Current Status of Geopolitics In Indian Ocean and options for India

The Indian Ocean has always had a geopolitical significance to the world. There has been a belief that whoever controls the Ocean controls the world. So, a geopolitical presence in the region will mean a race for becoming a super power. This recognition is not a new phenomenon but exists from time immemorial as was stated by Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, wherein Mackinder called it an ‘inner crescent’. The theory provides that the Indian Ocean has been a zone of conflict since the end of the Second World War. The conflict was always between the super power countries of the time.

Factors Contributing to this Geopolitical Significance

There are several reasons for this area being accepted as geopolitically significant. These are:

  • It is a region of several unexploited lands.
  • The sea route is a vital link between the Eastern and the Western part of the world.
  • There is a high probability of finding valuable sea bed resources which are still undiscovered.
  • The African and Asian countries that are in direct access to the ocean are very rich in resources, which lie unexplored.
  • 80% of the oil trade through the sea route occurs through this ocean.
  • The Indian Ocean region has two major countries possessing nuclear capability which are India and Pakistan.
  • Due to an unstable political relation amongst the countries of the Indian subcontinent, the US and its allies have forced their presence in the Ocean with the claim of mediating the tensions.

Current Status of Geopolitics

However, the current geopolitical position in the Indian Ocean is changing considerably. The recent years have been witnessing an increased Chinese presence in the region, with China making a surprising shift from the Western Pacific and North Sea to the Indian Ocean. Some of the initiatives taken that indicate its presence are:

  • It is in the process of creating a quasi-naval base covering the whole of northern Indian Ocean on the lands of the countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Horn of Africa. Its objective is to protect its trade in the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. It claimed that piracy near the Horn of Africa requires it to have this strong naval base, which it named as the ‘String of Pearls’.
  • It is developing a maritime silk trade route and is also conducting research on the polymetallic nodules that are found in the sea bed of the Indian Ocean. It has also extracted gold from this sea bed recently.
  • It has started developing the Gwadar port in Pakistan, Kyaukphyu in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh so that oil transports to China go unhindered.
  • A presence in the Indian Ocean is also helping China to engage more with the African countries. China aims to help these countries in development activities, so that it can get African support in pushing forward its One China Policy for getting control over Taiwan and to counter the human rights claims that are brought against it to the United Nations.

Moreover, there is no denial of the fact that with USA losing its strong hold as a superpower since the last decade, China is in the race to fill up this power vacuum. It has already outperformed all the economies of the world in terms of contributing to GDP and Purchasing Power Parity as per IMF data. It is trying to gain position of super power through granting of loans at generous repayable terms to the Asian countries and investing in some of the major infrastructure projects like dams, roads, ports and railways. It has also started providing military assistance to some of the littoral countries by exercising its veto power in the UN Security Council.

Impact of this Geopolitical Position on India

The Indian Ocean is the only ocean which has been named after one of the countries. So, this indicates the important presence of India in this zone. About 7000 km of India’s coastal land borders around the Indian Ocean. Most of its trade through sea-route occurs through this Ocean and some of the islands belonging to the Indian territory lie in this Ocean, whose safety is also a primary responsibility of India. China’s increased presence can mean a great harm to this position. It can involve itself in a large number of quadrilateral maritime exercises with countries like Australia, US and Japan. It can also develop submarine projects and in ASW surface ships or engage deeply with the littoral countries through the Indian Ocean Association of Rim Cooperation and engage with the Non Aligned Movement countries. These activities have a serious potential of harming India’s presence in the Ocean.

Some international initiatives have been taken which can favour India like a declaration by the NAM countries that they would not allow China to establish foreign bases in their territories or the UN passing of a resolution in 1971 declaring the Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’. However, not much has been done in furtherance of the declaration as the conflicts in the zone still persist.

India has taken some steps although minor in comparison to the challenges being faced. Some of these initiatives are:

  • India has started several infrastructure development projects in Mauritius and Seychelles in order to develop strong allies in the immediate Indian Ocean.
  • India is creating a security grid with the littoral countries so that militarization of the Indian Ocean can be prevented.

But more initiatives need to be taken for increasing India’s base on the Indian Ocean which is the heart of the country.

GS Question for Mains

What are the major factors that contribute to the geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean? Critically examine in the light of current geopolitics and implications of the same for India. [answer here]