New realities and strategic rethink have superseded older visions of the Indian Ocean’s strategic importance to economies around much of the globe
By Jan Arden
The Indian ocean’s vast expanse of 74m sq kms is host to heavy international maritime traffic that includes half of the world’s container cargo, one third of its bulk cargo and two thirds of its oil shipment. In particular, its waters carries heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oil fields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia so vital for all churning economies and factories. The ocean, with its natural choke-points, was without doubt the highway of international trade for essential commodities. There have also been as yet untapped expectations of resources from the ocean’s seabed or its largely unexplored submarine realities.
The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the centre of international maritime rivalry, with various powers jousting for influence and advantage in the world’s third largest body of water, which serves as a vital transit route for the global economy. Pic – Stagecraft and Statecraft
Towards the dawn of the 21st century, Western powers and some Far East countries (China, Japan) had increasingly integrated the fact that the Indian Ocean consisted of some of the most critical sea lanes and choke points that connected the oil-rich Middle East, East Asia and Africa on which most oil and goods trade relied and their own development came to depend. Inevitably, the geodynamics of the region has been shifting rapidly, leaving by the wayside concepts that no longer fitted the evolving ages: Indian Ocean – zone of peace, Demilitarised and denuclearised Indian Ocean, the Chinese “string of pearls” protocol that unsettled India’s new political establishment and even the relatively recent Indian Ocean Rim Association have all faded out as the new imperatives and strategic thinking by major players evolved.
It is no longer simply a matter for navies plying the high seas to demonstrate a friendly and perhaps reassuring presence around the coasts of island and continental countries, with courtesy exchanges and visits. Neither is it about rival navies from competing European nations taking pot-shots across each other’s bows as in the 18th century or the type of brazen “gunboat diplomacy” that was witnessed in the British Empire’s heydays.
Nor is it about the even more hare-brained attempt of US and British naval squadrons attempting to blockade Indian ports and its fledgling fleet as the country was entangled unwittingly in the liberation of East Bengal from the murderous oppression of West Pakistan with millions of refugees streaming into Indian Bengal. New realities have by necessity and sometimes by strategic rethink superseded older visions of the Indian Ocean’s strategic importance to economies around much of the globe.
Few of these countries obviously can afford on their own to ensure the safe and secure traffic of their essential supplies from the Indian Ocean and depend for their vital trade interests to be safeguarded through the security afforded by international and regional powers and their navies as they patrol both the SLOCs (sea-lines of communication) and the increasing piracy attempts off the eastern coast and the horn of Africa. That security had traditionally been implicitly or explicitly devolved to the US and some historical European powers, which could afford to man and operate frigates, destroyers, aircraft carriers and even submarines on the high seas of the Indian Ocean and the necessary naval bases for easier refuelling, rest and rotation of crew.
The USA as main guardian last century, through the disputed British artifice of the British Indian Ocean Territory excised illegally from Mauritius and the consequent displacement of Chagos islanders there, have setup their main base of aero-naval operations in Diego Garcia, completed by the new Fifth Fleet, created in 1995, and stationed in Bahrain. Further north-east they also hold base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Suez Canal, the whole triangular set-up providing the necessary logistics for monitoring the northern Indian Ocean SLOCs effectively.
This did not prevent occasional mishaps when, for instance, in 2000 the USS Cole, a Navy warship berthed at Aden, was rammed by a rubber dinghy jam-packed with explosives, leaving 17 dead sailors and twice more wounded. Permanent turbulence in several unstable Middle-East countries from Pakistan and Iran to Yemen and Somalia, makes for the US cover of the northern SLOCs more than desirable for most countries.
France has historical claims to be considered as a full-fledged Indian Ocean state, through its presence in former colonies (Djibouti, Madagascar) and the legitimacy of such DOM-TOMs as Reunion, Mayotte and even disputed Tromelin. As such, and given its dependence for trade and oil on the Persian gulf region, France maintains a significant fleet in the Indian Ocean and occasionally berths visiting nuclear-carriers and submarines to the region. Its ability to patrol the SLOCs and ward off piracy is significant.
Neither the Middle-Eastern countries, nor Australia or South Africa have shown interest nor have they the financial resources and naval muscle to project themselves as Indian Ocean and SLOCs stabilisers and the Brits have mostly a residual legacy.
