Indian Ocean Rivals are Better Served with Cooperation

Teresita C. Schaffer
Teresita C. Schaffer Former Brookings Expert, Senior Advisor - McLarty Associates

August 23, 2011

The Indian Ocean is the lifeline of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—and of many other countries around the region and the globe. As old rivalries become more prominent in these waters, it is time to lay the groundwork for real collaboration on the issues that pose the greatest threat to Indian Ocean security. Stronger and broader anti-piracy cooperation would be a good place to start.

Until the 1990s, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf were looked on as adjacent but distinct regions, and the importance of the Gulf for many nations could be summed up in a single word: oil.

Today, the Indian Ocean still represents the crossroads of global oil markets. But it is also an economically dynamic area in its own right, the place where the world’s rising powers are increasingly coming into contact. That puts the Indian Ocean, and the various strategic partnerships the United States maintains there, at the heart of the geopolitical world, with profound consequences for the UAE and her neighbors.

One symptom of the change can be found in U.S. national security strategy. Since the Second World War, commentators on U.S. policy have spoken of a “two ocean” maritime strategy, meaning the Atlantic and Pacific. In 2007, the U.S. Navy released a maritime strategy that still stressed two oceans as the principal centers for regular U.S. military presence – but now, the Indian Ocean is joined to the Pacific as a key strategic focus. This reflects in part the importance the United States attaches to the Gulf, but it also illustrates how central the integrity of sea lanes and their multifaceted connection to Asia have become to U.S. strategic planning.

The rise in importance of the Indian Ocean coincides with a dramatic transformation of U.S. relations with India. This change of course reflects the end of the Cold War and the growth of India’s economy. But it also underscores the importance both countries attach to a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean region.

In the past ten years, India-U.S. security cooperation has expanded markedly, and naval cooperation centered on the Indian Ocean is its most active component. In the same period, India’s attitude towards a permanent U.S. presence in those waters has shifted from deeply skeptical to supportive.

Even as Indo-U.S. cooperation has expanded in the Indian Ocean, India has expanded its ties with the countries on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

Look at the Gulf. The UAE is India’s second largest trading partner and a major destination for Indian investment. It is not a coincidence that the first official visit made by Admiral Sureesh Mehta when he took command of the Indian navy in 2007 was to Abu Dhabi.

Similar changes are taking place to India’s East. India now has free trade agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan and Korea and has been deepening its political and security relations – all with the quiet encouragement of the United States.

At the same time, this spotlight on the Indian Ocean underscores some historic rivalries. The strongest is between India and China.

Indian naval strategists and geopolitical thinkers worry about China’s increasingly assertive posture and growing military ties with the countries that border the Indian Ocean. The phrase often heard in India is “the string of pearls,” referring to facilities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan where the Chinese military is developing regular access.

The United States in the past downplayed these concerns. In the past year or so, however, U.S. thinkers and policy-makers have become more wary of China’s intentions. In the past five years, China’s economic ties with the Indian Ocean countries have expanded at a rapid pace. China’s military is ramping up its investment in the equipment needed for power projection.

India’s long-standing rivalry with Pakistan has manifested itself more along their land border and in unconventional conflict than in the maritime domain. But China’s close connection with Pakistan adds to India’s uneasiness at a more regular Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China’s involvement in building Pakistan’s new port at Gwadar, near the border with Iran, suggests that the China-Pakistan relationship is acquiring more of a maritime dimension.

There is, in other words, considerable potential for increasing tension in the Indian Ocean area. This is the time to try to head that off by focusing on problems in which all the nearby states, as well as the world’s trading countries, have a strong interest in cooperation.

The most compelling example is piracy in the Arabian Sea. The oil exporters of the Gulf – as well as their customers in India, Pakistan and China – depend on safe passage through these waters. The mechanisms for cooperation, principally Combined Task Forces 150 and 151, have brought assets and support from many NATO countries, and have had the participation of some regional countries, notably Pakistan.

The missing players, however, are important ones – India and China, both of which say they are maintaining contact with the combined task forces. Building an integrated organisation that includes rivals like India, China and Pakistan would be no easy task. But both the anti-piracy task and the longer-term goal of building a structure for cooperation among the powers who depend on Indian Ocean security demand a strong move in that direction. This is the time to start.