A new Cold War is brewing in the Indian Ocean, with an informal alliance of the United States, India, Australia, Japan on one side and China on the other. While tensions in the ocean are not yet as pitched as in the hotly contested South China Sea, the potential for conflict is unmistakably rising in the high stakes strategic theater.
More than 60% of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean, largely from the Middle East’s oil fields to China, Japan and other fuel-importing Asian economies, as does 70% of all container traffic to and from Asia’s industrialized nations and the rest of the world.
While traffic across the Atlantic has diminished in recent years and that which crosses the Pacific is mainly static, trade through the Indian Ocean is fast growing. Maintaining the security of that trade and other navigation is the ostensible reason for the annual Malabar naval exercises between India, Japan and the United States.
Strategic ripples are gathering. At Obock in Djibouti, situated on the Horn of Africa and overlooking the southern gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, China has established its first foreign military base, ostensibly to fight piracy.
Yet the facility is located next to a key US military facility, also in Djibouti. More importantly, it is also close to other bigger US bases in the region, including a huge facility at Diego Garcia just south of the Equator in the Indian Ocean, as well as US installations in Gulf countries.
China’s main regional rival, India, has always considered the Indian Ocean as its “own lake” in South Asian sphere of influence. As such, New Delhi is known to be extremely worried about China’s growing forays into the region, especially as security officials have observed Chinese submarine activity uncomfortably close to its Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
In 2001, India created a new Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) based on those archipelagos to protect its interests in the region. The plan for its establishment was reportedly hatched in 1995 after a closed-door meeting in Washington between India’s then prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and US president Bill Clinton. The plan was finalized when Clinton visited India in 2000.
As Indian journalist Sudha Ramachandran wrote in Asia Times on October 19, 2005: “FENC will have state-of-the-art naval electronic warfare systems that can extend as far as Southeast Asia.” FENC is also India’s first and only joint command that includes the army, the navy and the air force with two naval bases, 15 ships, four air force and naval air bases, and two army brigades.
Australia, which controls the strategically situated territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, appears equally concerned about China’s recent emergence in the Indian Ocean. Australia’s signals intelligence facility on the Cocos closely monitors movements in the maritime region.
If superpower rivalry between the US and China, or increased tension between China and India, comes to a head in the Indian Ocean, then Australia will be well-placed to defend its interests and aid allies.
And then there is France, which does not take part in joint naval exercises but is a US partner in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While the least prominent of the regional powers, because of its possession of small islands scattered across the maritime region, its exclusive economic zone in the Indian Ocean measures 2.5 million square kilometers.
Apart from its overseas departments of Mayotte and Réunion, France controls the huge, non-inhabited island of Kerguelen and nearby Crozet Archipelago and Ile St Paul et Ile Amsterdam, as well as smaller uninhabited islands around and east of the African island nation of Madagascar.
There is a satellite tracking facility on Kerguelen and about a hundred “scientists” based on the Crozet Archipelago and St Paul-Amsterdam on a rotation basis. The French military also has an infantry regiment on La Réunion, and the French Foreign Legion is present on Mayotte to help guard its far-flung regional interests, many rooted in its past colonial era.
China’s new and highly touted “One Belt One Road” (Obor) initiative, unveiled in October 2013 to extend the region’s infrastructure and promote more trade, underlines Beijing’s intention to become a global power. “The Silk Road Economic Belt” alludes to the old Silk Road, which in ancient times connected the East and the West along trade routes from Europe through Central Asia to China.
But given conflicts and political instability in countries along that route, “the Maritime Silk Road” through the Indian Ocean is bound to become the more important of the two initiatives.
Not since Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, sailed his fleets through the Indian Ocean in the 15th century — and then explored and mapped the region in a bid to impose imperial control over trade, win favor with the areas’ peoples, and extend the empire’s tributary system — has China been as present in the region.
That empire eventually fell with wars at home, and in subsequent centuries China was not even remotely a naval power. The republic, which was established in 1912, concentrated mainly on riverine warfare and was no match for the then Imperial Japanese Navy, which fortified Tokyo’s occupation of Chinese territories in the 1930s and 1940s.
Until the late 1980s, the navy of the People’s Republic of China, was also a brown-water force, meaning it did not have the deep water reach of the US and other naval powers. It was not until the 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union and a shift towards more assertive foreign and security policies, that China’s leaders looked past land border disputes and turned their attention towards the oceans.
By then, China was also becoming an economic power that needed a strong military, including a navy, to protect its trade and other maritime interests. Today, as China’s forays in the Indian Ocean and countering joint naval exercises show, potential great power battle lines are forming.
While the situation is still far removed from open confrontation, the Obor initiative and China’s new military facility at Obock are threatening to break the calm. And while China is in the Indian Ocean to stay, the emerging alliance designed to counter that influence may not for much longer remain informal and hidden behind joint naval exercises without any officially stated geopolitical purpose.