Rising Stakes in Indian Ocean

Published: 13th January 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th January 2014 01:25 AM   |  A+A-

As the world enters 2014, many eyes will be focused on the Indian Ocean, which covers a vast area stretching from the coasts of East Africa in the west, to Malaysia and Australia in the east, to South Africa in the south. Its broader territory runs from the waters of the Arabian Gulf to the South China Sea, covers 70 million sqkm, or 20 per cent of the world’s water surface, hosts one-third of the world’s population, one-quarter of landmass, three-quarters of global oil reserves, iron and tin, and over 70,000 ships cross it every year. Around 65 per cent of the world’s oil reserves belong to just 10 of the Indian Ocean littoral states.

There is no other place where the bedrock concerns of the United States, India, China, Japan, and Australia all converge, making the Indian Ocean strategically integral to the balance of power in the Western Pacific. Even as the world’s attention is focused on the East China Sea and the South China Sea as focal points of China’s strategic outreach onto the high seas, the East Indian Ocean has become another critical body of water.

The Indian Ocean hosts the world’s most significant Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) and as such plays a pivotal role in the global economy, in particular in the past 20 years. The world’s major choke points—Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb (West) and Malacca Strait (East)—create “brackets of troubles” for seafarers, shipping companies, and international security. As such, they are strategically important for global trade and economic development.

Despite its significant strategic position as a major trade route and a home to a large part of the world population, the Indian Ocean was for a long time rather neglected. The sudden rise of India and China as global economic powers has significantly increased their energy needs and their dependence on the Gulf oil supplies. Consequently, their energy security interests give the two Asian players direct stakes in the security and stability of the Indian Ocean, in particular the safety of transit lines form the Arabian Gulf towards the east coast of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal which surround India’s long coastal area. This has positioned India and China as major contenders for the share of the ocean’s dominion.

So far, the US has largely dominated the Indian Ocean but the economic rise of India and China has transformed the scenario from a unipolar to a multipolar world. This shift has brought the Indian Ocean back into the centre of geopolitical attention and strategic gravity as a potential field of conflict for Asian domination.

As a major transportation route, it has a major role in distribution of the Gulf oil to Asia, and as such represents the lifeline for the majority of Arab Gulf countries. A yearly trade that passes the New Silk Route, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, has been estimated at a whopping US$18 trillion, roughly 17 million barrels, comprising a fifth of the world oil supplies pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

But the Indian Ocean-Pacific Ocean corridor is about more than just energy. A new kind of “triangular trade” has sprung up that links India, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific. India’s “Look East” policy has already produced trade between itself and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations of about US$70 billion and turnover is expected to reach US$100 billion by 2015. Even as the strategic competition between India and China intensifies, China has become India’s largest trading partner, at about $75 billion per annum.

Who will call the shots in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades will depend on many factors. The world is progressively moving towards a new international energy order, which for better or worse, will be dictated by the supply and demand of key energy resources: oil, gas and coal. On the one hand, there will be the key energy-consuming countries such as the US, China, India and Japan, all for the large part dependent on the imported energy. On the other, there are countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, or the key energy suppliers.

The alternative scenario is if the United States maintains a strong presence in the Indian Ocean, possibly by 2030, while the key players would be Russia, Iran, China, India and Japan. Economic and political trajectories that seem the most likely for any of the parties concerned will, to a large extent, be determined by how much each of these countries will contribute.

In this backdrop it is imperative for India to expand its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean. A trilateral security group of India, Maldives and Sri Lanka will be expanded to include Mauritius and Seychelles. Senior officials of the trilateral group will meet on December 19 to prepare the ground for a formal joining of these countries.

India hopes that the third trilateral meeting at the NSA level would be able to formalise this arrangement before the general elections. Taking the Indian Ocean more seriously as a target for India’s diplomacy, the external affairs ministry is also crafting a new territorial division to take care of Indian Ocean countries.

After the second trilateral meeting, the three countries decided to harmonise identification and tracking services and training in maritime domain awareness while India committed to sharing automatic identification system (AIS) data, coordinate efforts on search and rescue efforts, etc. India agreed to share with Sri Lanka and Maldives its long-range identification centre (LRIT) and merchant ship information system (MSIS) for tracking merchant vessels.

The three countries also agreed to intensify surveillance of each other’s exclusive economic zones (EEZ). India has taken the lead in this, in an effort to tie the other countries in an information and security network where Indian information systems held the key. However, India’s recurrent problem appears to be the gap between promise and delivery. Maldives has complained that India has provided very few of the radars promised to monitor the 26 atolls of the island nation. Repeated delays by India make it easier for these countries to opt for China as an alternative source of security, just what India is trying to avoid. In recent years, China has made tremendous inroads in the Indian Ocean region, including in Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The writer is a former professor of sociology, IIT-Kanpur.

Email: upendra


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