Appraisal of the Military Strategies of Major Powers in the Indian Ocean

Though one amongst the three large bodies of water that link countries and continents together, the Indian Ocean stands apart by virtue of its unique topography and its monsoonal wind patterns. Despite being enclosed on three sides by a contiguous land mass, with the fourth side constrained by the forces of nature, this ocean has always been receptive to coastal and transoceanic trade. Its periphery is ringed by straits, gulfs and channels, which have not only facilitated trade but have also served as chokepoints for those inclined to control the free movement of goods.

The history of the Indian Ocean can be broadly divided into four phases. The first, which lasted for well over 5000 years, started when connections between early civilizations began to be forged, causing sea passages and sea trade to flourish. The next phase commenced when this period of prolonged tranquility was shattered by the intrusion of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean in 1498, which led to what is known as the Colonial Age, the age of exploitation. The post Second World War era, when the world got divided into two opposing spheres of influence, became known as the Cold War. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 paved the way for a unipolar world in which the reckless actions of the sole superpower on land created ripples of a different kind at sea.

It may not be possible to do justice to my current subject, an appraisal of the military strategies of the major powers, if I don’t pick up the thread from the convolutions unleashed by the Second World War. Firstly, Britain was so weakened by the effort that it was left with no choice but to gradually relinquish its colonial possessions. Sensing that its East of Suez days were numbered, Britain used its existing clout to merge the Chagos archipelago into its self-declared British Indian Ocean Territory(BIOT) in 1965 and lease it to the US the very  next year under a pre-existing understanding. Strategically located in the middle of the ocean, one of its islands, Diego Garcia, was specifically chosen to meet America’s Cold War objectives. Starting off with a communications set-up in 1971, the island now hosts a full-fledged naval and air base.

Regular discoveries of oil since 1908 transformed the region into an economic powerhouse, adding considerably to its strategic significance. British companies, which were enjoying a near total monopoly of Mid-Eastern oil in the 1930s, couldn’t help opening the door to American involvement in the field, with the result that five of the so-called ‘seven sisters’ in the post Second World War environment were American oil companies. The cheap and abundant availability of oil from the Persian Gulf to Indonesia became a driver for western economic growth and its tightly managed control became a strategic imperative.

With the advent of the nuclear age, the use of nuclear reactors to power warships and nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles ushered in a revolution of its own. The first set of US nuclear-powered warships, an aircraft carrier, a cruiser and a frigate, all completed by 1962, were soon sent on a journey through the three oceans to demonstrate the speed, autonomy and range associated with such a means of propulsion. A related development which wasn’t long in coming was the installation of the final version of the Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile with a range of 2500 miles in the Lafayette class SSBNs. Since these missiles could target the heart of the Soviet Union from the relative safety of the Indian Ocean, the sense of insecurity and vulnerability that it imposed on the USSR forced it to propose the creation of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Indian Ocean as early as 1964.

While the United States never officially acknowledged the strategic utility of the ocean, the submarine communications facility that it established in North Western Australia, coinciding as it did with the introduction of the Polaris A3 SLBMs, furnished an undeniable pointer to its intentions. This network was subsequently extended to include Ethiopia, Iran, Diego Garcia and South Africa as part of a worldwide communications chain.

The US Navy first appeared in the Indian Ocean in November 1963 to  participate in the CENTO naval exercise codenamed Midlink held off the coast of Pakistan, after which the visits became more frequent. Though these worrisome developments could not have escaped the Soviet Union’s notice, its Navy did not feel confident enough to venture into these waters till March 1968, timing it sweetly with the formal British announcement of an East of Suez withdrawal. Though the Soviet Navy tried thereafter to maintain a near-permanent  presence in the Indian Ocean, it was primarily hampered by the inadequacy of base facilities. It could only enjoy such facilities, howsoever inadequate, in Somalia, Ethiopia and Aden, albeit for brief stretches of time, and mostly relied on anchorages off the islands of Socotra, Mauritius and Seychelles. Its main concern at the time was the monitoring of US forces in the area, particularly the SSBNs. The Indian Ocean was also vital to the Soviet Union in the sense that it furnished the only all-weather sea route linking its far eastern ports with its European coast.

