Rising together

The Indian Ocean has become increasingly central, contested and crowded. Not just Southasia but all of southern Asia must reclaim its stake on the water.

The Indian Ocean – which, it should be noted at the outset, is not India's ocean – is the smallest of the three navigable oceans, and is very distinctive when compared with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The smallest of the three oceans, with an area of 73.5 million sq km (the Atlantic is 106.4 million, and the Pacific the largest at 169.2 million), the Indian Ocean does not extend longitudinally beyond 30 degrees north, unlike the other two oceans with sweeps from the north to south poles. Yet the demography of the Indian Ocean littoral and the hydrocarbon energy index associated with its waters are distinctive in relation to the other two oceans.

Earlier, controlling the Indian Ocean was seen as a crucial determinant in the progressive spread of European colonialism in large parts of Asia. In the post-Cold War context, the strategic relevance of this area is due to the vast hydrocarbon resources in West Asia, the connectivity provided by the Suez-Malacca route, and the geo-political imperatives that flow from these facts of geology and strategic geography. Access to and control of the Indian Ocean long remained an abiding strategic concern for the major powers. In an early post-World War II book on the 'Great Game' called Wells of Power, a British administrator named Olaf Caroe wrote, The strategic movements of the Allies in Iraq and Persia in the Second World War were made possible from the Indian base … the importance of the [Persian] Gulf grows greater, not less, as the need for fuel expands, the world contracts and the shadows lengthen from the north. Its stability can be assured only by the close accord between the States which surround this Muslim lake, an accord underwritten by the Great Powers whose interests are engaged. Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, geo-political compulsions are still the major driver for how the world orients itself towards the Indian Ocean. The salience of the region remains as valid, as Caroe had identified with regards to fuel; but now it encompasses strands that go beyond the purely strategic-security continuum in the traditional sense of the term. It is true that today the strategic pendulum is gradually shifting eastwards to Asia. It is also true that the perceived 'shadow from the north' – the euphemism for the Soviet Union, etched in the image of the Russian bear seeking in vain to access the warm-water ports of the Indian Ocean – has now been replaced by fears of the oriental dragon, the rise of China, challenging the prevailing status quo. That is far from the whole story, however.

Beyond the state-centric discourse of grand strategy and military security, the Indian Ocean has a palpable human dimension, wherein the teeming millions of the extended southern Asia region – from the Saudi peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago – live in close proximity to the ocean. Their security, now measured by the UN as part of the global human-security index, is inexorably linked to the economic vitality of the Indian Ocean states – and, indeed, the very waters of the ocean itself. While it is generally accepted that globalisation, in its current manifestation, will lead to progressive state prosperity reflected in robust GDP growth rates, which in turn will trickle down to result in poverty alleviation, the reality has been uneven. Rapacious globalisation has led to pockets of high but unsustainable, oftentimes transient, prosperity for some minority constituencies, and greater impoverishment for many others. The Indian Ocean region is a stark example of this phenomenon.

Malacca anxiety
Southern Asia has been differently impacted by globalisation, from petro-dollars to export dollars, and human security has been visibly affected. Take the example of fishing, with local economies in countries such as Bangladesh having been massively influenced since the arrival, during the 1990s, of mechanised fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal, thus increasingly pushing out traditional fishing communities. The relentless drive of market forces adversely affects fragile sections of society that are directly dependent on the seas for subsistence. More recently, the increasing incidence of piracy off the Somalia coast has been linked in part to the loss of traditional means of livelihood by a local sea-faring community. Against the backdrop of such examples, there is little need to reiterate the need for an equitable harnessing of maritime resources in the Indian Ocean.

Related to this is the human tragedy and destruction caused by natural disasters in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami of December 2004, of course, caused great loss of life and property, while the current floods in large parts of Pakistan are yet another grim reminder about how climate-induced factors can wreak unprecedented havoc with human security. The rhythms of rural Southasia continue to be inexorably linked to the monsoon; and these rain-bearing clouds, which are embedded in local mythology, legend and song, have a complex linkage with the health of the Indian Ocean. Today, this eons-old rhythm has already been ruptured, or is in danger of reaching that disastrous tipping point due to a combination of global warming, relentless de-forestation and ruthless reclamation of river deltas, mangroves and marshes. Rigorous scientific research needs to be supported to better understand the linkages between the Southasian monsoon and the Indian Ocean, whether to better forecast and prepare for natural calamities, or to regulate and nurture the delicate oceanic-atmospheric equipoise.

