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The Indian ocean region had become the strategic heartland of the 21st century, dislodging Europe and North East Asia which adorned this position in the 20th century…the developments in the Indian Ocean region were contributing to the advent of a less Western centric and a more multi-polar world.”

-Donald L. Berlin, Head of Security Studies, Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies.

The geo-political significance of the Indian Ocean stems from the fact that it is a centre piece in the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The combination of economic growth and slowdown, military expansion, increasing demand for natural resources, demographics combined with the geo-political situation, increased presence of nuclear capable actors and variances in regional structures of governance, highlights the geo-political significance of this area.

It has remained an important area throughout the realms of history due to its unique strategic location and bulk of natural resources. However, in recent periods more with the spread of globalization the significance of Indian Ocean both politically as well as economically has been rapidly increased. Furthermore, ever since the attacks on World Trade Centre on 9/11, 2001, world’s major powers including America due to her policy of counter terrorism and more specifically China in order to overcome her distant location vulnerabilities with the Ocean have shifted their focus towards it.

Brief Background

  • Indian Ocean covers almost 20 per cent of the world’s water. Its total area is about 68.556 million square kilo meter and it is almost 5.5 times larger than the United States.
  • The ocean total area includes Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Flores Sea, Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Java Sea, Mozambique Channel, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Savu Sea, Strait of Malacca, Timor Sea, and other tributary water bodies.
  • It also has several small island nations such as the Madagascar, The Seychelles, Reunion Island, Maldives, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. While a cluster of islands forming Indonesia borders the ocean in east. Indian Ocean got its name after the huge Indian subcontinent in its north.

Geographical Setting of Indian Ocean

Following are the vital global shipping routes and choke points of Indian Ocean

  • Strait of Hormuz
  • Strait of Malacca
  • Bab-el-Mandeb
  • The Sunda and Lombok straits
  • Mozambique Channel
  • Ten Degree and Six Degree Channels

The Growing Importance & Challenges  IOR holds

The Indian Ocean is home to many choke points, such as the Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Lombok and the Sunda Straits. Any disruption in traffic flow through these points can have disastrous consequences. The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based. Since energy is critical in influencing the geo-political strategies of a nation, any turbulence in its supply has serious security consequences. Given the spiraling demand for energy from India, China and Japan, it is inevitable that the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and choke points of the region have become strategically important for these countries & that they are extremely sensitive to their security

1.  Rich Resource Base

  • The Indian Ocean holds 16.8% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 27.9% of proven natural gas reserves.
  • Indian Ocean economies accounted for 35.5% of global iron production and 17.8% of world gold production in 2017.
  • The region was also responsible for 28% of global fish capture in 2016, and there has been a continuous increase in fish capture in the region since the 1950s.
  • This has created a successful basis for export industries in a number of countries. For example, Indonesia and India accounted for around 4.5% of global frozen fish exports in 2017.
  • This abundance of natural resources, among other factors, has facilitated trade-led growth within this region.

2. Maritime Trade

  • The Indian Ocean is home to major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas.
  • These vital sea routes
  • facilitate maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region,
  • carry more than half of the world’s sea-borne oil, and
  • host 23 of the world’s top 100 container ports.
  • Container traffic through the region’s ports has increased fourfold from 46 million TEUs in 2000 to 166 million TEUs in 2017.
  • Increased connectivity within the region has strengthened ties with external trading partners.
  • China has emerged as the most important trading partner of the Indian Ocean region.

3. Emerging Threats

  • Freedom of navigation is vital for the smooth flow of Indian Ocean maritime trade but threats such as competition among great powers, nontraditional security threats, and environmental degradation remain.
  • Piracy and drug trafficking are gaining traction within the region.
  • In 2012, 200 kgs of heroin was trafficked on the Indian Ocean maritime trade routes. This increased to nearly 4500 kgs of heroin trafficked between May 2015 and May 2016.
  • Out of a total of 180 global incidents of piracy, 84 (46.7% of the global total) occurred within this region in 2017,undermining the safety and the security of maritime trade and other related activities.
  • Environmental degradation also poses a threat to the growth of the region. Unsustainable use of marine resources may lead to rapid depletion of fish stocks and other minerals.
  • This could adversely impact the region’s economic prosperity as some major economies depend on these resources to stimulate trade and economic growth.
  • The lack of a regional maritime security architecture has prompted major powers to compete for control over these resources and sea-lanes.
  • The further escalation of such geopolitical tensions, as seen in the South China Sea, would threaten the openness of the region’s sea routes, which in turn may disrupt trade and adversely affect energy dependent nations like Sri Lanka.

