As the third largest body of water in the world, the Indian Ocean has a mystique all its own, with an extraordinarily diverse history. The Indian Ocean waters cover an estimated 73.5 million square km, incorporating half the world’s latitudes and seven of its time zones, along with 48 independent littoral and island countries consisting of 2.6 billion people – some 39 percent of the world’s population. The early history of the Indian Ocean, especially with the development of human civilisation, is as diverse and rich as any terrestrial region on Earth. ‘Turn a map of the world upside down and the Indian Ocean can be seen as a vast, irregularly-shaped bowl, bounded by the shorelines of Africa and Asia, the islands of Indonesia, and the coast of Western Australia,’ wrote the historian Richard Hall. The area’s significance, he continued, was as ‘a centre of human progress, a great arena in which many races have mingled, fought and traded for thousands of years.’
For thousands of years, much of the commerce and inter-civilisational contact in the Indian Ocean was facilitated by Muslim, Indian and Chinese traders, who sailed in dhows and junks and populated the bazaars of key port cities. Until around 1700 the Indian Ocean’s thriving seaborne trade was deemed the most significant in the world, with the exchange of silk and porcelain from China; spices from Southeast Asia; pepper, gems, pearls and cotton from India; incense and horses from Arabia and West Asia; and gold, ivory and slaves from East Africa. As a result of this extraordinary commercial and cross-cultural interaction, bustling ports emerged along the Indian Ocean littoral, in places such as Aden on the Red Sea, Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, Kilwa and Mombasa on the East African coast, Calicut on the western Indian coast, and the seaside port of Malacca astride the Malacca Strait.
Naval powers emerged during the 10th and early 11th centuries in order to secure influence over, access to, or control of this mammoth maritime commerce and its important trade routes. This included the Sumatran Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya and the Hindu Chola Tamil kingdom of South India. During the Ming Dynasty, particularly from 1405-1433, China sent as many as seven Indian Ocean diplomatic-naval expeditions led by its legendary explorer Admiral Zheng He, who sailed as far as the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and East Africa. Similarly, the Ottomans, Persians (Safavids), Omanis and Mughals also developed navies, though these were largely confined to certain regions within the Indian Ocean, to protect their respective interests along the East-West trade route.
The search for new markets started to attract European powers, particularly after the voyage of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497, who rounded South Africa and entered the Indian Ocean. Da Gama’s voyage signalled the dawn of a new era of European encroachment, which would see European maritime powers dominate the Indian Ocean for centuries. The superior organisation, weapons, technology and shipbuilding capabilities of the Portuguese ensured them repeated success along India’s western coastline against the Arab-Islamic navies, particularly at the battles of Cochin in 1503 and Diu in 1509. Within just a few decades, the Portuguese had rapidly expanded their influence throughout much of the Indian Ocean littoral, establishing a string of trading posts and fortified coastal hamlets in places such as Goa, Ceylon, Timor, Malacca, Mozambique, Mombasa, Aden, Muscat and Hormuz, enabling the Portuguese to dominate the lucrative spice trade.
It was not long before European rivals emerged on the scene to challenge Portuguese hegemony. The first of these were the Dutch, who circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1595 and by 1619 had established a foothold in Jakarta, which became the capital of the Dutch East Indies. By the mid-17th century, the Dutch had expanded their sphere of influence throughout Southeast Asia, overrunning the Portuguese possessions of Malacca in 1641, Ceylon in 1658, and Nagappattinam, Cranganore and Cochin, all in 1662. By the late 17th century the Dutch had supplanted the Portuguese as the dominant power in the northern and eastern Indian Ocean, though the Portuguese remained powerful in the western Indian Ocean.
The dawn of British and French naval power in the Indian Ocean, during the late 16th century, signalled the beginning of the eventual decline of Dutch hegemony in the Indian Ocean. The British were able to secure important footholds in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, while the French did so in Pondicherry and, during the early 1700s, in Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius; these outposts served as the basis for the expansion of British and French influence throughout the Indian Ocean. Towards the late 1700s, Dutch power had considerably weakened, and the main contest for domination of the Indian Ocean shifted, notably between 1740 and 1815, to the growing rivalry between Britain and France. This resulted in a series of fierce land and naval campaigns on mainland India and in its coastal waters. The decisive British victory was at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which precipitated the loss of the main French stronghold in the Subcontinent, at Pondicherry.
