The Indian Ocean region had been renowned since antiquity for its free trade and fair practices. This is where all the great civilizations of India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia, Melaka, Bengal and China met, as partners rather than as adversaries. Contrary to the general belief, the history of the Indian Ocean region certainly did not begin in 1498 when the Portuguese adventurer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made his way towards Calicut. All this did was bring about a dehumanizing influence in a region remembered for its warmth and openness.
Before I tackle the subject of the naval powers dominating the Indian Ocean’ permit me to undertake a brief historical survey which would graphically illustrate how the current state of affairs came about. The Portuguese regional designs were clear from the outset. Armed with the Papal Bull of 1494 granting it sovereignty over the Indian Ocean, they proceeded to identify and thereafter sequentially annex the main strategic points in the Ocean. Having done so, they managed to achieve an economic stranglehold over the Asian trade, in pepper and spices in particular. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch, sensing an opportunity, commenced its trading activities in the Indian Ocean. After forging regional alliances, it first established itself in Java and then commenced challenging the might of the Portuguese in their own strongholds. The British and the French followed in the wake of the Dutch and set up their own East India trading companies. Using their seapower effectively, the British gradually built up their land power also via Madras and Bengal. They then wrested Sri Lanka, Java, Malacca and the Cape from the Dutch and divested the French of their possessions in East Africa. The British established alternate ports in India and managed to wean the Asian traders away from their traditional port cities. After setting up factories in the port cities as well an inland, Britain’s desire to control the source of raw materials made them ultimately into a strong land power in India. British supremacy in the Indian Ocean remained virtually unchallenged from the middle of the 18th century to the mid 20th century. It continued to maintain, rather strengthen, its supremacy in the post WW1 era by annexing the German colonies in Africa, though WWII ultimately sapped its strength and forced it to relinquish its colonies one by one.
British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT)
Realizing that its days as a regional powerhouse were numbered, the British Government decided to make a future strategic investment by setting up a new colony known as the British Indian Ocean Territory in November 1965. The Chagos archipelago including the atoll of Diego Garcia was illegally taken from Mauritius on payment of a compensation, or rather ‘development assistance’ as it was styled, of 3 million pounds sterling. The behind-the-scenes story is that Britain desired an American presence to fill the gap being created by its expected withdrawal from its East-of-Suez possessions and an agreement between the US President John F. Kennedy and the British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in 1961 paved the way for the arm-twisting of Mauritius to surrender the Chagos archipelago.
As expected, Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos islands having an area of about 11 sq miles, was leased to the United States in 1966. From the US perspective, the location of their base at Diego Garcia is ideal as despite its remoteness, it is equidistant from almost all the major strategic areas of the Indian Ocean. The US was primarily interested at the time in ensuring the safety of the oil trade as well as the employment of its Polaris missile-equipped ballistic submarines for targeting mainland Soviet Union. For facilitating the latter, the US had entered into an agreement with Australia for the construction of a VLF communication station in North-western Australia. The US also built a communications site on the island in 1971 and went on to develop a major naval port and air base, which also plays host to US strategic bombers.
The US first established itself in the Middle-east in 1948 through a naval station in Bahrain. They then inherited the British naval base there, which is still under their use to maintain an effective presence in the Gulf itself. The US Navy first appeared in the Indian Ocean in November 1963 in connection with the CENTO Naval Exercise MIDLINK ’63 held off Karachi, in which the US carrier Essex participated along with some submarines and other vessels. It then gradually started consolidating its position using friendly ports-of-call in the region and became well-entrenched with the development of its Bahrain and Diego Garcia bases. The US 5th Fleet was established in 1995 at Bahrain and Kuwait to cover the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea to monitor the sea lines of communication throughout the region. Two strike carrier groups are presently attached with the 5th Fleet and these can be further supplemented by another one or even two, on transfer from the Pacific region in case of war or emergency. US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently its nuclear impasse with Iran has obliged it to step up its force levels in the region. The US 5th Fleet, apart from maintaining as many as ten task forces for various operations in the region, also monitors regional maritime activity through various groupings:
Combined Task Force 158 This force patrols the Northern part of the Persian Gulf till Kuwait.