Oil security assumed ever greater importance after the 1973 oil embargo that caused the commodity’s prices to quadruple overnight. US policy during most of the 1970s however continued to be guided by the Nixon doctrine which essentially was meant to reassure its nervous regional allies about its determination to provide a conventional as well as a nuclear shield. This doctrine ceased to be legal tender when its underlying dependence on sub-regional states to uphold US interests in turn crumbled after the forced departure of the Shah of Iran. The shockwaves that this generated forced US President Jimmy Carter to establish a direct linkage between the security of the Persian Gulf and mainland USA for arguably the very first time. This entailed a quantum jump in defence planning from the usual Cold War theatrics to quantifiable force projection. The US Central Command was accordingly set up as a separate unified command in January 1983, barely three years after the Readiness Command at MacDill Air Force Base came into being. From the US point of view, it was a much needed initiative as the Iran-Iraq war, with its indiscriminate targeting of tankers in the confines of the Gulf, was still raging. No sooner did this war peter out than a new crisis erupted in the form of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

By the time the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded, the US Navy was well-entrenched in the Arabian Sea, with bases and/or logistics facilities available in Oman, KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen and even Djibouti. The US Fifth Fleet was permanently headquartered in Bahrain, while the huge military complex at Diego Garcia provided a smooth interface between the forces operating in the Gulf with those in the US Pacific Fleet. When turmoil was at its height in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, USN was fielding as many as three carrier groups in and around the Gulf.

Having extracted its revenge and stamped its authority  in a big way, Washington reached out to regional and extra-regional allies to push forward its agenda of stability at sea. It formed separate Combined Task Forces to patrol the waterways of the Gulf and the adjoining North Arabian Sea and when the spectre of Somalian piracy reared its head, a dedicated counter piracy task force was also formed.

When President Obama announced his famous ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, it essentially entailed a shift from the narrow perspective of Middle-Eastern strife to one more broadly rooted in Asia as a whole. This presumably came about as a consequence of and perhaps as a response to what the Administration perceived as Chinese intrusion into its traditional sphere of influence. Apart from keeping China off-balance, the primary focus of US strategy revolves around ensuring the sanctity of the Indian Ocean as a secure highway for international commerce, or so the official version goes. Recognizing that the challenges facing the Indian Ocean region are simply too diverse for one navy to handle, US strategy is aimed at encouraging a closer alignment among the maritime democracies of Japan, Australia and India, with the US forming the fourth component of this quadrilateral  arrangement.

The Russian Navy by contrast, which had been notably absent from this arena soon after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, is once again showing its presence, albeit in a low-key sort of way.

The Royal Navy has become virtually inconsequential as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned. It however continues to play the role of a sidekick to the USN and to look after its national interests at the same time, by retaining a foothold in the UAE, Bahrain and Oman. Its Maritime Patrol Aircraft fly regular surveillance sorties from Masirah.

France has also consistently maintained its autonomous military presence in the region. Though it vacated Diego Suarez, where it was well entrenched, in 1975, when asked to do so by a newly-independent Madagascar, it managed a move to the Island of Le Reunion, sited slightly away though from the main sea lanes. The new regime in Djibouti on the other hand willingly permitted the French Navy to stay on, which it does to this day. FN also maintains a presence in Mayotte, one of the islands in the Comoro archipelago. Since it’s a relatively short coastal hop from the South of France to Djibouti, most of the routine patrols are undertaken by the more economical Corvettes.

Despite having considerable commercial interests in the region, China had till recently deliberately kept itself aloof from the Indian Ocean, as its primary focus on the economy did not permit the luxury of generating a needless controversy. It remained preoccupied instead in investing in port infrastructure in places like Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Port Sudan in Sudan and most recently in a port on the Malaysian side of the Malacca Straits. Though such activities were all of a commercial nature, intended to create secure highways for trade from all parts of China, it was deemed a grave enough provocation by the US Department of Defence to be conferred the epithet of the ‘string of pearls’ geopolitical strategy.