Even though the French were ousted from India, they were by no means completely defeated, and thus the struggle for domination of the Indian Ocean continued. The advent of the Napoleonic Wars from 1792-1815, saw further fighting between the British and the French, with a fierce and costly maritime war waged against the British from Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius. In Storm and Conquest: The battle for the Indian Ocean, 1809, historian Stephen Taylor explains:
The trouble was the so-called Gibraltar of the East’, the twin islands of … Mauritius and Reunion. It is hard today, looking at a map of the Indian Ocean and locating those tiny specks – they lie due east of the vastness of Madagascar like pebbles in the shadow of a mountain – to imagine that at the time they appeared to threaten the East India Company’s control of India, and consequently Britain’s survival as a great power.
However, France’s defeat in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars meant that its colonies and expeditionary forces in the Indian Ocean could not rely on unhindered access to supplies and reinforcements. Eventually, the British overran Mauritius in 1810, which led to the decisive decline of French naval power in the Indian Ocean by 1815, turning the great ocean into what has widely been described as a ‘British lake’. The defeat of the French in the Indian Ocean led to the ascendency of Britain as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, with other European powers retaining insignificant colonies and posing no threat.
Britain having emerged victorious in the Anglo-French contest for hegemony, its maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean remained virtually unchallenged for another 100 years, until the First World War. During that war, the Indian Ocean bore witness to the two German raiders, the SMS Emden and SMS Wolf, which waged a historically unparalleled naval campaign against British merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean, capturing and sinking dozens of ships. Using their maritime power in the region, the British were also able to conduct a number of campaigns against the Germans and Turks along the periphery of the Indian Ocean. These included campaigns in German East Africa, Mesopotamia and along the Arabian shore of the Red Sea, which continued throughout 1914-18.
During the Second World War, the Indian Ocean was again the scene of a historically unprecedented conflict. When mainland Europe fell to the Germans, the land conflict shifted to Russia and North Africa, the latter where a major campaign was waged by the Germans for control of Egypt and the Suez Canal, which was given impetus by the deployment of German raiders in the Indian Ocean to harass Allied merchant shipping. Due to the extreme risk of using the Mediterranean Sea during this period, Britain and Commonwealth convoys had to travel all the way from Britain, around South Africa to reach Egyptian ports through the Red Sea. Furthermore, Britain’s complete dependence on unfettered access and exploitation of the vast oilfields in Iraq and Iran, for the continuation of its war effort, compelled it to invade both countries (in 1940 and 1941, respectively), the latter in a joint invasion with Russia.
With the Germans threatening to overrun Egypt and southern Russia, however, the British faced the real prospect of losing Egypt, and even potentially its access to the vital oilfields in Iraq and Iran. Equally important was the vital necessity for the Western Allies to ensure that Britain’s land link to the Soviet Union – the Persian corridor – remained open. The comparative safety of these convoys traversing through the Indian Ocean made the Persian corridor a considerably safer route than the more risky route that travelled from Britain through the Arctic to reach the northern Russian port of Murmansk.
While Britain focused primarily on fending off the German assault on its homeland and defence of its colonial possessions in North Africa and West Asia, the entry of Japan into the war in late 1941 was followed by a string of unbroken victories against the US in the Pacific and the British in Southeast Asia. This culminated in the fall of Singapore in February 1942. The emergence of the Japanese threat posed a critical problem for Britain’s dominance of the Indian Ocean. The Germans and Japanese were seemingly poised to break into the waters of the Indian Ocean, where they could possibly link up – Britain simply lacked the resources to resist both forces simultaneously.
Worse still, Britain was reeling from its worst-ever military debacle, at Singapore. The Japanese soon captured Rangoon, forcing the British Army in Burma to conduct the longest retreat in British military history, leaving British India critically exposed. Subsequently, the Japanese Navy followed through with a massive naval-and-air raid on eastern India and Ceylon in April 1942 and narrowly missed locating the British Eastern Fleet, but nonetheless caused major damage by sinking nearly 40 British ships in the Bay of Bengal and the waters off Ceylon. After the war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the Japanese attack on India and Ceylon as the ‘most dangerous moment’ of the war – in which he had feared the loss of British Eastern Fleet and the consequent fall of India, Britain’s prized colony, to the Japanese. Needless to say, this would have forced Britain out of the war.
Britain’s hegemony in the Indian Ocean had been seriously challenged. Fortunately for the British, the Japanese chose to refocus their attention in the Pacific theatre, against the US, thus missing an opportunity to deal a potentially decisive blow against the Empire and possible victory in the war. But by late 1942, through a series of surprising reverses and victories, the Western Allies were able to stabilise their fronts and slowly regain the initiative. Regardless, the Indian Ocean waters remained dangerous to Allied maritime traffic, with prowling Axis naval forces that included German, Italian, Vichy French and Japanese submarines that scoured its vast expanses in a protracted and bloody campaign that sank over 300 Allied ships during the war or a total estimated weight of 1.7 million tons. Although Britain significantly contributed to the defeat of the Axis powers, the crippling costs and considerable human and material losses it sustained seriously weakened its prestige and influence.Ultimately, it was this dynamic that contributed greatly to compelling Britain to grant India its independence in 1947, followed by the granting of independence to other colonies along the Indian Ocean littoral.
