Navigating the choppy waters of the mighty Indian Ocean
From a commercial point of view, the Indian Ocean, the world’s third-largest water body is of paramount importance — from the shores of Africa to Indonesia and Australia. 80 percent of international oil trade transits through this ocean, and it is home to some of the world’s most sensitive choke points, like the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. It also touches the turbulent shores of the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. It has a large foreign military base in Diego Garcia and a presence of foreign forces in the Arabian Gulf and Afghanistan.
Some of the primary tasks of naval forces are to protect the maritime lanes of their countries, as well as to project power, both hard and soft. The year 1973 was formative in terms of power projection in relation to international trade on the high seas.
Soon after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, oil prices quadrupled. Arab countries placed an embargo on oil exports to some western nations that had supported Israel during the war. That same year, the US established a formidable air and naval base in the Indian Ocean, much to the resentment of India.
India has traditionally considered the Indian Ocean its exclusive sphere of influence. But things have moved the full circle in the recent past. Today, Indian vessels use to repair and refueling facilities at Diego Garcia, thanks to the 2016 Indo-US logistics agreement.
A determined international effort, led by the world’s biggest powers is what is required to make the Indian Ocean a demilitarized zone. There should be no foreign military bases allowed in the ocean or its littoral states.
This diametric change occurred as a third big player entered the arena: China. Beijing announced its ambitious plan for international connectivity called the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) in 2013 — a one trillion dollar investment project to build roads and rail links to Europe, Asia, and seaports in Asia and Africa.
Chinese acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka for 99 years and its management of Gwadar port in Pakistan are linchpins of commercial connectivity through the Indian Ocean. It has also acquired naval facilities at Djibouti. Meanwhile, India and the US have acquired similar facilities at Duqam and Salala, alongside India’s radar posts in Mauritius and Madagascar.
China says the BRI projects will enhance international trade and development and therefore promote peace and security. Critics disagree, calling the BRI a trojan horse to camouflage China’s real power ambitions.
Now the world’s second-largest economy, China has vast interests in the Indian Ocean as most of its commercial vessels pass through it. For some years now, both India and China have been developing blue water navies but a possible collision path in this vital ocean must be avoided at all costs. Their increasing bilateral trade does hold some hope that they would rather co-operate with one another rather than collide.
For quite some time, the international community has been cognizant of growing military competition in the Indian Ocean and its possible negative fallout. In 1971, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the Indian Ocean a “zone of peace.” This resolution calls upon “great powers to enter immediate consultations with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, with a view to halting further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the Indian Ocean.”
However, big power rivalries still go on unabated and could be deeply detrimental to international trade and to peace if allowed to persist. Instead of two blue water navies during the cold war days, we have more players now competing for influence in the same region.
Moreover, threats like piracy and terrorism on the high seas have increased. To counter these threats a Combined Maritime Force (CMF) was established in 2004. Headquartered in Bahrain, CMF has three specialized task forces that deal with sea piracy, terrorism, and maritime security. With its membership of 33 countries, CMF covers an area of over three million square km in the Indian Ocean and has succeeded in combating piracy and high-sea terrorism, to a great extent.
But what is the most permanent, and sustainable, solution? A determined international effort, led by the world’s biggest powers is what is required to make the Indian Ocean a demilitarized zone. There should be no foreign military bases allowed in the ocean or its littoral states.
For security, CMF could prove to be enough. Though palliative in nature, it has so far been successful in curbing piracy and terrorism and has promoted maritime security in the region.
While Pakistan is a member, India and China are not participating in CMF’s important activities. A serious request for their inclusion into the organization would make it far more effective and credible.
Two highly important organizations and symposiums, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and Indian Ocean Naval Seminar, are currently excluding Pakistan from its membership and meetings partly due to proactive political influence from India. But the Indian Ocean deserves an inclusive, credible and transparent security architecture. The security of this ocean, so vital to so many states, should never be allowed to fall prey to power politics and the policies of exclusion.