4. The Law of the Seas

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)is an international treaty which was adopted and signed in 1982. The Convention has become the legal framework for global marine and maritime activities, and is known as the ‘Constitution of the Seas.’
  • Since its adoption, 167 states have joined the treaty, out of which 25 are Indian Ocean states. Only three—Cambodia, Iran and the UAE—are not party to the treaty.
  • The Convention aims to delineate all ocean space into different maritime zones and sets forth the rights and duties of States in their activities within each of those maritime zones.
  • It divides the ocean into six different zones namely; Internal waters, Contiguous Zone, Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and High Seas.
  • The main institutions established by the Convention include :
  • The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea;
  • The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; and
  • The International Seabed Authority.
  • As this Convention forms the core of ocean governance, Indian littoral states and maritime users can use this as a foundation for ensuring freedom of navigation and stability in the Indian Ocean.

5. Other Challenges for India

  • The recent ICJ advisory opinion that Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean belongs to Mauritius and not to the UK change the geopolitical tilt in the region from favouring US to a more tentative position.
  • Despite Mauritius’ declaring that it would allow the US to continue using American military base in Diego Garcia, there is still ambiguity as to how the Mauritius will react in the decades to come. A lot depends on the relative political and economic power of the US, China and India, at any given point, in the medium to long term
  • The aspirations of the Chinese Navy to register its presence in the region, and then follow it up by projecting power as part of its ‘Far Seas’ operating philosophy can be seen in Hambantota, where China is in possession of Sri Lankan real estate, for developing a port and Special Economic Zone.
  • Maldives, another island is caught somewhere in between, which has shared a strenuous relationship with India in the recent past and has received generous aid from China, a feature of the so called ‘debt trap’ policy. Since the Maldives represents a buffer zone surrounding India’s maritime strategic space, China’s steady encroachment there is a serious cause for concern.
  • Even in the South China Sea issue, when the world, especially the US and to a lesser extent, India and Japan, were upset and anguished, but the so-called affected nations in South-East Asia seem to have re-adjusted themselves to a ‘new normal’.
  • With bigger Chinese purse and its habit to increasingly question the established global order and India’s problem in establishing maritime/naval presence in Island nations where the Governments keep changing their positions and commitments, can cause a paradigm-shift in global understanding and acceptance of emerging heat – not warmth – in the Indian Ocean waters, not far away from the Indian shores.

6. Way Forward

  • The concept of strategic buffer zones in the naval domain is enshrined in great power politics and any nation getting a head start in it can safely avoid anti-access and area denial tactics from their adversaries. India therefore should develop a similar outlook to guard against Chinese encirclement of its strategic space.
  • New Delhi should look to operationalise logistical agreements with France and the United States, in order to upgrade naval relations and allow its own bases to be used for logistical support by the French and American navies.
  • These logistical bases can enhance India’s capability to establish sea-denial in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating the breadth of Indian naval power. These moves should be accompanied with counter-theatre presence in the Western Pacific, and diplomatic outreach to South Asian nations that are being courted by China.
  • India should look to develop interdependencies with neighbouring countries, both economically and strategically, which until now it has failed to realise. The void left by India has been dutifully fulfilled by China.

China’s aggressive soft power diplomacy has widely been seen as arguably the most important element in shaping the Indian Ocean strategic environment, transforming the entire region’s dynamics. By providing large loans on generous repayment terms, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, dams, ports, power plants,and railways, and offering military assistance and political support in the UN Security Council through its veto powers.

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