Power Play in the Indian Ocean
The Great Game Moves to Sea
India, China and the United States, the three major powers, which together account for nearly half of the global economy, are vying for influence in the Indian Ocean arena. All three of them view the region through their own geostrategic frameworks, ensuring intense jostling at best or conflict at worst. India has the “Security and Growth for all the Region” framework, a combination of its Act (or Look) East and the Think West policies. China has the Maritime Silk Road, which is half of the Belt and Road Initiative. The United States has the Indo-Pacific Strategy (also known as the Free and Open Indo Pacific), a natural successor to the Asia-Pacific rebalance.
“In terms of global political significance, the Atlantic Ocean can be viewed as the ocean of our grandparents and parents; the Pacific Ocean as the ocean of us and our children; and the Indian Ocean as the ocean of our children and grandchildren.”
— Craig Jeffrey; Director and CEO Australia-India Institute
The Indian Ocean region will continue to be buffeted by tripolar competition involving China, India and the United States. Each state’s approach to the increasingly crowded Indian Ocean environs is informed by history, economic interests and simple geography. Three significant divergences in the three countries’ frameworks are their perspectives on the Middle East, Pakistan’s regional role and the balance between military and non-military foreign policy tools. Friction resulting from any of these divergences could undermine the success of any of these national strategies. Ultimately, China’s more integrated strategy may give it an edge over America’s more disjointed approach and India’s more inward focus.
India defines the region as extending from the African littoral to Southeast Asia. In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put forward “Security and Growth for All in the Region,” or SAGAR, as an early, high-level articulation of the Indian vision. In 2017, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj specifically defined the region as extending from the Gulf of Aden in the west, through Chabahar Port in southwest Iran, and over to Burma and Thailand in the east. Notably, India does not view Pakistan as a part of this regional cooperation strategy, instead sees it as an enemy. Similarly, India tries to isolate its long history of land border disputes with China from its wider policy towards the Indian Ocean, even though countering Beijing is one of New Delhi’s goals.
India’s focus on the Indian Ocean area is relatively new, dating back only to the 1990s. For most of the period since it gained independence in 1947, India has been preoccupied with land border threats posed by Pakistan and China, and has apparently lacked the ambition and capacity to exert influence beyond its immediate neighbours.
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