Maritime Power Play in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean, since times immemorial, used to be an oasis of peace and prosperity, propelled largely by an overt interdependence on trade. Geography too had conspired to make the Ocean what it was, being encircled on three sides by a land mass, while the fourth towards the South was guarded by a natural barrier, the roaring forties and the fearsome fifties. Another peculiarity of the Indian Ocean is that it is ringed by seas and straits which facilitate extra regional sea trade. This was used to good advantage by traders, who were given free rein by the ruling classes, as such trade was to everyone’s benefit. The best way to do justice to the subject of maritime power play is thus to follow the fluctuating fortunes of the region in more or less a chronological sequence.

The brusque intrusion of the Portuguese, armed as they were with missionary zeal and equally powerful cannons, into these waters, followed by the Dutch, the British and the French, signalled the advent of adventurism and colonialism, which lasted for the next four centuries. What each of these countries tried to do in their own specific way was to control and exploit regional trade to their own benefit. The Portuguese strategy was to seize all strategic points abutting the main trade routes, the by-product being the extraction of tributes from the local rulers. The first of such treaties, extracted under duress, after a brief bombardment of the port city of Ormuz, was with its Ruler, and which served as a model for future endeavours.

The waning power of Spain, which was ruling Portugal at the time, convinced the Dutch traders in control of the spice trade within Europe, that the time had come for direct trade with India, with the first sortie of Dutch ships in 1595 proving to be a commercial success. This gave them other ideas, but with the Portuguese firmly entrenched, they devised the strategy of first gaining a foothold in Java on the outskirts of the Indian Ocean, and working their way inwards thereafter, capturing port after port from the Portuguese.

The Dutch East India Company, established in 1602, raked in fabulous profits after having established a near monopoly in the trade of fine spices, though it’s fortunes started waning some 190 years later, when it came close to bankruptcy, owing to a variety of external factors. The English and the French, following in the wake of the Dutch, set up their own Indian Companies in 1600 and 1604 respectively. Apart from setting up some small trade settlements in India, the French East India Company managed to obtain the perpetual grant of Madagascar and the neighbouring islands and in time occupied Mauritius, which it converted into a fortified naval base. The British East India Company, after having acquired some ports and some trading posts, tried to move on to the next stage, that of participation in production.

While the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French promoted the ports and markets that they conquered to the detriment of the traditional ports, the English went a step further: they created new port cities virtually from scratch, to serve their own economic and military interests.

The initial staunch opposition to the European maritime onslaught came from the Zamorins of Calicut, whose naval might was ably represented by the worthy Admirals of the Ali Marakar family, who continued to defy the Portuguese for well nigh a century. The powerful Kings of Ceylon also kept the Portuguese at bay till Colombo was finally overcome through a determined Dutch onslaught in 1654. As the British gradually built up their authority in the factory towns of Surat, Madras and Calcutta, the Sidis held unchallenged sway over the Koncan Coast North of Goa till 1683, when the new star on the Indian horizon, Sidhoji Gujar and his successors, the Angrias, not only made short work of the Sidis, the Dutch and the waning Portuguese might, but also threatened the growing British presence. English stranglehold over the Indian Ocean came about after it destroyed the power of the Angrias through a land and sea offensive against their principal fortress. On the other side of the Indian mainland in Bengal, the English had already commenced buying land there, but their military takeover materialised after the decisive battle of Plassey in 1756. British rule in the coastal areas of Madras and Bengal was firmly consolidated during the next 30 years. The tragic Bengal famine(1769-1773), which exposed the corrupt practises of the Company officials, forced the British Government to assume partial administrative control over their Indian domain through the appointment of a Governor General.

Using these South Western and North Eastern enclaves as pivots, the British kept expanding into the Indian heartland, aided as they were through an adroit exploitation of regional rivalries and an equally dexterous exercise of maritime control from the port cities that they had established. The East India Company was finally abolished in 1857 when the British Crown, after ruthlessly crushing the Indian uprising, gained complete domination.

