Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval strategist has correctly stated “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia.” Since independence, India has treated the Indian Ocean as its “backyard.” The Chinese take is that Indians view Indian Ocean as an Indian lake. This paradigm is undergoing a major shift. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is getting both crowded and competitive, largely because the new cold war is a crisscross of geoeconomics and geopolitics, and will play out on the seas.
The Indian Ocean is the third largest of the world’s oceanic divisions with an area of 70.56 million km2. It has 36 states around its littoral belt and an additional 11 hinterland states. Indian Ocean is both an important commercial artery and a global security arena. Half of the world’s containerized freight and two thirds of oil shipments travel through Indian Ocean. Perhaps because of this, the IOR has been considered an arena of major power rivalry and global geopolitics. It includes a variety of races, cultures, and religions. The level of political stability, the quality of governance, demographic pressures, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and the pace of economic growth create a different mix of opportunity and risk in each state surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Political and economic instability sometimes triggers internal and/or border conflicts.
Geopolitics of the IOR
The geopolitics of IOR was a result of the division of the world according to the ideological factors of Capitalism and Communism. The superpower rivalry has always remained an impediment in the region’s growth. Notably, both U.S. and USSR developed new weapons systems such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles and later began acquiring new naval and air bases to complement their global defense strategy based on these new weapon systems during the Cold War era. Fast forward contemporary times, the demographic and economic axis of the Earth has shifted measurably to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime.
Indian Ocean states have large navies and discernable strategic interests. U.S., China, India, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, France and UK, all have a role in the Indian Ocean. Three emerging trends of the 21st century will impact Pakistan’s relations with global powers in the IOR: China’s economic rise, U.S.’ desire to rebalance Asia and Russia’s return to South Asia.
Expanding Chinese maritime power in the Indian Ocean is being seen as a challenge to traditional IOR strategic stakeholders. Many scholars think that Beijing seeks to dominate the IOR. The 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper entitled China’s Military Strategy endorses the view that China has ambitions in the IOR as a maritime power where Chinese have expanded its duties from offshore waters’ defense to “open seas protection” for the first time. This is seen by competing powers in the IOR as China’s interests going way beyond the South China Sea. It is about trade routes and access to natural resources in the Middle East and Africa, on which China is critically dependent.
China’s entrance into the Indian Ocean region dates back to late-1980s, when it began implementing plans to build a blue-water navy. Although focused on protecting China’s interests in the Western Pacific Ocean, in particular the Taiwan Strait, this development also has long-term implications for IOR. China’s actions to overcome the strategic limitations in the IOR have been called its “String of Pearls” strategy. China has been developing political relationships and commercial interests in the IOR for some years, including its friendly relationship with Pakistan and good political and economic relations with Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Since 2008, the Chinese navy has been increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean, first with anti-piracy patrols and later followed by nuclear and conventional submarine deployments. China’s full-fledged entry into the Indian Ocean region in 2015 through multi-billion investments, political influence and military presence along the maritime Silk Road is significantly altering regional dynamics. China has also provided massive assistance for construction of the Gwadar deep-sea port on Pakistan’s southwestern coast of Balochistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Interestingly, the increased capability of Chinese navy, construction of the Chinese missile launch system, strategic anti-missile defense, and an increase in the number of intercontinental missiles don’t pose any particular problems for Moscow. Therefore, by cooperating with China in these areas Russia loses virtually nothing in terms of security, while making life difficult for the U.S., strengthening its relationship with a key partner, and gaining significant economic advantage. This of course is a major paradigm shift in the politics of IOR.
United States’ Desire to Rebalance Asia
Any meaningful alteration to the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific is perceived as a threat to the U.S. The U.S. response to rising Chinese power on the sea lanes was articulated in 2011 when the Obama administration announced that it would expand and intensify U.S.’ role in the Asia-Pacific region because the center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy, national security, and economic interests is shifting towards Asia. This move was later to be labeled as the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” with respect to Asia. It’s a response to the rising power of China and is aimed at containing China.