The opening that China sought got created in 2010, when amongst a host of other countries, she too despatched her warships to the Gulf of Aden to counter the rising tide of Somalian piracy. Chinese ships also began carrying out joint exercises in Pakistani waters. It was in 2013 that China felt emboldened enough to press its claims in the South China Sea in a more robust manner through regular military patrols and by constructing artificial islands, which put it at odds with almost all its neighbours as well as the United States.

It cannot be denied that China does have major commercial interests in the region; the littoral states are major providers of raw materials and ready markets for cheap Chinese-manufactured goods. A large volume of China’s trade, including some 84% of its imported energy resources, passes through the Straits of Malacca, giving rise to what China’s President referred to in 2003 as it’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’, something which continues to confound China’s planners and its navy.

China made its first direct move towards a permanent military presence in 2014, when it signed a Defence & Security Agreement with Djibouti. What gives this development added significance is that Djibouti lies at the junction of three highly troubled regions and already plays host to a significant US and French naval presence. China however continues to profess it’s yearning at all levels for a harmonious Indian Ocean as a source of shared prosperity.

Just as China considers the South China Sea to be its backyard, so does India view the Indian Ocean, which was so named by early Arab traders. By virtue of its geographical location, a large peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean, India has long considered it its right to act as a policeman and as an adjudicator. It is for this reason that it had always stood opposed to the permanent presence of foreign warships in these waters. India’s adversarial relationship with China, with which it has a lingering land border dispute, coupled with China’s burgeoning might, has forced it to seek some sort of accommodation with the United States on mutually beneficial terms. This agreement was sealed when the two countries signed the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015 and agreed to the terms of an as-yet-unsigned Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement during the US Defence Secretary’s visit in April 2016. Those who think that India has become America’s lapdog should be mindful that the strong sense of nationalism sweeping the country makes it nobody’s fool. A case in point is the recent refusal by India to take part in joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, a foolhardy US initiative taken, as it later transpired, without the State Department’s concurrence.

Ever since K M Pannikar penned his famous Indian Ocean treatise during the waning years of the British Empire, India has been smitten with visions of its own greatness. Such visions could not however be translated thus far into an actual capability, marred as it was by systemic inefficiency. Despite some recent successes, India’s indigenous defence effort has overall been a picture of organizational and technical chaos. With a fleet now boasting a capable aircraft carrier, an indigenous nuclear submarine, a number of stealth destroyers and the hugely effective Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the P8I Neptune, Indian Navy has indeed come of age. For intelligence and surveillance purposes, it has started looking beyond its shores. Having already established two radar stations at the western periphery of the Indian Ocean, it is now eying further radar-cum-signal intelligence sites in Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives and an airstrip in Mauritania. The eastern periphery is adequately covered by a sprawling base in the Andamans. This is being followed up by a charm offensive aimed at bringing more regional allies like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and even Vietnam within its fold. It has also spearheaded two notable initiatives, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a very calculated and classic use of soft power.

By contrast, Pakistan may appear at first sight to be a bit player on a large canvas, but the ace up its sleeve is that it sits astride the busiest energy corridor of the Straits of Hormuz. The Pakistan Navy is capable enough to capitalize on this distinct advantage, but this is still something that needs to be judiciously handled. A vivid pointer to our maritime strategy is the recently conducted Aman 2017 naval exercise, whose main theme was the generation of a spirit of harmony and camaraderie amongst naval professionals of the 37 odd nations who were represented and to send out a message of hope to all. Pakistan Navy’s regular participation in the anti-terrorism Combined Task Force 150 and the counter piracy Combined Task Force 151 lights the way to the future, the path of togetherness and conciliation.

Instead of a confrontational approach, a common front needs to be forged to evolve a coordinated and unified response to an array of non-traditional threats that is increasingly becoming the norm. Many other aspects like Search & Rescue, Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Response, Climate Change and Sustainable Fisheries are all areas where a joint effort is needed to chart out a better future for the region as a whole.

Note: This forms the script of a talk delivered at a conference on ‘Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean: Prospects and Challenges for Pakistan’ on March 27, 2017. Held at Islamabad, the conference was organised by The Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

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