Ali Bin Haroon 

In the post-cold war era, the world witnessed the rise of China as an economic power mostly credited to President Deng’s liberalization of the economy within the communist setup. Under the current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, China’s witnessed a major policy shift toward the Indo-Pacific region.

China has been the embodiment of the ‘Think Globally Act Locally’ policy where it has made moves to establish its hegemony over the South China Sea and such moves have provided it room for advancement in the North Pacific region by claiming rights over the Senkaku Islands and the movement towards West. However, in pursuit of this hegemonic agenda, China also has to face resistance from India.

The tactical location of the Nicobar and Andaman Islands of India in the Indian Ocean has paved the way for the world’s strongest democracy to counterbalance the Chinese moves in the region. The strategic location of IOR along with the geo-economic gains the region present major political and strategically defined goals.

Geo-Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) 

It may be too utopian to think of the hegemony of one nation in IOR like that of the British Colonial Empire but the strategic importance of the region remains the same. The region has sheer importance in terms of trade and connectivity. About 80% of the world’s trade passes through the Indian Ocean Region.

The region has pivotal importance due to the presence of straits which can prove to be choke points in case of a trade war and naval build-up.

Economies like China, Japan, South Korea, and India share direct linkages with the region along with their major ports harboring the trade. The region also ensures the connectivity of East Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East. The regions to which IOR provides connectivity have been central to many conflicts and issues ranging from trade to terrorism and counter-terrorism which makes IOR of great pivotal importance as well. Any disruptions or military standoffs over the trade routes in IOR could have severe effects on the trade of the world.

The major objective of the struggle over the region is all focused on military presence around the choke points to trade. Out of the world’s seven chokepoints, three lie in the Indian Ocean region, including the Strait of Malacca, which connects South East Asia to the Western Pacific; the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean; and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

A case of any obstacle to trade via these straits will call for alternate and expensive trade routes which cannot be sustainable in long run.

Cooperation and Partnerships within the IOR in such securitized circumstances are very difficult where the conflict of interests lies. The US has mainly confined its role to surveillance and counter-terrorism in the Middle East.

However, with the emergence of China as an economic giant and dragon of seas, this region has developed as substantial to conflicts where a single conflict creates several new conflicts mainly centered upon Islands and claiming rights.

The Islands around the region provide the grounds for military bases in order to support the naval presence and improve surveillance. The major conflicts in this region have occurred due to the geo-economic goals of the nations. The current shift in the world’s policy from geo-strategic to geo-economics has further increased the depth of the region.

Geo-economic depth of the IOR 

The economic importance of IOR has been directly proportional to its strategic depth. The region is principal to world trade. The developments in the port infrastructures around the IOR further enabled trade via this route.

The cost of the trade is efficient and the distance has been reduced. The region is also enriched with minerals and resources desired by many states. The Persian Gulf is rich in petroleum, while exploration projects are underway to locate and extract natural gas in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

Fisheries also hold a significant economic value when it comes to the Indian Ocean. It has become a major economic zone for nations like Maldives that sell their fishing rights to support their economy. Due to the presence of choke points, India and South East Asian nations have an important say in the region.

Any military buildup in the region could hamper the trade interests of the entire world. The tactical presence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India at the gateway of the Malaccan Strait had been of pivotal importance and a significant challenge to the trade interests of China.

However, China has effectively reduced its dependency on the Malaccan Strait by developing alternate routes via Myanmar and Bangladesh to Dhaka Port and from Kashgar to Gwadar Port. The Chinese investment in Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and China Pakistan’s Economic Corridor (CPEC) has waged a trade proxy war in the Arabian Sea region of the Indian Ocean which has seen rapid development of infrastructures.

India has invested in Chabahar Port in Iran which is just 72km from Gwadar in order to contain Chinese growth at Gwadar Port.

India as a Counter Balance to China 

India has great strategic importance in IOR as it is at the heart of geo-political churn. Although India hasn’t faced any serious maritime threat since independence other than threats from Pakistan Navy and minor piracy threats yet Chinese growing influence in IOR is contesting the Indian role in the region. Chinese activities in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), including research vessels and fisheries, are of India’s major concern.

To better counter these threats, India has opted for a policy shift where it has targeted its allies in the region for better economic and security cooperation to strengthen maritime security.

These allies of India including the US, Japan, Australia, France, and other nations have stakes and interests in IOR. The partnership aims to conduct security dialogues, military exercises, and exchanges. This approach of India is a possible acknowledgment of its capacity limitations in managing the Indian Ocean.

Quad has gained influence since Malabar naval exercise 2020 in the Indian Ocean. Such exercises are beneficial in creating greater confidence and a working environment among like-minded allies of India. However, there exists a conflict of geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific.

India, Japan, and France share a common take on the geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific from the Eastern shores of Africa to the Western coast of America. The US is focused on the Pacific component of the Indo-Pacific, which incorporates Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, mainly focused on countering Chinese expansion in the Pacific and South China Sea. India, however, is mainly concerned about Chinese expansion in IOR.

Quad holds the key, providing a platform for enhanced cooperation and coordination. The increasing workability of Quad has been perceived as a major threat by China. The frameworks within Quad are proving substantial to India in forming a counter strategy against China.

The Indo-US strategic partnership is mainly based upon military ties and agreements, including the Agreement on General Security of Military Info (GSOMIA), Logistic Exchange and Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) promotes interoperability between the two militaries. Indo-Australia partnership is also of major concern to China after Australia’s induction in Malabar Naval Exercise.

To sum up, The Asian Security dilemma is a major constituent of conflicts ranging from Kashmir to Water contention between the nations. The addition of the Indo-Pacific conflict and rivalry between the two powers of Asia has further deepened the nature of conflicts in the region.

The conflict of interests between China and India has induced a proxy war of similar nature to that of the cold war, for which cooperation and coordination hold the key. China, an economic giant has perceived a significant threat from India due to aggression in Indian maritime strategy.

However, the global role of China in world trade and its effective maritime policies incorporating trade and connectivity all around the world has put China in driving seat at sea battle all around the world.

What will be the long-term effects of any escalation of the conflict in the region still remains the question. Still, one thing that can be said with certainty is that for the region so diverse and having multiple stakeholders, only cooperation and dialogue hold the key to any breakthrough.


*The author is a student of International Relations at National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad   

**The views presented by the author in the article are their own and do not reflect the position of The Diplomatic Insight. Nor does The Diplomatic Insight bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information cited.

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