Five major developments had fuelled the British Indian Ocean enterprise: the ascendancy of the Royal Navy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Industrial Revolution, the advent of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal to sea traffic. After capturing or creating a number of ports like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Penang, Sydney, Colombo, Capetown, Singapore, Aden and beyond the Ocean in Hong Kong, the British achieved near total domination of the Indian Ocean region, which lasted throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. Under the British, the traditional ports, traditional trade patterns, traditional manufacturing centres and skills, all fell into decline and mainland India, which used to be self-sufficient in all respects, now became the biggest receptacle for British goods. British shipping likewise thrived under this regime, with a full 63% of the combined ship tonnage sailing under the British flag by the end of the 19th century.

The strategic importance of the region gained further traction with the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908. Search for oil in the Arab countries around the Gulf was considerably stepped up in the period following the First World War, with American and British companies well positioned to control world oil supplies and prices. Standard Oil Company of California took advantage of the straitened circumstances of King Saud of the newly set-up Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to negotiate an extremely favourable 60 year drilling concession.

Britain’s hold over the region came under severe strain owing to the debilitating impact of the Second World War, and as country after country gained independence, it sought to pass the baton on to a trusted ally. The United States was equally keen and a number of exchanges between the two at the highest levels led to an understanding being forged. The US was particularly receptive towards setting up a base at a depopulated Diego Garcia and Britain accordingly obliged, through a carrot and stick policy towards Mauritius: while promising independence to Mauritius in 1965, it imposed the condition of relinquishing a part of their territory, the Chagos peninsula, which was renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, with the deal being sweetened with a three million pounds developmental assistance. One of its islands, Diego Garcia, with an area of about 11 sq miles, was leased an year later to the United States and for the next six years Britain furtively relocated its 1000 odd residents to Mauritius to fend on their own. The United States gradually built up the Island into a formidable yet secretive naval, air and communications base and used its ideal location to telling effect, both for surveillance purposes as well as for reacting swiftly to emerging regional crises.

It is generally believed that the US had initially decided to step in to fill a void left by the departure of the once-dominant British and to ensure the safety of the oil trade. In consonance with the acquisition of Diego Garcia, two parallel developments, namely the advent of the Polaris A3 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile with a range of 2500 nautical miles, on board the Lafayette Class SSBNs and the signing of an agreement between Australia and the United States for the construction of a Very Low Frequency communications centre in North West Cape for facilitating communications with submerged submarines, were indicative of more subtler designs.

The deployment of these Polaris missiles so alarmed the Soviets that they had as early as 1964 promoted the creation of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Indian Ocean. The Soviet Navy was thus forced to maintain some sort of a surface vessel presence in the Indian Ocean on a permanent basis, which they endeavoured to achieve from 1969 onwards, despite being hampered in this quest by a lack of base facilities in the area. The situation became even more alarming for the Soviets when facilities at their major hosting ground at the port of Berbera, Somalia, were denied to them in 1977 in the wake of the prevailing political turmoil and more so, when the Polaris SLBMs were replaced by the more capable and longer range Poseidon and Trident ballistic missiles.

Three nearly concurrent events of wide-ranging geolitical significance, namely the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the deposition of the Shah of Iran and the Iraqi assault on Iran, forced the United States to visibly enhance its naval presence in the Gulf and in the Arabian Sea. The Rapid Deployment Force, which had hitherto remained as just a strategic concept since 1958, now became a reality 32 years later(1 March 1980) as part of the Readiness Command at MacDill Air Force Base. It was soon incorporated into the US Central Command, which was established as a separate unified command responsible for the region surrounding the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea(excluding India and Egypt).

