Indian Ocean: Opportunities and Challenges

Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Wednesday, July 4th, 2018
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Just as Europe’s rise made the Atlantic Ocean a setting for 500 years of maritime and naval contention, Indian Ocean will become the “great game” of big powers during the 21st century.  Although it became something of a strategic backwater during the Cold War, this maritime domain is emerging as the global system’s centre of gravity.

 

Geographically dominating as the third largest ocean in the world, the India Ocean, is bounded on the north by South Asia; on the west by Africa; on the east by South East Asia, the Sunda Islands, and Australia; and on the south by the Southern Ocean. It covers about 20% of the water on the Earth’s surface of 68.6 million square kilometers,

 

The region contains almost 40% of the world’s population, 25% of its landmass, 40% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. The region is home to most of the world’s Muslim population as well as India, one of the world’s likely “rising powers.”

 

The northern reaches of the ocean hum with the traffic of half the world’s container ships, just under three quarters of global petroleum products and increasingly with immense tonnages of raw materials ripped from the ground of Australia, Africa and South East Asia, bound for China, India, Japan and South Korea.

 

The Indian Ocean region suffers from a high level of international and internal conflict and is a key venue for international piracy. It also is the locus of some 70% of the world’s natural disasters.

 

Through it pass huge tankers carrying a large fraction of the world’s energy. From its western point such as Somalia to the monarchies of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf to Iran and Pakistan along the shores of the Arabian Sea, lies the arc of instability.

 

Indian Ocean also has choke points and flash points, such as the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf (Arab Gulf), the pirate-infested water off the Horn of Africa (Somalia), the Malacca and Sunda Straits, through which passes 40% of the world’s seaborne oil, including a third of China’s supply, 70% of Japan’s and 90% of India’s.

 

In his “Monsoon” (2010), US author Robert D. Kaplan argues that “we need fresh ways of seeing the world.” Kaplan’s goal is to provide his countrymen with just such a map, one centered on what he calls “the Greater Indian Ocean.”

 

Most important of all, it is in the Indian Ocean that the interests and influence of India, China and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect. It is here, Kaplan says, that the 21st century’s “global power dynamics will be revealed.”

 

Given the fact that the United States Navy dominates the world’s oceans, a growing dependence on seaborne energy imports represents a potentially deadly vulnerability in Chinese eyes. Beijing has responded in two ways: first by beginning to build up its own naval power, and second by seeking alternative supply routes that are less susceptible to interdiction by the United States or other hostile powers.

 

China’s ambition of transporting energy through the Indian Ocean and across the mountains of Myanmar seems close to fulfilment. Natural gas has started to flow from wells deep in the Bay of Bengal through a 500-mile pipeline. The flow of oil may follow the same path.

 

The contest between China and India has started sometime ago. Some Indian defence analysts argue that China which simply cannot countenance the emergence of a rival power in Asia has been determinedly working to minimize India’s regional and global standing.

 

The sea-lanes of Indian Ocean have become vital for India’s expanding global trade. They carry fossil fuels so vital for India’s ever increasing energy needs.

 

Defence co-operation with India, US Defence Secretary at the time Panetta said in June 2012 , underpinned this fast strategic partnership between the US and India.  The US-India agreement to jointly patrol the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea to the crucial Malacca Straits is one of the actions and the establishment of India’s Far East Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is the other.

 

The Indian Navy already one of the largest in the world, is reportedly to expand from 155 ships to well over 300, including three aircraft-carrier battle groups and a flotilla of nuclear-powered submarines.

 

Under the framework of the Long-Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China built and took control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, giving it access to the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for supply of oil to China. The Shanghai port is approximately 16,000 km away from Chinese industrial areas and sea travel takes an additional two to three months. It is noted that Gwadar port is only at a distance of 2,500 km from China and the port will be working the whole year because of its hot waters.

 

India has expressed concern over the Chinese built Pakistani port of Gwadar. Former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta (2006-2009) reportedly said that the Gwadar port has “serious strategic implications for India.”    India is not sitting idle. In response to China’s moves in Gwadar, India plans to upgrade and operate a deepwater port in Chabahar, Iran, which is located just 50 miles to the west of Gwador.

 

The currently the world is totally different from that in the past. States are economically inter-connected than before. For example, China has heavily invested in the US and Australia. India-China trade has risen dramatically. Europe is heavily dependent on oil from Russia. Japan’s economy (especially motor vehicles) is partly dependent on its exports to China.

 

In “A Contest for Supremacy, China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia” (2011)  Professor  Aaron L. Friedberg  of Princeton University outlines several reasons for a closer relationship between the US and China such as: economic interdependence, the prospect that China may become more open and democratic, its continuing integration into the international system, common threats like climate change, and nuclear weapons.

 

If the Chinese economy, as projected by Goldman Sachs, overtakes the American economy by 2027, and is almost double the size by 2050, some strategists believe that the US must come to terms with the fact that China’s rise is not simply a result of its failure of policy but is rather one of those great — and highly infrequent — historical shifts that governments can do relatively little to prevent.

 

Henry Kissinger in his book “On China”( 2012), indulges his habitual preference for diplomatic architecture between the US and China. , Kissinger insists that the common interests the two powers share should make possible a “co-evolution” to “a more comprehensive framework.”

 

He envisions wise leaders creating a “Pacific community” comparable to the Atlantic community that America has achieved with Europe. All Asian nations would then participate in a system perceived as a joint endeavour rather than a contest of rival Chinese and American blocs.

 

And leaders on both Pacific coasts would be obliged to “establish a tradition of consultation and mutual respect,” making a shared world order “an expression of parallel national aspirations.”

 

Recently on disputes of islands in the South China Sea, China has eventually agreed a “Code of Conduct” to resolve the disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines.

 

The former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton reportedly noted in Rarotonga in 2012 that the Asia Pacific region was “big enough for all of us”, in response to suggestions that increased United States engagement in the region was a hedge against China’s growing influence. Her statement clearly demonstrates the efforts of cooperation and not confrontation between the existing and the rising global powers.

 

Finally, given the background, the big and rising powers are expected, in my view, to resolve their national interests in the Indian Ocean by accommodating with one another. They will take up the opportunities of the Indian Ocean collectively for the welfare of people of the world and not challenge their opponents with weapons. n

 

Barrister Harun ur Rashid,  Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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