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America Seeks Partner to Contain China in the Indian Ocean

Jul 22, 2021
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

Representing nearly a fourfold increase in the volume of commercial shipping since 1970 almost 90,000 vessels carrying 9.84 billion tons of cargo travel through the Indian Ocean annually. Three of the most critical global shipping choke points – Straits of Hormuz, Malacca Straits and Bab-el-Mandeb, from which some 36 million barrels of oil, equivalent to nearly 40 percent of global oil supply and 64 percent of oil trade pass through are in this ocean. In addition to 40 percent of oil production, the Indian Ocean accounts for nearly 15 percent of the world’s commercial fishing. 

It is unquestionably a strategic trading hub connecting the Middle East to Europe and Americas, to Southeast Asia, Oceania and East Asia. Any disruption in the Indian Ocean trading routes can have a huge impact upon major economies like China, Japan, Korea, the oil producing Persian Gulf, and beyond. In short, there is perhaps no other ocean as important in comparison. 

Following the withdrawal of the British from its naval commitments ‘east of Suez,’ in 1968 the Americans stepped in. Through a mutual arrangement with the British, the U.S. leased Diego Garcia, a small island in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and set up a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean after expelling and relocating nearly 1,000 local residents. This base symbolizes the American preeminence in the ocean and deters any adversary to challenge the U.S. The place is so secretive that no regular flights or maritime traffic operate to Diego Garcia. 

China’s interests in the Indian Ocean have expanded in parallel with its energy needs and commercial interests that have catapulted China to the status of the biggest trading nation in the world. Nearly 80 percent of China’s energy imports and 95 percent of its goods traffic passes through the Indian Ocean, particularly involving the two of the major shipping choke points. The entire shipping routes are militarily controlled by the U.S. and India – the two countries that consider China as their adversary. Its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative have actually made the need for China to control shipping on its trade routes more acute. No country with so much at stake on open trade can afford to leave the seas at the mercy of its adversaries. China has therefore been keen to make its presence in the Indian Ocean permanent through what the western media calls, ‘string of pearl’ ports – developing ports in several littoral states like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and eyeing other regional ports like Seychelles, Mombasa, Dar us Salam, and more. China set up its overseas naval base in Djibouti in July 2017, which supports China’s permanent anti-piracy deployment around the Red Sea region for now.  

China’s rise challenges American primacy in the Indian Ocean. For decades the U.S. has tried to stoke India’s fears of rising China and has sought to enlist India as a regional gendarme against China. The Obama era ‘Pivot to Asia’ was also a part of this strategic aim. American support for India against China aligns with its broader security and strategic goals of containing China. India, aspiring for regional primacy, welcomed the American’s presence and support as much as it aligns with the Indian vision of dominating the Indian Ocean. Mutual support for each other’s interest works against their common adversary – China. 

Citing Chinese port building in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan and its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, Indian and American naval strategists are ostensibly concerned at what they claim as growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. But they overlook the American naval presence in Diego Garcia and Indian naval stations all across India’s coast, in Andamans, and now in Mauritius and Seychelles. The Andamans is particularly close to the Malacca Straits, putting the Chinese maritime interests at serious risk. China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is however, mostly for the anti-piracy missions as a part of a multilateral arrangements close to the Somali coast and the Red Sea region. 

The two countries have, especially since the signing of ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ in 2015, laid special emphasis in furthering maritime ties. The four-foundation agreements on military relations allow for intelligence sharing, use of strategic naval facilities and much more. Surely, the current Indian government believes that America’s forward presence in the Indian Ocean region as a vital hedge against China. 

The burgeoning naval collaboration is also demonstrated through the ‘Malabar’ naval exercises that India and the U.S. have held since 1992. Joined by Japan in 2015 and now Australia (after exiting in 2007) these have grown in size and scope. These four states now constitute ‘the Quad’ – touted as group of democracies against ‘authoritarian’ China by the American think tanks and the media. President Biden’s first international engagement – the first (virtual) summit of the Quad underscores the direction American foreign policy is taking.  

Indian outlook towards the foreign policy has changed since the days of its founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru when India shut out all foreign presence in the Indian Ocean. With India now aligned to the U.S., Prime Minister Narendra Modi concedes that India was willing to work with extra- regional powers “with strong interests and stakes in the region.” Hence, the four foundation military agreements between India and the U.S.. The U.S. and India now conduct more military exercises than any other two states. 

Secretary for Defense Mr. Lloyd Austin declared India as “an increasingly important partner among today’s rapidly shifting international dynamic,” within two months of assumption of post on a visit to India, demonstrating the importance that the Biden administration attaches to India as a regional surrogate against China.  

China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ which necessitates freedom of the seas sets up a tussle for security control of the Indian Ocean between China and the U.S.. And since India has now chosen to be in a security relationship with the U.S. that is clearly hostile to the Chinese interests, a contest for control of Indian Ocean will consume resources and in likelihood further polarize the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. Such a state is not in the best interests of either of the countries or Asia at large. Asia’s future is best served with keeping the outsiders out. 

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