Limits to Encirclement in the Indian Ocean
July 8, 2013 | 6:56am
The Indian Ocean, the third largest ocean after the Pacific and the Atlantic, connects the Indian sub-continent to Africa, the Middle East, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, and the Persian Gulf. As a result of this overlapping connectivity, the Indian Ocean has emerged as an intersection for vital geo-strategic, economic, and energy connections.
Consequently, maintaining the freedom of the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) via the Indian Ocean has emerged as a vital national security priority for the United States.
In 2011, the Obama Administration announced its “pivot to Asia” policy under which the US focused on developing norms and rules in the context of the rise of China as an influential regional power. In its 2012 Strategic Guidance paper, the US Department of Defense (DoD) identified India as a regional strategic partner in providing security in the Indian Ocean region and a regional economic anchor.
The identification of India as a strategic partner by the US has not been lost on China. Chinese media, especially state owned papers like the People’s Daily and the Global Times are interpreting it as an encirclement of China. Depicted as external containment strategies, Chinese media argue that the United States is forming strategic partnerships with neighboring countries (read India) in order to ensure that China’s rise is contained and its regional influence limited. China also views the United States as engaged in active maritime encirclement, aimed at attaining dominance in the Indian Ocean, and deliberately creating problems for China in the South China Sea: maritime areas that China views as within its sphere of influence.
One of the points of contention for China is the visible naval exercises between the United States and India in the Indian Ocean. In 2012, the Indian navy and the United States navy jointly conducted the Malabar Exercise in the Indian Ocean; the Malabar series of naval exercises, which started in 1992, also involves Australia, Japan and Singapore.
India, by itself, is investing around US $ 47 billion in its naval modernization, which includes purchasing of a new aircraft carrier from Russia, submarines from France, and maritime patrol aircraft from the United States. As part of its larger Indian Ocean strategy, India is also upgrading its naval base in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This has been followed by agreements with other regional counterparts like Australia and Japan to conduct bilateral naval exercises.
China has also become more assertive in the Indian Ocean by strategically placing attack submarines, and increased naval deployments in and around the Indian Ocean. It is also involved in building port facilities in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which could potentially be used as bases in the event of a conflict (See Figure I).
Figure I: China-India Naval Deployments in the India Ocean
Source: Background map from Google Maps; data on maps by Namrata Goswami
The increasing naval modernizations and exercises by both China and India are reflective of the fact that control of the Indian Ocean is emerging as a source of tension. Both China and India are heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean for both energy supply lines and import of raw materials to sustain their economic growth. Any disruption to the SLOCs would give rise to a tensed environment for both. The other tricky issue is that both China and India are uncertain about each other’s strategic motives for increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The situation reflects a “security dilemma,” where one country’s improvement in its naval capacity leads the other to improve its own, resulting in a vicious cycle of conflict escalation.
It is quite likely in such a situation for China to view the growing US-India naval cooperation as aimed at encirclement of China; it is also likely for the US and India to view China’s growing naval assertiveness on the high seas as a regional threat to the freedom of the SLOCs.
Any escalation of conflict in the Indian Ocean is however not in the interest of the United States, India and China. All three have vital economic interests and bilateral trade ties that create the incentives to manage any breakout of conflict. The absence of any framework of engagement between the three creates a vacuum when it comes to issues of transparency, and conflict management. The urgent need of the hour is to work towards establishing institutional engagement that can deal effectively with regional concerns with regard to China’s growing influence in the high seas, as well as assuage China’s fear of encirclement which only makes it more aggressive.