The Emerging Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region

June 29, 2017

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Number 386 | June 28, 2017

The Emerging Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region

By Jonathan D. T. Ward

In a world in which Asia plays an increasingly important economic and geopolitical role, the Indian Ocean provides the foundation for the trading systems that underpin Asia’s economic rise. The Indian Ocean is the basin in which trade from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa connects. It is also the energy lifeline on which several of the world’s major economies depend. Littered with maritime chokepoints, the geopolitical outcomes that will determine the region’s future have yet to be decided.

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Three essential pieces are visible in the geopolitics and economics of the Indian Ocean Region.

First, the Chinese economy depends on access to this region. Energy imports from the Middle East, resources from Africa, and trade with Europe must transit the Indian Ocean in order to reach China. To make things more difficult, Indian Ocean shipping towards China must pass through the two-mile-wide Strait of Malacca. Former PRC Chairman Hu Jintao termed this chokepoint ‘the Malacca Dilemma’, both because of the difficulty of transiting trade back to China through this narrow waterway, and also because of its vulnerability to blockade or maritime interdiction. As such, China must deal with a very difficult geography in the region which it depends on for economic survival and growth.

Second, the region is home to a rising India which possesses much more advantageous geography than China does when it comes to maritime trade and security. As China builds up its expeditionary naval forces to embark on a ‘two-ocean strategy’ that focuses on the Pacific and Indian Ocean, India, in its most recent maritime strategy, made clear that it considers the Indian Ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Lombok Straits, as its primary area of interest. The Indian Navy plans to field three aircraft carrier groups, one which will patrol the Eastern Indian Ocean, a second for the Western Indian Ocean, and a third to be held in reserve. Chinese naval visits to Indian Ocean nations such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, two essential nodes on China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’, have led to discomfort in New Delhi.

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India’s  Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Chinese President Xi Jinping –Indian Ocean Diplomacy

Third, while the Indian Ocean is increasingly the realm in which the geopolitics of China-India relations will take shape in the coming decades, many other nations are also dependent on its waterways for commerce, and it is increasingly becoming a feature in national strategy documents, where the ‘Asia-Pacific’ often becomes the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as nations measure their global and regional strategic interests. If the Pacific links the Americas to Asia, the Indian Ocean links East, South, Southeast, and West Asia, as well linking Asia to Africa and Europe. It is the waterway that makes an Asian trading system possible, and with it the possibility of a world with Asia increasingly at its economic center. As such, while access to the Indian Ocean is essential to many, domination of the Indian Ocean by any single power is likely to be resisted.

In this vital region, initiatives that attempt to secure access and influence are already underway. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, half of which is focused on Indian Ocean trade routes from China to Africa to Europe, aims to build infrastructure that will link these other continents more tightly with China. While ‘OBOR’ is marketed as an economic project, key places on the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ have also been used for military purposes. China’s most recent defense strategy emphasizes that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must ‘safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests’, as well as tasking the PLA Navy to ‘shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection”. In addition to building military infrastructure in the South China Sea, China has begun construction of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, at the opposite end of Indian Ocean sea lines of communication that are vital to China. In addition to visits by Chinese naval assets to the East African coast during anti-piracy operations, underway since 2008, Chinese submarines docked in Pakistan in 2015, and in Sri Lanka in 2014, at a Chinese owned terminal in the port of Colombo. This month, three Chinese warships arrived in Pakistan where a joint naval exercise is scheduled. A Chinese naval officer said of prior exercises with Pakistan in November, 2016 that they would ‘improve the naval capability of both countries to protect Gwadar port activities’ – Pakistan’s Gwadar is a hub on OBOR’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’.

Chinese investment in Indian Ocean countries has been rising, leading to concerns over indebtedness to China by smaller Indian Ocean states including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Djibouti. The possibility of an Indian Ocean Rim constructed of heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs) beholden to China should not be overlooked as the geopolitical future of this vital region takes shape.

The military dynamics of the Indian Ocean Region are evolving rapidly, particularly as China and India build up expeditionary naval forces, and each one supplies partner nations with military material. China has agreed to provide Pakistan with eight diesel-electric submarines, exercising with Pakistan’s navy last year in the East China Sea, and this month in the Indian Ocean. India has upgraded its relationship with Vietnam to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership,’ and has found substantial partners in the United States and Japan. Meanwhile, India has extended its naval relationships across the Indo-Pacific, inaugurating bilateral naval exercises with Japan, Australia, and Indonesia.