One would have imagined that the end of the Cold War in 1989 should have resulted in toning down the US Naval presence as well. This didn’t unfortunately happen, as despite the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, crisis after crisis continued to plague the region. The tragic 9/11 terrorist attack, which precipitated the UN- mandated invasion of Afghanistan the same year followed by that of Iraq two years later, resulted in the setting up of a number of Combined Task Forces to enforce UN sanctions and monitor all illegal activities in the Gulf as well as the Arabian Sea. A separate Combined Task Force 151 was created when Somalia-based piracy assumed threatening dimensions. The European Union also got into the act, with its naval task force primarily employed in affording protection to the World Food Programme aid shipments. Along with a NATO task force, naval deployments from as many as 27 different countries made their way to the coast of Somalia to protect their own shipping in particular and world trade in general.

Despite its recently expressed intention to shift its maritime centre of gravity from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, the US finds itself unable to do so, as a series of regional crises demand its attention, from the need to display an aggressive stance to back up its ‘all options on the table’ threat over the Iran nuclear standoff, to the Syrian uprising. The recent emergence of the Islamic Caliphate, after having occupied large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory, has again resulted in the cobbling together of an international coalition, which is engrossed at the moment in the provision of intensive air support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

In the wake of the turbulence generated by the Second World War, Britain kept being divested of its former colonies and its residual influence until its regional role was reduced to that of a sidekick to the US. While continuing to maintain a small presence, it figured prominently in all the international coalitions cobbled together by the US. The likelihood of the Royal Navy to play a more prominent role may register an increase once its two aircraft carriers under construction become operational towards the end of the decade.

France has also consistently maintained an autonomous naval presence in the region. After having been forced to vacate its well-established air and naval base in Madagascar in 1975, France was lucky to obtain a foothold in Mayotte Island which it continues to maintain along with its strategically important base at Djibouti. The French military has been a part of the coalition engaged in the invasion of Afghanistan as well as the current aerial offensive against the Islamic Caliphate.

China has long been conscious of its economic interests and vulnerabilities in the region, though it’s possible attempts at a sustained naval presence has been forestalled by US and Indian vehemence. While worried about the security of its oil trade through the Indian Ocean, the Chinese have been focussing on helping countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to develop new ports and trade routes. Its economic interests having extended to mining in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the African continent, the Chinese continue to keep a wary eye on the regional situation. With two aircraft carriers under construction, the Chinese Navy appears determined to protect their ever expanding regional stakes in the future.

A major local aspirant to this high stakes game, India, has always eyed, for geographical, historical and socio-economic reasons, a dominant role for itself, though it’s ambitions have been thwarted thus far by the competing regional designs of outside naval powers as well as it’s own military inadequacy. In the pursuance of its regional aspirations, the Indian Navy, despite its dwindling numerical strength, has been assiduously endeavouring to maintain a qualitative edge through the acquisition of a number of Soviet-built and indigenously constructed stealth warships. With the recent addition in its arsenal of a fully refurbished aircraft carrier, and a leased as well as an indigenously constructed nuclear submarine, the Indian Navy appears well poised to assert itself. Such blatant flexing of military muscle may boost a country’s power credentials, but to its neighbours it is indicative of a disruptive and disquieting mindset. Such acquisitions, which are way beyond a country’s legitimate defensive needs, can only lead to regional instability.

Pakistan’s primary interest on the other hand lies in maintaining stability and security in its immediate area of interest, the North Arabian Sea. It remains cognisant at the same time of the trans-boundary threats which are a part of the landscape and the need to confront them through cooperative endeavours. It is through this realisation that the Pakistan Navy has been a part of the Combined Task Force 150 since 2005 and been entrusted with its command a number of times since. And when the Coalition Maritime Headquarters in Bahrain, in response to the growing spectre of Somalian piracy, decided to set up a dedicated counter piracy Combined Task Force 151, the Pakistan Navy immediately joined up in the enterprise and an year and a half later became the first regional navy to be honoured with its command.