The U.S.-India defense partnership enables India to acquire U.S.-made long-range patrol aircrafts and drones, maritime helicopters, aircraft carrier technology and anti-submarine gear. India argues that it needs all of this to counter Chinese built bases from Myanmar to Pakistan to Djibouti.
Russia’s Return to South Asia
Russia’s “Return to South Asia” entails cultivating both Pakistan and India. Islamabad and Moscow have taken multiple steps to strengthen the bilateral relations lately. They have recently enhanced their military cooperation and business ties. Defense is the main field of Pak-Russia ties. However, the third order is about Russia-India relations where the two sides have agreed to multiply the cooperation. Russia is facilitating military capabilities of India through the export of air and naval defense system. In return, Russia has opened doors for India in Central Asia. India’s larger interest in Central Asia is 1400km energy highway that would run from Russia through Central Asia. Russia is also a part of the Indian-controlled port of Iran’s Chabahar, which connects Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf with Caspian Sea and then onwards to Russia and northern Europe.
India and Russia have a common interest in reducing their dependence on the U.S. and China in matters of regional importance. While India is tugged by the U.S. to deepen their military partnership through various initiatives like the Quad, Russia’s current strategic closeness with China is not guaranteed in the long run.
The third order is not inspired by antagonism toward any particular country. It is reflective of the geopolitical realities in the region, based on a multi-polar, rules-based, mutually beneficial framework. The third narrative is the Russian response to the enduring shadow of the Sino-U.S. rivalry; both India and Russia are framing this third narrative. However, the continuing relevance of such an order would be tested against the strategic necessity of the Indo-Russian cooperation versus the U.S. pull.
Pakistan’s Strategic Position
Pakistan shares a 990km long coastline with the Arabian Sea and is among the major littoral states of IOR. It has a bulk of marine economic resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Its Western coast adjacent with the Gulf makes it of strategic importance for providing shortest, established and a secure sea route to the landlocked Central Asian Republics, East Asia, European and Pacific nations, Afghanistan and Western province of China via Gwadar Port. Due to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC, the Indian Ocean assumes even greater significance for Pakistan. The Gwadar Port also provides the facility of being a hub for oil and gas pipelines linking Central Asian region to warm waters through the Karakoram Highway and Afghanistan. Pakistan is on the crossroads to becoming a regional economic hub and a major maritime power, if CPEC projects take off and deliver.
In addition to this, Pakistan is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean with 95 percent of its trade through sea. 100 percent of its petroleum, oil and lubricants supplies are also through the Arabian sea. Limited lines of land communication in the eastern hemisphere has resulted in more focus on the sea. Pakistan is destined to play an important role of connectivity in the Indian Ocean. The two-pronged role of Pakistan, as a connecter and an enabler of China’s presence in the oceans is of immense significance for both countries.
The rivalry among states in the IOR is two-pronged: its increased militarization and economic competition. This has created multiple security challenges that includes energy security and piracy. The opportunity, however, is that geoeconomics is taking over geopolitics, where Chinese investments under BRI have heightened the IOR’s strategic value. U.S.’ “rebalance to Asia” has been a contributing factor in increasing the militarization of the IOR. U.S., with Indian support, is trying to curtail Chinese influence in the region. Russia may also be countering that.
Russia’s “return to South Asia” also plays out on the sea lanes, but may not be competitive in nature, where Russia is bringing in perhaps what strategists called the “third order” to the region, outside the constraints of both the U.S. and China, and with India. This works for China as well because it allows bringing India back into the regional matrix. Pakistan continues to possess the golden chair. However, it needs to focus on its naval diplomacy to secure its interest in the Indian Ocean. It should carefully evaluate its options and develop its strategic response accordingly, involving, but not limited to, continuous development of its naval capability, closer and broad maritime cooperation with China. Pakistan should also actively strive to become a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). So far as usual, India has prevented Pakistan’s membership because membership needs the consensus from all members and any one country can block it, without giving any reason. Pakistan should cultivate the 22 member states of IORA to become a part of the Association. Its membership will work towards the country’s own interests. In addition to getting its point of view factored in, this will also contribute towards a more positive image of the country.
The writer is the Associate Dean and an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.
E-mail: [email protected]
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