India has been a seafaring nation earlier than medieval times. The Chola Kings and Vijayanagar Kingdoms have been known to have sea trade routes to Southeast Asian countries of Java, Sumatra, and Cambodia. The religious and cultural connect is quite evident in the historical finds and records. The cross-pollination of cultures is there in the historical narrative of the people and the countries. History does record Indian Naval vessels in the Indian Ocean supporting the trade routes and naval battles, thus, adding to the importance of Naval power as an instrument of power in nation-building. India holds over 3000 km of coastline with rich marine culture and suitable ports for commerce, economic and maritime defence. The Indian Ocean, combined with the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea, adds to the importance of the Naval power in India. The Indian Naval power in the olden times was primarily an escort for trading ships and means of naval diplomacy and seeking forays into new lands. However, it was Shivaji, in the medieval period, who first actually understood the strategic importance of sea power and the defence of the coastal areas. He developed a formidable naval arm and weaponised it with the construction of two Naval Forts- Sindhudurg and Jinjira and later on Vijay Durg. He had a formidable Naval presence on the western coast and was capable of defending the coast from Britishers and Portuguese invaders/traders.
The Indian Ocean had always been important in Indian history and today it’s the ocean that holds the power. Today, it accounts for major shipping lanes and the flow of essential trade which includes oil through the three choke points. The first chokepoint is the Malacca strait between Malaysia, Singapore, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which connects Southeast Asia and the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The second is the Strait of Hormuz, which is the only sea passage connecting the Persian Gulf to the wider Indian Ocean. The third is the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which flows between Eritrea and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Indian ocean has become a major battleground with the world powers due to its strategic location and economic importance.
“The Indian Ocean and its adjoining sea corridors and straits are the incontestable, important strategic chokepoints of global maritime trade. Aside from being a major conduit for international trade, it is also an intersection of global trade, connecting Northern Atlantic and the Asia Pacific on one end and bearing the huge commercial traffic of international energy, all through the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia, up until the Gulf of Oman – connecting the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb, on the other.”
The Indian Ocean is the new strategic power pivot in the global world order. Analysing Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, which professes the heartland as the world Island and identifies Eurasia as the pivot. The heartland theory was conceived as a grand strategy for the British empire, but in today’s geopolitical equation it is Central Asia which assumes the role of heartland and also includes Middle East. The Indian Ocean and the seas along the Middle East are an integral part of the “World Island”. The importance of the latter may be observed in the words of Saul Cohen (1963) who claims, “there are, strictly speaking, only two geostrategic regions today: 1) the Trade-Dependent Maritime World, and 2) The Eurasian Continental World. Projecting our views into the future, we anticipate the eventual emergence of a third geostrategic region – the Indian Ocean”ii.
The theory gets refined over a period wherein the ‘Heartland’ gets redefined to include the Indian Ocean in today’s geostrategic equation. The powers to be are vying to gain access and control of the region to safeguard the economic interests and to prevent any hegemonistic designs of any nation. Today’s energy routes and oil movements through these waters make them strategic passageways and qualify as Mackinder’s second pivot area, the first being traditional Central Asia. The Indian Ocean has evolved as the economic battlefield for the powers to be and more importantly for the US, China, Japan, India, and Australia. The Littoral countries of the Indian oceanic region play a vital role in being the bases for these powers. The island territories in the ocean have become watch towers and monitoring outposts. Geopolitically seen the Indian Ocean has become the new world Island in the Mackinderian definition and goes with the famous words of Hartford Mackinder, he who controls the world Island controls the world1. Therefore, in contemporary global politics, supremacy over sea routes is a prerequisite to acquiring supremacy overland routes, as was originally propounded by Mackinder.
“The islands in the Indian Ocean also work significantly to shape the security architecture of the IOR. These islands play a vital role along the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) by giving easy access to navy’s continued presence and allowing them to patrol and secure SLOCs during the time of peace and war. The Indian Ocean acts as an intersection for the transport of oil from the Middle East. This is also the reason why external powers are trying to strengthen their footholds, making it a region for them to showcase their vigour and potentiality.”
Kshirasagar means the ocean of milk and the Indian Ocean qualifies to be the one. Ocean is full of economic potential – Milk conveying prosperity. The importance of the Indian Ocean as a major transit area for international trade is evident in the fact that half of the world’s container ships, one–third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic, and two–third of the world’s oil shipments cross its waters annually. The Indian Ocean is churning with economic activities, power play, and a race for control. It’s a virtual battleground akin to the mythological Samudra Manthan2. There are no Gods or demons but competing powers engaged in the power play to secure the elusive elixir, Dominance. Drawing parallels with the mythological epic, the sea lines of communication become the serpent Vasuki, while the island territories become the Turtle, Kurma providing stability, bases, and watchtowers in the region while the Mount Mandara is the bulk shipping traffic which is being churned.
The Power Play
The chokepoints define the control points and the route for dominance. The African end is receiving point at the Persian Gulf, a so-called feeder into the Arabian Sea onto the Indian Ocean. Geographically it is only the Chinese that has a greater effect on the choke points in case of a blockade. One end of the ocean is the African nations who have been engaged by the Chinese in a big way, while the other end is the nations of Japan and Australia backed by the US, which is primarily QUAD countries along with India. It’s a battle of wits and strategies. Indian ocean is a floating Chessboard or probably what Chinese play GO or Wei Qi(Mandarin for ‘board game of surrounding). The moves of the Chinese in the region will give us a comprehensive idea of the things to come. The Chinese regional multilateral engages with the Indian Ocean in countries through Maritime BRI to show presence in the region.
Every Nation across the globe uses the Indian Ocean and the powers-to-be seek to dominate the space. The hegemonistic attitude has been shown by the Chinese who have major implications. They need to avoid at least one choke point i.e., Malacca and manage the other two. The maritime BRI aims at making inroads into the African Littoral countries and the region to physically manage the Madagascar route and the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula choke points. The nations seek to reorient their strategies in the ocean to counter the Chinese hegemonistic approach.
“The presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and other Chinese commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean, the Chinese interpretation of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, and so forth remain challenges to those who subscribe to the ideal of a free and open Indo-Pacific“
The United States
The Nixon doctrine, “for the security concerns the arrangements were modified to make available a more secure US role in Indian Ocean Region, the burdens and responsibilities were shared within the allies for their protection and security and for more bitterly sharing of materials and manpower”. The US is wary of the neglect of the Indian Ocean region and the presence of the ‘other Powers’ in the region. The US base in Diego Garcia does monitors the movement. The importance given to the region is amplified by the fact that the US Navy conducted naval exercises near the islands of Lakshadweep. The US has two major security concerns in the Indian Ocean and several comparatively minor ones. Two major concerns are the ongoing conflicts and tensions in the littoral states of the Middle East and China’s increasing presence in the ocean.
“The importance of the ocean has been understood by the US. QUAD interactions may be a step in that direction. India, although a member of QUAD may see the US presence in the region as a counter to the Chinese, however, it will have its own apprehensions about growing US influence and shrinking space and influence in the ocean. “
Australia sees itself as an Indo–Pacific country. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper defined the Indo-Pacific as “the region ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, including India, North Asia, and the United States”. This definition was adopted for good reasons, at least at that time. It largely aligned with US perspectives. It also prioritised Australia’s focus on India and its eastern neighbours
“Australia has similar concerns about the presence of the Chinese in the Indo Pacific region including the South China sea, however yet the perceptions are differing. The rise of QUAD dialogue may see some convergence of the thoughts and action in near future.“
The former Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said, “The Indian Ocean has not always received the same level of attention in our strategic thinking as the Pacific Ocean. Australia has tended to see itself as a Pacific Ocean state”. India has emerged as an economic powerhouse and is demonstrating leadership in a way that reflects its size and democratic values. China has rapidly expanded its Indian Ocean footprint – establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017,” Reynolds said. The former Defence Minister said Australia was “committed to working more closely in the Indian Ocean by cooperating with key regional partners, including India and Indonesia”.