The most disturbing regional development by far was the so-called peaceful detonation of a nuclear device by India in Pokhran in May 1974. The spectre of a nuclear-armed hostile neighbour so alarmed Pakistan that it felt it had no option but to tread the same path. The next series of nuclear tests by India some 24 years later forced Pakistan yet again to follow suit with its own set of detonations. Both countries thus came out of the closet, revealing themselves to be what everyone else already suspected. To the dismay of the international community, both countries have spent and continue to allocate massive sums of money dedicated to the building up and upgrade of their nuclear arsenal. This has come about at a huge cost, to the detriment of the welfare and well-being of their respective citizens. The nuclear arms race having thus far been restricted to the land and the air, now threatens to spill over to the bowels of the sea. The first of a series of indigenously constructed nuclear powered submarines is currently undergoing operational trials at sea, with the Indian Navy contemplating the integration of the nuclear-tipped Sagarika Land Attack Cruise Missile on board. This will not only add to the prevailing turmoil, but spread further disquiet amongst the littoral states dotting the Indian Ocean. One can only hope that good sense prevails and Pakistan in its turn disregards the temptation to react to this display of aggressive intent in a manner detrimental to the shared interests of the region.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Sri Lanka, which sits smack in the middle of the ocean, is one country that has always been sponsoring laudable initiatives aimed at ensuring peace and harmonious living. The proposal for declaring the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace was taken up by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in January 1971, the underlying idea being to terminate the ‘trend toward militarisation of the Indian Ocean and convert the negative concept of a power vacuum……… to the positive idea of a peace zone’. The Ad hoc Committee established by the UN General Assembly to pursue the matter kept at it till 1997, when it had completed its 450th meeting, but had to ultimately give up when the US Secretary of State publicly called for its disbanding on grounds of ‘financial wastefulness’.

Two other notable initiatives with focus on regional cooperation and harmony are the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation(IOMAC) of 1985 and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation(IOR-ARC) of 1997. Of these two, the former has been more methodical while the latter boasts a much larger membership base, due in no small part to the star power of its three major sponsors, Australia, India and South Africa. It is time however to ditch petty considerations in favour of an unified approach to the overall benefit of the littoral states.

Coastal states are becoming increasingly aware of the broader challenges that confront them, challenges that transcend national boundaries. Climate change has emerged as the single most major challlenge confronting humanity, a threat that can only be effectively combatted in unison. The looming spectre of terrorism as a weapon of indiscriminate destruction became a major source of concern in the 21st century. A number of international maritime incidents like the bombing of the MV Limburg and the USS Cole had given rise to worries about the shape future terrorist strikes may take. Such concerns, which became more palpable in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist act, led to the formulation of the International Ship & Port Facility Security Code, which called on all signatories of the SOLAS Convention to tighten and streamline security measures in ports and on board ships, for the overall safety of global trade.

In order to effectively tackle the threat of maritime terrorism, it became imperative to simultaneously clamp down on illegal activities like drug-smuggling(which constitutes a lucrative source of terrorist funding), human trafficking(which is used for transporting potential terrorists) and gun running( which keeps the terrorists well stocked in terms of weapons, ammo and explosives).

A Coalition Maritime Campaign Plan, with the voluntary participation of a number of countries, was chalked out for closely monitoring the Gulf region as well as the North Arabian Sea. When Somalian piracy began to pose a major threat to shipping by 2008, a large number of countries ventured forth into the area to protect their own merchant traffic as well as global trade as a whole. Apart from the joint initiatives of the EU and NATO, a dedicated Combined Task Force 151 for countering piracy was also set up with the willing participation of the countries involved in executing the Coalition Maritime Campaign Plan.

The Indian Ocean littoral states are cognisant that all such global and trans-boundary challenges necessitate a unified response through greater cooperation and collaboration. Once this realisation takes on a more practical shape and narrow parochial interests give way to broader overarching common objectives, better days may be around the corner.

Note: This is the text of a talk delivered at the International Maritime Conference on ‘Major Powers Interests in the Indian Ocean: Challenges and Options for Pakistan’ held at the Serena Hotel, Islamabad on 18-19 November 2014. The conference was organised by Islamabad Policy Research Institute in collaboration with Hanns Seidal Foundation.

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