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.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian