IN 1890 the American naval strategist Alfred Mahan expressed the view that sea power was the key to global control and showed how the building up of naval power by seafaring nations remained a crucial factor in shaping history and changing geo-strategy of the world. Colonisation of third world countries by European nations with a strong maritime tradition is a clear pointer to the significant role played by naval forces in the global power equations. Coming to the 21st century the importance of blue power strategy is unchanged and, to some extent, it is an ever increasing phenomena and determining geo-strategic factor too.
The blue power school of strategists used to say that the current century’s controlling power will be in the hands of the nation which can dominate the Indian Ocean and the states on its littoral. And Indian Ocean that extends from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz and from the coast of Africa to the western shores of Australia. The region contains 1/3 of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its landmass, and 40 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It is the locus of important international sea lines of communication. The region is home to most of the world’s Muslim population as well as India, one of the world’s likely ‘rising powers’.
The Indian Ocean also is home to the world’s two nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran, which most observers believe has a robust programme to acquire nuclear weapons. India and China, Asia’s two powerful neighbours, have already jumped into the tidal waves of Indian Ocean to be predominant in this region and their continuing efforts aimed at the strategic encirclement and containment of each other are a potential source of competition and rivalry and, perhaps, even conflict.
China’s growing power and influence in Asia is a strategic challenge for India as, eventually, Indian and Chinese geo-strategic interests will clash, particularly in the South Asia, Southeast Asia, and central Asia as well as in Africa. Indians see the Indian Ocean as India’s backyard and see it as both natural and desirable for India to function as the leader and the predominant influence in this region since it is the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state. But Chinese used to refuge the claim, saying ‘we can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians and they have to remind that it is not an Indian Lake rather it is the Ocean and that should be universal.’
China has already made its presence felt in the Indian Ocean region, where it could come into conflict with Indian maritime interests. To the east of India, China’s maritime challenge to India starts with the Malacca Straits. As India has moved forward to project its presence and ‘guardianship’ of the area, the People’s Republic of China has been trying to circumvent this through discussions with Thailand on building a canal across the Isthmus of Kara. This would directly link the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, and bypass the Malacca Strait. China’s links with Myanmar are well established on land and at sea, the source of long-established Indian concerns. Base facilities have been established at Sittwe, along with various intelligence posts in the Coco Islands, and elsewhere.
To the south of India, China’s development of port and bunker facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka is the causes of worry to Indian policy makers. China has also made its influence felt in the Maldives’ islands, a crucial link between China’s presence in the Arabian Sea (Pakistan) and in the Bay of Bengal (Myanmar and Bangladesh). Direct ‘intrigue’ and rivalry is evident between India and China with regard to the Maldives for the control of the Indian Ocean region... India and China both are keen to woo Maldives for their strategic interests.
To the west, Pakistan has long been the lynchpin of China’s presence in South Asia. In 2005, China also conducted its first joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with Pakistan, the first outside of PRC territorial waters. Chinese maritime ‘Grand Strategy’ is most evident at Gwadar, situated on Pakistan’s far western shores, looking towards the entrance of the oil-rich Gulf, and it is capable of offering ongoing berthing facilities for the Chinese navy. Gwadar is important: not for what it is today, but for what it will indicate about Beijing’s intentions in the coming years and decades. The race for resources like oil can put countries at loggerheads, and the foreign policies of both India and China are increasingly dictated by their energy needs.
India has also considerably strengthened its posture in several strategically important regions. Her infrastructure has been strengthened; her more northerly command centres shared with commercial shipping at Mumbai and Visakhapatnam have been supplemented with two new purely naval deep-sea port facilities on the southwest coast at Kawar and on the southeast coast some 50 kilometres south of Visakhapatnam. Both bases will enable Indian power to be felt further around the Indian Ocean, and thereby enable India to more easily cut China’s Sea Lanes of Communication between the Persian Gulf and Straits of Malacca.
The extension and build-up of Campbell Airport on Great Nicobar Island gives India the chance to strike against the southern and central Chinese zones, avoiding the geographical problems for India of trans-Himalayan operations. 2005 saw the setting up of India’s Far Eastern Naval Command, at Port Blair in the Andaman Island. They also look eastwards, to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea; indeed they geographically pull India into Southeast Asia, being in between Indonesia and Myanmar.
India’s naval operations with Southeast Asian neighbours have been a regular feature of its Bay of Bengal operations since 1995, buttressed still further by the quadrilateral naval exercises conducted by the Indian navy with American, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean units in September 2007, near the Andaman Islands, close to China’s monitoring stations at Coco Islands and near the strategic Strait of Malacca. American-led alliances in the region, Beijing perceive the ties with Japan, Australia and India as the most vital because collectively they can transform into a US-Japan-Australia-India coalition to encircle China. Indian naval links with Vietnam, nestled in what strategists see as China’s ‘soft underbelly’, is a great Chinese concern since both Vietnam and India have unresolved territorial disputes with China, both have China as a looming northern land neighbour, and both have faced war with China (India in 1962, Vietnam in 1979).
Bangladesh is another vital factor in the grand chessboard of Indian Ocean geopolitics for her geo-strategic location to both India and China but she used to treat two giants equally, her leaning towards any one can change the power projection and control of the sea lines of communication and ‘sea-power’ as a whole. India and China in Mahan-style are stepping up navy building or enhancing their ability to control the ocean and such rivalry of two neighbours can hamper the integrity and security of the region and their peaceful rise might be questioned. As a dweller of Indian Ocean territory, both countries are expected to avoid all sorts of antagonism and will work for peace and tranquillity of Indian Ocean region and for the planet as a whole.
BY : Abdullah Shahed Miaji.