Combined Task Force 152 This force patrols the lower part of the Persian Gulf till the Strait of Hormuz.
Combined Task Force 150 This force undertakes operations related to maritime security enforcement in support of the Coalition Maritime Campaign Plan (CMCP) in the areas outside and adjoining the Persian Gulf.
Combined Task Force 151 This force has specifically been created for countering piracy in the AOR of CTF 150 and apart from general monitoring provides protective cover to the Internationally Recommended Traffic Corridor created in the Gulf of Aden.
NATO Ocean Shield Deployment This deployment is also essentially against piracy.
Barely two months after the British announcement regarding its withdrawal from East of Suez, a Soviet naval task force coincidentally made a grand appearance in the Indian Ocean in March 1968, visiting various ports prior returning to the Pacific three months later. From the spring of 1969 onwards, the Soviet Navy maintained a permanent surface vessel presence in the Indian Ocean, its freedom of movement being curtailed somewhat as it only enjoyed base facilities in Ethiopia, Aden and in Somalia till 1977, when it was forced out by the Somalian President under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia. Its ships had access however to anchorages off the islands of Socotra, Mauritius and the Seychelles. The Soviets were most concerned about the threat posed by the US ballistic missile-carrying submarines operating out of Diego Garcia but were hardly in a position to do much about it. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Navy so carefully crafted by its long serving C-in-C Admiral Gorshkov, fell into decline. Russian ships now hardly have much of a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean and use it mostly for transit between the European part of Russia inclusive of the Black Sea, and its far eastern ports.
France has consistently maintained its autonomous military presence in the region. It used to maintain a major air and naval base in Diego Suarez in the northern part of Madagascar, which it was forced to quit in 1975. Its forces then shifted to the island of Le Reunion which was however slightly away from the main sea lanes. The French later obtained a foothold in Mayotte Island, one of the islands of the Comoro group situated in the northern part of the important Mozambique channel, and are maintaining it with the support of its Christian-majority inhabitants. Djibouti, situated on the African side of the Bab el-Mandeb, was a French possession and though granted independence in 1977 still requested for continued French presence in the light of disturbed conditions in the Horn of Africa. It is ideally located for monitoring the Red Sea SLOC.
After its relinquishment of almost all of its East of Suez possessions, Britain has been relegated to the role of a bit player. Its presence at the moment is primarily in the context of the coalition, NATO or EU deployments.
The Chinese Navy, for a long time, was content with its coastal role and involvement with regional issues. After it found its niche as an economic powerhouse, it couldn’t help but be worried about the security of its oil and raw material needs transiting through the region, the most vulnerable of the choke points being the Strait of Malacca. Its foray into the region was however pre-empted at every turn by a strong propaganda backlash by the US and India in particular. Much has been made of China’s so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategy, a chain of bases built along China’s most critical strategic SLOCs. While it is true that the Chinese have invested in new ports in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan and participated in port upgrades in Burma and Bangladesh, the arrangement till now has been on a commercial basis. The only major recent deployment of the Chinese Navy, which lasted for nearly 200 days, was to protect its ships from Somalian piracy. Chinese concern about the vulnerability of the Malacca straits choke point has led it to commence the construction of an oil and LNG pipeline from the Burmese terminal at Kyuakpya to Kunming in China, thereby by-passing this eastern chokepoint. At the moment, China is too pre-occupied with its on-going maritime disputes with regional countries over clashing claims on islands lying in the East and South China sea to do much about its Indian Ocean vulnerabilities.