India, with 7,500 kms of coastline, therefore emerged naturally as a legitimate Indian Ocean regional player capable to muster enough resources for a naval Indian Ocean presence to ensure security of its own vital supplies and the greater security of SLOCs through patrols and joint anti-piracy exercises with Western partners such as the USA and France and, more recently, the QUAD agreement.
For India, that meant critical rebalancing and some diversion of its overall defence budget from the more traditional demands of Army and Air Force to maintain secure northern borders from obdurately hostile neighbours China and Pakistan. Its naval presence has been reinforced considerably by a naval and military logistics agreement signed with France in 2018, which gives reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities and led to joint security exercises (e.g.,Varuna 2021) for improving the security of SLOCs.
The French Embassy in a statement on the exercise observed that “this exercise underscores the shared interests and commitment of both nations in promoting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. It bears testimony to the vitality of the strategic partnership between France and India…” It adds a useful dimension in this area to India’s closer partnerships with Australia and the US in matters of high sea security, anti-piracy and safe navigation for all.
China is the only non-bordering Indian Ocean state but has ambitions not to depend on Western powers for its vital supplies or exports that have to be shipped across thousands of miles of the Ocean and to position itself as primary challenger to US predominance as an economic and military superpower. Some China specialists reckon that it would proceed by rolling out a “spheres of influence” policy, which means three successive levels of power demonstrations:
(a) military overlordship or upper-hand over what it considers as its immediate sphere (Taiwan, South China sea, Himalayan borders and states where the humiliation of Ladakh setbacks against Indian armed forces will not stop the continued Chinese pressure);
(b) the second sphere stretches farther out to Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and covers our Indian Ocean region both for power demonstration purposes and taking a more active role, with a newly established base in Djibouti, in securing China’s own vital supplies; its submarines and frigates are already a reality in the Indian Ocean;
(c) finally, Chinese warships will ply further East on the Pacific high seas and round the coast of Africa for securing commercial supplies and trade interests. These require some naval refuelling bases or stations for such long distances and Mauritius, Madagascar or Tanzania would constitute prize catches for naval refuelling ports and establishments under the disguise of “dual-purpose” commercial/fishing stations and naval outposts.
India’s role in the Indian Ocean Region was defined in 2015 through the SAGAR Initiative – Security and Growth for All in the Region- aimed at safeguarding maritime interests of its mainland and the islands of the Ocean. According to a Dec 2020 article in the Diplomatist, “It represents a nexus of maritime cooperation, naval security along with economic development. It also brings out the importance of Coast Guard agencies of the littoral states to counter-piracy actions by non-state actors. Another crucial element of this initiative is to enhance collaboration in trade, tourism, and infrastructure while keeping in view the climate change problems and thus promote sustainable development of the region.”
It is in this context that the Jugnauth governments since 2015 seem to have signed on as partners in this security pact. In an island scarred by the UK/US controversies over Diego Garcia’s excision and devolution to the US for its military and naval base, the question of developments ongoing in Agalega have been regularly decried in some press sections. The secrecy surrounding what exactly Mauritius signed up to has not helped matters although it should be manifestly clear that we have neither the resources, fleet, expertise to monitor our reported 2m kmsof economic zone in this Ocean and depend on our traditional allies to effectively man this vast sub-expanse.
The Mauritian side has occasionally said that the port and air landing infrastructure would be invaluable for Agaleans themselves and for our broader security interests and that their use would fall squarely under Mauritian administrative control. However, it is a matter of concern that the low credibility and recent turbulences at Mauritius Telecom make Mauritians deeply mistrustful of Pravind Jugnauth’s dealings with India.
Aside from traditional India-bashing from some quarters, we have every reason to be satisfied with developments funded and built by India for the account of Mauritius and to remain under the latter’s sovereign control. Whether it is also used for aero-naval surveillance or berthing of naval ships ascribed to monitoring the SLOCs in the northern part of the Indian Ocean in a nexus comforted by France and the USA, should be reassuring rather than disquieting and should enable Mauritius to develop its own sorely lacking maritime capacities on the higher seas of our zone.
Nevertheless, both Indian authorities and their Mauritian counterparts could better coordinate their strategies to remove past emotive scars of Diego from the Agalega equation and dynamics. More could also be done to communicate better with the local islanders and ensure their integration in developments that would follow as the infrastructure reach completion.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 July 2022
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