For the major powers of the world, a primary focus in the Indian Ocean remains hydrocarbons. It is estimated that the global economy will remain dependent for the next quarter-century on petroleum as a primary energy source. During that time, the major Asian economies will become increasingly dependent on the maritime routes through the Indian Ocean, for ensuring the secure supply of oil and gas. In East Asia, for instance, China, Japan and South Korea will accord greater priority to the already stressed Strait of Malacca – a dilemma currently referred to as 'Malacca anxiety'. In addition, a series of unrelated geo-political and security-related developments, which all have their genesis in sea-change events of 1979 – the overthrow of the Shah of Iran heralding the arrival of a politically empowered Shia clergy, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the attack on the Holy Mosque in Mecca – have shaped the security profile of the entire southern Asian region. In turn, this has collectively led to a renewed salience for the Indian Ocean. The Cold War entered the region with the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and the subsequent US-Saudi-Pakistan combine, which supported the long campaign that created both the Afghan mujahideen (including Osama bin Laden) and the beginning of the 'just jihad'.

During the latter phase of the Cold War, New Delhi advocated the idea of the Indian Ocean as a 'zone of peace' – an area from which the world's superpowers would stay away – but developed little traction in the attempt. The major powers orient their policies based on a distillate of geo-political aspirations, ambitions and anxieties. The US, as the sole hegemon since the gradual implosion of the USSR in 1991, has partially reoriented its maritime focus from the Atlantic and Pacific, the dominant oceanic theatre during the Cold War, to the Pacific and Indian oceans. This process has only further accelerated since the attacks of 11 September 2001. More recently, with the nature of the US/NATO military deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan, the relevance of the Arabian Sea (and the northwestern Indian Ocean generally) has increased substantially, and it can be inferred that the US and its allies will continue to maintain a robust naval presence in these waters for the next half-decade at least.

This presence is likely to become increasingly animated with the arrival of Chinese naval units into the Indian Ocean, as part of an anti-piracy effort that began in December 2008. As is to be expected from a rising economic and military power, over the last decade China has enhanced its naval/maritime linkages with the Indian Ocean, during which time anxieties over a 'string of pearls' of Chinese outposts throughout these waters has become part of the strategic discourse. China's dependence on hydrocarbons from West Asia is set to increase in the years ahead, even as it locks up natural resources in parts of Africa and Latin America – meaning, thereby, that its dependence on the global maritime routes will become still greater. One Tokyo-based study estimates that China's oil imports amounted to 7.4 million barrels per day in 2007, and that this will increase to 18.8 million by 2035. This translates to a very visible increase in traffic of massive oil carriers through the Malacca Strait. By comparison, in 2004 total oil transit to East Asia through the Malacca stood at 11.7 million barrels per day, of which Japan's share was thrice that of China. It is estimated that the daily density of oil flow through the 'choke point' of the narrow Malacca Strait will increase to 24 million barrels per day by 2030, with the volume of cargo destined for China at three times that for Japan.

Creeping giants
Currently, the tension between the US and China over the manner in which the two states will project their maritime military capabilities has come into sharp focus. Beginning with the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in May, attributed to North Korea, Washington and Beijing have locked horns, which in turn has also spilled into the countries of ASEAN. Under contestation is the interpretation of sovereign rights in the Pacific Ocean's contiguous waters that abut China, and the flexing of US naval muscle complemented by its allies, South Korea and Japan. ASEAN states have also voiced their fears about the creeping assertiveness exuded by Beijing by way of staking its claim to several disputed islands in the South China Sea. Consequently, many of China's deepest anxieties about its vulnerability at sea are coming to the fore.

Beijing is aware that its holistic naval capability is of a much lower order than that of the US. It is also aware of the growing primary resource dependence of the Chinese economy (which will be increasingly sourced from Africa and Latin America, apart from the Persian Gulf), and the extended maritime routes that these entail, all of which will add to the vulnerability for China's navy. In short, the Chinese leadership is wary that the US might use its superior naval capability to disrupt Chinese maritime routes, and challenge Beijing's interpretation of maritime sovereignty in both contiguous and distant waters. India, which straddles the Indian Ocean, has been seeking to evolve a cooperative framework for the management of the ocean and its resources.

However, the impact of the US-China maritime contestation will be one of the central geo-political features of this decade, and Southasia will not be unaffected. Currently, Sri Lanka's Hambantota port, which was officially unveiled in mid-August after being developed with Chinese assistance, is likely to become a litmus test of latent Sino-Indian contestation in the Indian Ocean. While Colombo has sought to reassure New Delhi that this facility will not be allowed to adversely impact India's core security interests, the overall texture of the complex China-India relationship, which already includes a tangled territorial dispute, will in all likelihood now acquire a maritime component. The remaining countries of the Southasian region relate in very different ways to the two Asian giants, and the challenge for China and India will be to increase the bandwidth of their shared interests – and enable all southern Asian boats to rise together on their combined economic dynamism. But will the political and societal discourse of southern Asia rise to the occasion, and reclaim the stakeholder status of the Indian Ocean that its members forfeited five centuries ago?

~ C Uday Bhaskar is director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi.

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