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Home  > Tamil Eelam Struggle for Freedom > International Frame of  the Tamil Struggle  > The Indian Ocean Region - A  Story Told with Pictures > The Indian Ocean: Current Security Environment  - Atul Dev > International Relations in an Asymmetric Multi Lateral World

The Indian Ocean Region

The Indian Ocean – Current Security Environment
Atul Dev, a New Delhi based senior freelance journalist
in the Mauritius Times, 25 May 2007

"Let this be clear: the two major powers of the region, China and India, are scrambling for advantage around the Indian Ocean's rim. China is building military and naval links with Bangladesh and Myanmar. The cooperation between China and African countries is now getting more and more visible, particularly after the China-Africa summit in Beijing in November 2006... Reports available indicate that both India and the United States are studying intensely this rise in Chinese activity. At the last meeting of the Indo-US Defence Joint Working Group held in New Delhi (on 10 April 2007), China's 'growing naval expansion in the Indian Ocean' was noted with concern. The meeting also noted: 'China is rapidly increasing military and maritime links with countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar....Based on this power play now going on in the Indian Ocean, it is expected that countries of the region would sit up and take note of two growing external naval powers – US and China -- increasing their presence in the region. A collective security arrangement is in order. But knowing the rivalries within the region, will this ever be possible? The 200 years of the Anglo-Saxon presence in the region has now been replaced by the US-China presence to further and protect their interests. Isn’t it time for the ‘owners’ of the Indian Ocean to get together to protect their own interests?  "


With approximately 74 million square kilometres and roughly 20 per cent of the global ocean, the Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world.

Two major characteristics distinguish the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic and the Pacific. First, only one fifth of the total trade is conducted amongst the countries of the Indian Ocean themselves, whereas 80 per cent of the trade is extra-regional, for example, export of crude oil to Europe, the USA and Japan or tea or sugar exports to USA/Europe. In the Atlantic and the Pacific, the proportion is exactly the opposite.

Second, contrary to the Atlantic and the Pacific as "open" oceans, the Indian Ocean can only be accessed through several entry points, from the West via Cape of Good Hope, from the North via the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, from the East via the Straits of Malacca, the Sunda and Lombok Straits and the Ombai-Wetar Straits, all around Indonesia.

Recent history of the Indian Ocean is a history of regular regional conflicts, in West Asia, in South Asia, in South East Asia and in countries of Southern Africa. Because of these regional conflicts, sometimes purely local, there is always a strong possibility of an interruption of the sea lines of communication. These conflicts thus invariably have an international dimension as well. Take the Indo-Pak wars or the current conflict in Iraq or the earlier US Operation Desert Storm (1991), which have all had international ramifications in one way or another.

Over the past three decades or so, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, there has been strong growth in regionalism in international relations. From the erstwhile bipolar world we now have numerous power centers developing. The world cannot and will not remain unipolar, as some suggest. Regional power centres will emerge. It is not surprising that the Indian Ocean region is now joining this trend. There are a number of factors that have further fuelled and encouraged this development.

First, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the dynamic emergence of that country onto the world stage, virtually providing a new leadership to countries in that region. Second, the economic liberalisation in the region, especially in India, where extensive reforms and an outward looking orientation have set the scene for continued growth at over eight to nine per cent per annum. This and the rapid progress made by the economies of the Asia Pacific region have provided the basis for economic, political and security cooperation amongst countries in the Indian Ocean region.

Let this be clear: the two major powers of the region, China and India, are scrambling for advantage around the Indian Ocean's rim. China is building military and naval links with Bangladesh and Myanmar. The cooperation between China and African countries is now getting more and more visible, particularly after the China-Africa summit in Beijing in November 2006.


Chinese President Hu Jintao (C Front), Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (L Front) and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (R Front) jointly read out the declaration of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 5 Nov.ember 2006

The rise of Indian and Chinese influence in the region continues and it is no idle guess that the Indian Ocean will soon match the Pacific in geo-strategic importance.

Reports available indicate that both India and the United States are studying intensely this rise in Chinese activity. At the last meeting of the Indo-US Defence Joint Working Group held in New Delhi, China's 'growing naval expansion in the Indian Ocean' was noted with concern, about. The meeting also noted: 'China is rapidly increasing military and maritime links with countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.'