In the wake of the Second World War, the void left by the decline in British power globally was supplanted by the Cold War confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. In the following decades, the emergence of newly independent states along the Indian Ocean littoral also inexorably altered the strategic geography of the region. Continued access to crucial sea lines of communication, such as the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Malacca and Sunda Straits, which facilitated much of the world’s movement of commerce and oil, made the Indian Ocean increasingly important in Cold War calculations. For example, the major focus of US policy during the Cold War was towards safeguarding and strengthening its access to the vital Persian Gulf oilfields, particularly from Soviet encroachment through West and Central Asia. During the late 1960s, in addition to its military presence in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, the US started construction on a major naval-and-air base on the British controlled island of Diego Garcia (located about 1900 km southwest of India, which generally reflected the growing superpower rivalry in West Asia.
Around the same time, the Soviets also sought to upgrade their military and naval presence in places such as Berbera in Somalia, Asmara in Ethiopia (along the Red Sea), the island of Socotra near south Yemen and the island of Masirah near Oman. The increased Soviet presence and activities in the Indian Ocean was readily justified, as explained for instance in the early 1970s by a Russian defence correspondent for the Novosti Press:
In view of its geographical position, the USSR needs a large fleet in order to maintain the necessary internal contacts with remote parts of the country. Vitally important communication routes linking the European with Asiatic and Far Eastern parts of the USSR pass through the Mediterranean and across the Indian Ocean. It is quite clear that the existing land routes cannot be any substitute for these more economic and convenient sea routes.
The enhanced superpower competition in the Indian Ocean precipitated the concept of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone, which was strongly and consistently endorsed particularly by countries associated with the Non-Aligned Movement, including India. This led the UN General Assembly, in 1971, to adopt a resolution declaring the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. However, the US, United Kingdom and France reacted to the concept with sustained criticism and suspicion, viewing it as a Soviet-backed initiative, which India was especially keen to endorse as a means to limit the spread of Western influence in the Indian Ocean. In view of rising superpower competition, though, this effort failed to gain traction, and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the proposal receded into obscurity.
Although throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s the US remained the dominant power in West Asia and in the Indian Ocean, its influence was seriously contested. This took place most notably after the pro-Western Shah of Iran was deposed by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the Tanker War (1984-88) and the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), all of which were seen as destabilising threats to US influence in West Asia. Hence, the Indian Ocean became the scene of a major US naval and military build-up, which also saw the creation of the US Central Command in 1983 and, in 1995 the US Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain. The dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US as the world’s only superpower, leaving it at the apex of the global power order. However, its involvement in West and Central Asia became intractable with the emergence of Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, which sought to attack US interests – and which, in turn, served as the catalyst for US military intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively.
Over the last decade, the growing strategic rivalry between the emerging powerhouses of India and China, have raised the stakes in the Indian Ocean, in what many commentators refer to as a ‘New Great Game’. Due to the Indian Ocean’s critical significance as the transmission belt for much of the world’s energy supplies, its perennial importance to the world’s major economies strengthens as each year passes. Thus, the greatest threat in this region is the escalating India-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean, with both powers moving aggressively to secure influence and safeguard their respective maritime interests. China’s aim to construct several major port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Burma and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, all of which are designed to lessen China’s vulnerability and dependence on the passage through the Malacca and Sunda straits, have been seen by its strategic competitors in India and the West as a ‘string of pearls’ strategy. However, these unprecedented inroads by China into the Indian Ocean have been seen by its strategic competitors in the West and India as a strategy designed to encircle India, though at present this appears to be debatable. Hence, the growth of India’s influence and presence in the Indian Ocean has led the US to cultivate and leverage India’s emerging power as a counterweight to the growth of China. The rapid expansion and modernisation of the Indian Navy, now the fifth largest in the world, has enabled India to utilise its maritime advantage across the expanses of the Indian Ocean to establish its influence.
Given these prevailing and forecasted activities, it is increasingly clear that the Indian Ocean will be a key arena of great-power rivalry in the decades ahead. ‘In the long term’, the former Australian defence minister, Kim Beazley, recently said, ‘the Indian Ocean is going to be massively more significant in global politics than it has ever been before, and that is the function largely of the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is massively more significant.’ For a region that has already been of central importance for international powers for many centuries, this is a clear demonstration of why the emerging strategic competition in the Indian Ocean should be taken more seriously.
~ Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst specialising in Southasian, Indian Ocean and Australian politics and security.
Correction: This article was corrected and updated on 22 November 2012.