The strategic interests of Japan are more aligned towards Indo Pacific region and the US. Due to the remoteness of the location of the Indian Ocean, it did not give that kind of focus which it should have. However, the presence of Chinese and ever-growing trade passing through the waters of the ocean made Japan rethink its Indian Ocean policy. Japan’s interests in the IOR are primarily commerce and strategic security.
“There are three courses of action that Japan should take to advance its interests in the Indian Ocean: it should support India as security provider; it should become an intermediary between India, the US, and other local countries; and it should be a generous supplier of technologies. Together, these three courses of action should be considered pillars of Japan’s Indian Ocean strategy“
South East Asian Region
Archipelagic Southeast Asia covers five member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore – together with Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. The region includes the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines. This region actually forms the fulcrum or the pivot to the Indian Ocean region. Holds one of the major choke points, the Malacca Strait, passage to the South China Sea and a region rich in biodiversity and natural wealth holds all the keys to the power play in the region.
“The region is of strategic importance as it bridges the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in the East and the Mediterranean in the West. Furthermore, this region has emerged as a vital intersection of maritime trade, connecting the countries’ producers of natural resources with the consumers states. More than two–thirds of global oil and over eighty percent of China’s and Japan’s oil is shipped through this region. Approximately fifty percent of global container shipments sail on these waters“
Samudra Manthan, The Churn
The ocean is churning and throwing out opportunities and options. Products of the churn, Elixir, the Amrut, Poison the Halahala, the alignments and the rivalries, all aimed at controlling and dominating the economic space and safeguarding the trade. Chinese have upped the ante in the region, rightly so to safeguard its economic interests and protection of trade routes in any manner it thinks possible. Protection of interests is one aspect but to impose a hegemonistic attitude is a call for conflict. Maritime BRI and debt trap being the modus operandi. The lack of a Bluewater navy, at least, till recent times was the major reasoning for the apprehension of the Chinese in dealing with the powers having a stake in the region. The trade quantum has shown that this water body is the new Heartland in Mackinder’s theory. Seaports, bases, and watch posts have sprung up in the ocean. Even India has done a rethink on its island strategy.
“India is strategically located in the region. Japan and the US are far, rather on the edges while Australia is in the southernmost corner with an Indo-pacific bent of mind. Therefore, it is only India and the South Asian region countries that dominate the water body physically, and needless to say, India must have a cogent and robust policy on the Indian Ocean and IOR region.”
Indian government’s initiative with BIMSTEC and IORA underscores New Delhi’s maritime vision in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific.
It also needs to militarise its Naval capability to handle any explosive situation in the region with a Naval maritime strategic vision. India needs a holistic strategy to look at the Indian ocean militarily and needs to upgrade its maritime capabilities in terms of submarine warfare, long-range missiles, and having stronger bases in the island territories. India needs to look at the Indian ocean from the strategic and economic point of view. Indian Island territories, therefore become strategically important, both ideally located in Western Sea board and the Eastern Sea board overlooking the western and the eastern entry exit points. Developing both these island territories into all- encompassing Naval bases will extend our effective command over the western and eastern entry exit points. The naval prowess needs to be shown. What we need is the forward basing of our Naval assets to extend our reach in the ocean. Naval diplomacy will win us the day. India needs to have eyes over the new ‘Heartland’ in the revised Mackinder’s Theory.
The Indian Ocean has become a focal point in the new world order. It’s getting crowded with powers, where everyone wants to exercise control over their economic interests. It’s the ocean of opportunities, options, rivalries, and new alignments based on economic space. It throws up new contingencies. It is like an old Indian Board game called Chaturanga , an earlier version of the chessboard or as the Chinese call it Weiqi. In 1890, Alfred Mahan affirmed, that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”.
Army Institute of Management, Kolkata
*The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement. Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author.