opportunities over the past two decades.

China has actively pushed into areas of previous U.S. security primacy like the Horn of Africa and increasingly into the Middle East. China now has its first, but likely not its last, overseas military base in Djibouti, a few miles away from the U.S. military base. This posture supports what can now be assumed as China’s permanent Indian Ocean naval squadron, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Naval Escort Task Force, which operates at the western Indian Ocean chokepoints of Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz with its most advanced warships, the Type 052D Luoyang III destroyer.

The Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy should correct the restrictive errors of the 2017 NSS by redefining the Indo-Pacific to include the entire Indian Ocean Region. Continuing to neglect the western Indian Ocean’s role within the Indo-Pacific will needlessly shackle U.S. strategy toward the region.

Develop a Strategy With the Ends in Mind 

After righting the wrongs in omission of the 2017 NSS, the Biden team should develop a comprehensive IOR strategy that builds, expands, and innovates on U.S. strategic direction in the IOR. Key to any strategy will be articulating the “ends” or goals a U.S. IOR strategy would intend to achieve within the U.S. government inter-agency, commercial, NGO, and civil society stakeholders, as well as allies and partners.

With many external audiences in the Indian Ocean, a strategy focused on “competing” with or even “denying” the region to China will simply not suffice. Asking countries to choose sides has not proven viable in the Indian Ocean Region, coming across as the U.S. only offering sticks with no carrots. Rather, the Biden administration must define what a proactive, prudent, and engaged United States will achieve on economic and security objectives, and how those efforts would benefit the IOR countries and stakeholders while contributing to the broader Indo-Pacific community’s contributions to the rules-based international order.

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Internally to the U.S. government, however, the Biden administration should spell out how proactive economic and security engagements in the IOR enable the United States’ ability to compete with and counter China, and to a lesser extent Russia and Iran and violent extremist organizations in the Indo-Pacific and globally in the short and long term. The United States must be clear to itself that engagement without strategic purpose risks dilution of U.S. influence. Efforts must be aligned with long-term economic, security, and military access ends in mind and designed to afford the U.S. operational and diplomatic flexibility in a long-term great power competition.

An example to point to is that of the Red Sea, which in recent years has become a much more crowded body of water and a region of increased tension. All major global players, including China and Russia, have deepened their presence in this region and regional states have projected power more frequently along the Red Sea shoreline. Amidst renewed political interest in the region, there has been an uptick in illicit traffickers whose illegal actions have proven difficult to counter. Addressing such challenges requires international cooperation and as importantly, intra-national consultation. Red Sea states have made progress in developing new mechanisms for addressing illicit networks, but the real breakthroughs came from civil society and from looking beyond the confines of the Red Sea itself. Lessons learned addressing similar challenges in South Asia and Southeast Asia were shared among experts that in turn led to consideration by regional policymakers.

Having a clear strategic vision of what the U.S. goals and objectives are in the IOR in concert with allies and partners will allow the United States to invest its time, money, and energy accordingly.

Executing the Strategy

While a strategy can focus a government on the “ends” and objectives, the real work comes with implementing and executing the strategy.

A Biden administration IOR Strategy will be no different.

The administration must write the strategy to galvanize the “whole of U.S. government” for sustained action across the IOR over many years, even decades. The strategy must be the north star guiding the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, and Energy, as well as USAID and other agencies, over successive budget cycles and political fortunes. The government must create offices at the National Security Council, Department of State, USAID, Department of Defense, and others that specialize in thinking across the administrative and bureaucratic boundaries that have heretofore hobbled regional efforts.

This is no easy feat given bureaucratic and institutional resistance to new thinking inside the U.S. government, but anything less than a concerted U.S. effort would continue to erode America’s relative power and influence in the IOR, perhaps precipitously.

This has happened before.

The Biden administration should look back at history as a guide. During the first two decades of the Cold War, the Indian Ocean was an afterthought. The U.S. and British remained uncontested in the IOR and the Soviet Union had little excess naval power to spare outside of the core areas in the immediate European and Pacific theaters.

However, three things changed in the 1960s. First, the independence movements in the Global South dismantled European colonial power structures that had favored the United States and denied the Soviets basing and access in the Indian Ocean, as Indian Ocean countries became free to pursue relationships with the USSR. This change in strategic circumstance allowed the Soviet Navy and Air Force new access to ports and airfields in the Indian Ocean. Second, access to ports and airfields was coupled with the Soviet Navy’s new capability and capacity, which had grown significantly in the 1950s and ‘60s. Third, the Soviets believed, incorrectly, that the United States intended to deploy submarine-launched ballistic missiles to the Indian Ocean. Due to this confluence of factors, the Soviets deployed an entire Indian Ocean squadron by the late 1960s, while the United States remained embroiled in the Vietnam War.

Soviet naval expansion in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea spurred then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to action with his “Project Sixty” call to arms in 1970. The U.S. spent the next decade building access in the IOR and changing deployment patterns to regain prominence in the Indian Ocean. By the mid-1980s the U.S. had largely diminished the threat from the Soviet Union in the IOR as Soviet power receded and ultimately collapsed. The Soviet threat in the IOR spurred the United States to action during the Cold War, but it took nearly a decade of considerable U.S. effort to overcome the Soviet head start due to U.S. strategic and operational neglect.

Washington must not make a similar misjudgment in today’s IOR. The stakes are too high and the competitors can exercise a degree of economic influence to support security ends unavailable to the economically isolated Soviet Union.

In conjunction with the update of the NSS, or in a subsequent IOR strategy, the Biden administration should speak directly to the hopes and challenges of the IOR and lay out a proactive, well-resourced, “whole of government” approach to engaging with the countries in the Indian Ocean, in concert with allies and partners.

If the IOR is left as an afterthought in U.S. strategic thinking, the U.S. will find the IOR has bypassed America. And per Kaplan’s appeal in “Monsoon” a decade ago, the future of U.S. power may very well be at stake.

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Louis Bergeron is vice president at a data analytics firm supporting national security clients and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve formerly serving active duty roles in the Indian Ocean and at the Pentagon.  

Jeff Payne is the manager of academic affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.His research on China and the Indian Ocean Region has been published in numerous publications.

Nick Iorio is a consultant providing maritime security support to private and public sector clients; he has been published in the National Interest. 

The authors co-manage the Indian Ocean Region Bulletin, a quarterly email facilitating the exchange of current and ongoing research among interested stakeholders in the Indian Ocean Region. The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or policies of others.