Most of the regional naval powers like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Oman are primarily focused on the defence of their own coast and maritime interests. It is India alone which, owing to its size, population and strategic location, had always harboured aspirations of becoming a regional maritime heavyweight. That is why it had always been endorsing and initiating proposals with Soviet backing to keep all the extra-regional powers away from the region. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, towards which it had traditionally been close, and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, its thought process too underwent a transformation. Under these changed circumstances, India went on to facilitate the United States Navy during Operation Desert Storm meant to evict Iraq from its occupation of Kuwait. This led to the signing in 1995, of the ‘Agreed Minutes on Defence Relations between the US and India’ which formally recognized the importance of enhancing defence cooperation. A maritime security cooperation agreement, signed during President Bush’s visit to India in 2006, deals with ‘comprehensive cooperation in ensuring a secure maritime domain’. By all accounts, US is now trying to decrease its footprint in the Indian Ocean by propping up India as a proxy regional power. The bogey of China is used by both to justify the Indian Navy’s outreach. Two aspects of the Indian Navy’s development plans in particular appear to have disturbing connotations for the region at large:
The first is the ballistic missile submarine programme. Ever since the so-called peaceful nuclear tests of 1974, India has been endeavouring to achieve a submarine-based strategic capability. It had accordingly leased a Soviet Charlie I class nuclear submarine INS CHAKRA in 1988 for three years and yet another CHAKRA II early this year on a 10 year lease. Russian technical and training assistance has been instrumental in the development of India’s first indigenous nuclear submarine INS ARIHANT which is likely to be commissioned sometime next year, with four others of the class to follow. Such submarines as a class are only meant for strategic deterrence in the form of a second strike capability. In India’s case it is more likely to do with the prestige of being a member of an exclusive club of nations that maintain a complete nuclear triad.
The other is the operation of strike carrier groups. The Indian Navy has, since 1958, always maintained one or even two ex-British V/STOL carriers but they were apparently to develop and retain expertise in the field of carrier operations. The game changer is the acquisition of an ex-Russian conventional aircraft carrier commissioned VIKRAMADITYA, which has been refurbished at huge cost and is expected to reach Indian waters sometime next year. Two indigenously constructed aircraft carriers are also due to enter service in 2015 and 2017 respectively which will give the Indian Navy a power-projection capability meant to cow down the smaller littoral states around it. This is the only purpose such carrier groups unfortunately serve: Power Projection.
Britain, in the waning days of the empire, having decided that the US Navy was best suited to look after their mutual interests in the Indian Ocean, proceeded to facilitate it in this endeavour. Apart from a pressing need to protect the Gulf’s oil trade, on which both the West and Japan were overtly dependant at the time, the United States was most concerned about denying the Soviet Navy a toehold in the region. Particularly after the development of the Polaris SLBM with a range of over 2500 nm, the United States sensed that the deployment of this weapon system in their Lafayette class SSBNs in the Indian Ocean would make the Soviet Union much more vulnerable. The Soviets, deeply worried by this development, were forced to keep their warships and submarines in this Ocean to keep track of the US ballistic missile submarines. The Soviet Navy also looked at the Indian Ocean not only as a means of facilitating its inroads into the littoral states but also as the most convenient route for linking its European ports with its far eastern ones. US naval interest, in the period just prior to and after the break-up of the Soviet Union, deepened with the number of conflicts that it dragged itself into, culminating in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The current nuclear impasse between the Western Powers and Iran has obliged the US Navy to further increase its force levels. India has been lurking in the wings for an opportunity to take its place as a predominant naval power. The major advantage that she had always enjoyed is the availability of a large number of ports both on the eastern as well as the western side of the ocean. Her economic strength has now enabled her to forge ahead with the development of a truly blue water navy. Her strategic partnership with the United States, sealed in 2006 during the visit of President George Bush, would soon result in fulfilling her dream of seeking regional pre- eminence. China at the moment is mainly concerned about the security of its oil supplies from the Gulf particularly as it transits the Malacca Strait. It cannot afford to be too visible at the moment for fear of provoking both India as well as the United States. Though bogged down in local territorial disputes in the China seas, it is however investing a lot in increasing the reach of its navy and its presence many come about in the Indian Ocean region if a perceived threat against its interests actually materializes.
The regional interests of the big powers and their urge to protect such interests is something that the smaller littoral states can hardly do much about. But what we can do collectively is to raise our voice at every forum against the nuclearization of the ocean which serves as a lifeline for all of us. While every coastal state possesses the right to safeguard its economic interests in its Exclusive Economic Zone, power-projection capabilities beyond one’s legitimate defence needs, should be decried.