In the meantime, two recent developments have alerted the world to China's growing military-naval competence. On 10 January this year, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to have successfully carried out an anti-satellite operation. Known as the 'kinetic kill vehicle', it was launched from a missile that destroyed an ageing low earth orbiting weather satellite. This test clearly showed China's intention and capabilities to develop a weapon that at some time could strike at US dependence on satellite-based reconnaissance, navigation and targeting systems.

The second event has been much quieter but has more ominous implications, Beijing's steady expansion of its 'string of pearls' strategy. A new phrase coined by geo-strategists' for Chinese efforts to increase access to global ports and airfields and to develop special diplomatic relationships from the South China Sea to the Arabian Gulf. The most recent and perhaps the most significant 'pearl' emerged earlier this year as China helped Pakistan complete Phase II of the expansion plans for their mammoth deep sea port at Gwadar.

There is continued suspicion on the part of the governments on each other’s intentions and the smaller nations being suspicious of the intentions of each other! There are those who are genuinely sceptical about the prospects for Indian Ocean cooperation in general and security cooperation in particular. But notwithstanding a positive climate, peace and security in the Indian Ocean region has not been easy.

Therefore, it is no surprise that up to now no collective security regime has been created in the Indian Ocean that could have been able to ameliorate such conflicts or thoughts, even at the maritime level. Even the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, established in 1997 in Mauritius, does not include a military security dimension. It is my contention that a maritime collective security regime for the Indian Ocean, based on mutual trust and cooperation, is necessary and is possible.

While collective security may not have yet taken root, bilateral security measures have. Some recent examples of such cooperation between India and countries of the region include moves towards defence-oriented agreements with Seychelles, Mauritius and Mozambique.

In February 2005, India pre-empted the Chinese Navy's possible involvement in the affairs of the Seychelles by presenting the strategically placed republic's coast guard with the Indian navy's newest fast attack vessel. The move came when it appeared that China was about to make a similar gift to that country!

This was followed by India's first ever defence cooperation agreement with a major African nation. In 2006, India signed a joint defence agreement with Mozambique which included mounting of periodic maritime patrols off the Mozambique coast and to supply armaments to all the three defence services and reorganizing their military infrastructure. India is also building a high-tech monitoring station in north Madagascar.

Mauritius and India have been discussing India's possible lease of the Agalgela Islands for 'infrastructure and tourism development'. Military analysts have quickly noted the significance. These tiny 70 sq km islands are 3,100 km south-west of the Kochi naval base in India and about 1,800 km off Diego Garcia.

While China is trying every means possible to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, the Americans are already sitting pretty with their strong presence in the region through their major base in the very heart of the Indian Ocean – Diego Garcia. A word about how the US laid their hands on this base will not be out of order at this point.

The Portuguese discovered Diego Garcia in the 1500s and named it after one of their navigators. Between 1814 and 1965, Diego Garcia was Mauritius territory. The British transferred it to the Chagos Archipelago, which belonged to the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory, in 1965, just prior to granting independence to Mauritius. In 1970, the island was leased to the United States by the British authorities that developed it as a joint US-UK air and naval refuelling and support station during the Cold War. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it was ideally located for keeping an ‘eye’ on the Soviet Union.

Diego Garcia proved to be critically important to the US as a refuelling base during the 1991 Gulf War. During Operation Desert Fox, it served as a base for B-52 bombers, which in December 1998 launched nearly 100 long-range cruise missiles aimed at Iraq. Beginning October 2001, the US again used Diego Garcia when it launched B-2 and B-52 bomber attacks against Afghanistan. In the current British and American led-war against Iraq, Diego Garcia has once again played a crucial strategic role. It is estimated that in 2006 about 40 British and 1,000 US military personnel and 2,400 support workers of various Asian nationalities reside there.

Based on this power play now going on in the Indian Ocean, it is expected that countries of the region would sit up and take note of two growing external naval powers – US and China -- increasing their presence in the region. A collective security arrangement is in order. But knowing the rivalries within the region, will this ever be possible? The 200 years of the Anglo-Saxon presence in the region has now been replaced by the US-China presence to further and protect their interests.

Isn’t it time for the ‘owners’ of the Indian Ocean to get together to protect their own interests?

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