Indian Ocean: Strategic Zone of this Century

The focus of world power has moved from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific, especially as the Africa-India-Southeast Asia-China region becomes the dynamo of global growth and trade going forward. We are allies to all the superpower and regional players. We need to understand the game plans to promote our own strategic interests

There is no question that the Indian Ocean has, in the past decade, emerged as the most vital geo-strategic web of intermeshing national interests of superpowers and their allies. As the British moved out “East of Aden”, their part in global surveillance and security was passed on to the US at Diego Garcia, through the now infamous pre-independence excision of the so-called British Indian Indian Territory (BIOT). The US now maintains a full-fledged naval flotilla in Diego, a naval and military base at Djibouti and friendly facilities in the Gulf States.

For long, the dominant necessities of the Western world were more physically supported by France, which could claim a legitimate foothold as part and parcel of the Ocean through its DOM-TOMS (Reunion, Mayotte, Djibouti, Tromelin, Terres Australes in the Mozambique Canal and Kerguelen) and close relationships with several bordering states, including Mauritius and Madagascar. Some are focal naval and military points but every single piece of rock or islet comes with associated claims over hundreds of thousands square kilometres of economic zone.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its tentative moves to entrench itself in this Ocean have faded out. The Cold War concerned other fronts, more proximate to Western Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Despite the naval and military presence of the West, the Indian Ocean states could even lobby the United Nations for a rather perfunctory “Indian Ocean, Zone de Paix” declaration of intent, something achieved in the early seventies. The scenery has changed dramatically and stakes have been raised to unprecedented levels since the early 21st century. It may still be a “zone de paix” but marshalled by more and more global players seeking allies, partners and strategic footholds around the Indian Ocean rim and inside its waters. The reasons are several-fold and easily understood.

China’s geo-ambitions in the Indian Ocean

China, as a powerful engine of industrial growth and the world’s factory, has embarked on a vast program to secure reliable sources of Indian Ocean raw materials and provide exports of its finished goods to the Indian Ocean and from Africa. Massive investments are in the pipeline across a string of ports to be funded, operated and managed by Chinese firms on the south and East African coastlines, in addition to those it already operates near the Nigerian zones. Some are backed by an unparalleled program of rail network connecting several African land-locked states to the outside trading world.

It is estimated that numerous Chinese State entities, backed by enormous financial resources and one million Chinese businessmen are actively engaged within the African continent. While debate may rage over the model and advantages of this African-Chinese partnership, often disputing or displacing traditional post-colonial ones, the reality is in the making.

While Chinese funded and efficiently managed ports are one dimension of Chinese global interests, the equally overriding imperative is to secure those sea-lanes that will sustain growing trade between China and Africa. Much of the world’s oil transport is channelled through the Indian Ocean and this is particularly vital for South and Southeast Asia.

A November 2014 Report of the US Energy Information Administration identifies that three major strategic sea-traffic choke-points, vital for oil, raw materials and finished goods, are all situated around the Indian Ocean zone: Hormuz for the Gulf states (17m barrels crude oil/day), Bab-el-Mandeb straddling Djibouti and troubled Yemen (4m b/d) and Straits of Malacca between Singapore and Malaysia (15 mb/d). The fourth strategic point is the Cape of Good Hope, not a choke-point, but around which some 5 mb/d circumnavigate.

The US has oil reserves of its own, Europe and the Russian Confederation can establish terrestrial pipelines, this is far less evident for Asian economies and China in particular. Although the latter does benefit from the Chinese-funded and operated port of Gwadar in Pakistan which could be used both as naval base and terrestrial access route to the Indian Ocean.

Overall, however, China cannot rely on sea-routes through the Indian Ocean that are nearly exclusively guarded and protected by Western powers, namely France and the US, with India and Australia as middle-level regional players. In its master plan to be a world superpower China has been expanding its sphere of interest, pushing west into the Indian Ocean with what most specialists reckon are dual-purpose ports. Under the trade and development financing banner, comes the starker geo-political reality: places where Chinese naval vessels and submarines, far from their shores, can dock into safe berthing and re-fuelling facilities it is managing around the Indian Ocean.

Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, Seychelles, Maldives form part of the Chinese strategic plan serving a four-fold purpose: ensuring SLOC (secure lines of communication), entrenching China as a key global naval player capable of operating outside the China seas on a par with Occidental powers, safeguarding access to vital reserves of African raw materials and encircling regional Indian Ocean powers like India, Iran or Australia with a controlling military and naval grid.

Chinese exercises in patrolling piracy in the Somali seas was in that sense a good test-bed of Chinese long-distance operational abilities. It is increasingly sending nuclear-powered submarines on routine visits, docking indifferently in various Indian Ocean ports it has undertaken to fund and manage. Indian foreign policy having dismally failed to foresee or stem the Chinese “penetration”, is giving PM Modi full cause for concern and explains his global strategic initiatives since taking office. In particular, re-invigorating estranged ties with key close neighbours Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Maldives coupled with some form of emerging loose alliance and naval/military cooperation between India, the US, Australia, Vietnam and Japan.

Riding the waves: whither Mauritius?

Small islands dotting the Indian Ocean are obviously emerging at the centerstage of great power politics unfolding in the Indian Ocean region. They are not resource-rich so their importance lies elsewhere. Mauritius has long-standing traditional ties with France, India and China and is not averse to a Western security umbrella through a strategic US presence in Diego. Both Australia and the Republic of South Africa are considered close allies while we can expand relations with Gulf States. However, we need not spell out the far deeper importance of French and Indian ties that have been the bedrock of development in many sectors including IT, offshore and financial services. India has provided considerable technical help in mapping out the resources of our Economic Zone and has offered a variety of assistance, including high-sea patrol vessels and developing Agalega’s air and sea facilities. Our national long-term interests are not incompatible with maintaining and even deepening those ties while the global power play develops so close to our shores and our economic development zone. But the time could be right for moving the agenda forward on some issues.

a) The emerging geo-politics shaping up in the Indian Ocean should enable our leaders to angle with a new US administration for a long-term resolution of the Chagos and Diego sovereignty issue without a remise en cause of US strategic naval and military deterrence. The help of India, France, UK and even Australia could be most useful in a concerted diplomatic effort at clearing out of the issue.

b) Mauritius was probably not on the Chinese SLOC, being rather removed from Indian Ocean oil-related sea-traffic. However, the Chinese have never been averse to make promises of vast development to come against stretches of leased land as with the Jin Fei project. In some cases, promised development stalls until such time as the country offers what the Chinese strategists were really after, often a seaport facility where their commercial and naval warships can berth safely. It is a strategy that has been used elsewhere around African countries. Their willingness to barter back Jin Fei lands against a Chinese-funded and managed port is not so unnatural.

c) While we are off main oil-lanes, we are strategically poised between the Cape and the Far East which handles enormous oil, cargo and goods traffic. The recent Chinese overture to develop Walvis Bay into a major commercial and naval port in Namibia, just round the Cape, may have brought Mauritius back into Chinese SLOC calculations and catalysed the quick and easy renegotiation of the Jin Fei deal against an important Mauritius harbour point.

d) Indian strategists and policy makers at highest levels may raise some eyebrows at this new port and wonder how much leeway the Chinese will obtain here for naval and submarine flotillas on routine “friendly” operations around this part of the Indian Ocean. Struggling to overcome a heavy inheritance, the Namo government is serious about India’s military and geopolitical positions and the Indian PM’s first state visits were to Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. Are we reciprocating in kind? At a juncture when the renegotiation of our DTAA is shrouded with uncertainties, the timing could be unsettling for our long-term strategic relations unless we clear the deck rapidly at highest levels.

The focus of world power has moved from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific, especially as the Africa-India-Southeast Asia-China region becomes the dynamo of global growth and trade going forward. In particular, the critical sea-lanes from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca and those around the Cape carry the vast majority of global oil flows, which will continue for the foreseeable future. We are allies to all the superpower and regional players. We need to understand the game plans to promote our own strategic interests and, possibly, play a more pro-active role in maintaining a peaceful new equilibrium between competing powers in the Indian Ocean.


  • Published in print edition on 2 October 2015

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