If there is a great game in the Indian Ocean, it may be a game of economics, infrastructure, and investment. At present, however, there are few players that can rival China’s influence and impact, particularly as OBOR gains ground in both developing and advanced economies around the world. India has not yet reached an economic position in which large levels of outbound investment can garner influence in other nations, and the Modi government is currently busy building much needed domestic port and infrastructure projects under the Sagarmala program.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that Asia has $26 trillion in infrastructure needs from 2016 to 2030, and HSBC estimates Asia’s needs at $11.5 trillion over the same period. Both numbers are well outside the scope of new Chinese initiatives including OBOR, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), or the OBOR-focused Silk Road Fund. However, the Indian Ocean Region – which comprises East Africa, the Red Sea and Suez, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and Australia – is rarely studied as an economic region unto itself. Data from AEI’s China Global Investment Tracker shows that China invested nearly $500 billion in the region from 2005-2016, more than double its investments in Europe or East Asia and triple its investments in the United States in the same period. As the vital interests of major Asian nations are increasingly linked to this ocean, and as a contest for security and assured access is likely to continue, we can expect many players, near and far, to realize the importance of this ocean to a world system in which Asia plays a major role, and, accordingly, to turn attention to the shape that this region will take in the coming decades.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Ward has recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, specializing in China-India relations. He is the founder of the recently established Atlas Organization, a consultancy which advises on China, India, and their strategic interests. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
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6 thoughts on “The Emerging Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region

  1. Is this a tactical or strategic analysis or wish list? Sometimes PhD’s are not what it makes for the possessor to be ‘conscious’, but only seemingly intelligent.

    Plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean are a coupla minute islands in the Chagos Archipelago, one of which is called Diego Garcia. Wonder who occupies it? Whoever it is – will be the Taikor.

    Then, on the Eastern arc of IO lies Indonesia and Oz. I wonder whether the author was aware that OBOR (Malay for ‘Torch’) is a dirty word to them. Or they don’t count at all and are ‘submergent’?

  2. India has always accused China of establishing the “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean to encircle India. The phrase ‘String of Pearls’ was first used in 2005, in a report entitled “Energy Futures in Asia” provided to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. It alleged that China was adopting a “string of pearls” strategy of bases stretching from the Middle East to southern China. These “pearls” were naval bases or electronic eavesdropping posts built by the Chinese in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The purpose was to project its power overseas and protect its oil shipments.

    Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese Navy is really interested in the Indian Ocean. China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC). The first objective is achieved through commercial interactions with littoral states. For the second purpose, the Chinese Navy has, since the end of 2008, joined international military efforts in combating piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia. In fact, the only thing justifiable in the “string of pearls” theory is that it underlines the growing importance of the Indian Ocean for China’s ever-expanding national interests, especially in terms of energy import. China is now securing its energy needs from all parts of the world, but the Middle East still prevails as the most important source. By the end of 2013, China had become the largest trader and the largest oil importer in the world. The Indian Ocean, and hence the security of SLOCs from Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, to the Malacca Strait, is thus vitally important for China.

    Two countries are most important for China’s freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean: India and the US. India is a wannabe superpower behaving like they’re already a superpower. The US is the only country that has the full capabilities to control the chokepoints in the Indian Ocean and cut off the SLOCs all the way to China, but it is unlikely to exercise such capabilities, unless, perhaps, in an all-out war with China. Even during the Cold War neither the US nor the Soviet Union endeavored to cut off any SLOCs in the world. Besides, the SLOCs are life-lines for all states. Cutting off China’s SLOCs will also affect US allies of Japan, ROK and Australia. So long as Sino-American relations remain manageable, such a worst-case scenario is unlikely to occur.

    The rivalry between India and China is often hyped, mainly by the paranoia Indian “strategists”, but Indian government thus far would not challenge China unnecessarily. There’s no dispute between China and India in the Indian Ocean. The Line of Actual Control along the Sino-Indian border has by and large remained peaceful. Although there were a few standoffs, not a single bullet was fired across the border in over fifty years. The queer idea of China encircling India from the sea with the help of Pakistan only exists in the wildest imagination of some Indian “strategists”. This shows how much these so-called strategists fear China and hate Pakistan.

    For those who are interested to read queer and delusional theories by these Indian “strategists”, just check into Eurasia Review, which has become an outlet for Indian “scholars” to bash China and Pakistan. Check into any Indian news media online and you can read the same thing, almost daily. India is playing a dangerous game.

  3. Having been to the urban and rural hearts of both these giants, i find India confusing, filthy, authentic, generally poor, chaotic and yet utterly fascinating. PRC’s predictable, artificial, competitive, busy and yet utterly boring. Is there something wrong with me?

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