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Is the Indian Ocean India’s Ocean?

The “Persian Gulf” is a well-established historical and geographical term, practically uncontested. Iran, today’s Persia, would not allow anybody to shorten it just to the “Gulf” or, even more daringly for Iran, to alter it to “Arab Gulf”. Regular reactions by Iran authorities indicate a strong political sensitivity for this legacy and a strong determination to protect it. So, there is something delicate about it. The “Indian Ocean” seems less of a politically delicate issue. No traces of possible arguments about the name. The Indian Ocean is so immensely larger than the Persian Gulf that nobody is dreaming, not even India itself, of controlling let alone possessing that space. What is at stake in the Indian Ocean, however, is India’s strategic use of the maritime space bearing its name. India’s traditional influence over the Ocean, including the island states of the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius, has a long history. Populations on these islands originate from India; and over centuries Indian emigration has not stopped there. Indians, their traditions and religious creeds have reached the shores of East Africa to the Southwest of India and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. That Ocean deserved to be called “Indian”; it was India’s maritime highway to the world and it was, in its near vicinity, its backyard. Today, the Indian Ocean is China’s trade highway to Africa and to Southeast Asia and beyond. Having become the world’s biggest trading power, China needs open “highways”, not only to deploy its merchant fleet, but at the same time to strengthen its influence far beyond its commercial interests. China is leading the shift in the global power balance by strengthening the South-South trade against traditional North-South trade flows. With this, China aspires at more influence in the world. One of the instruments to ascertain this interest is maritime presence. What China is undertaking in the so-called South China Sea, where it is confronted with contentious resistance and rejection by nations bordering that Sea, like Vietnam and the Philippines, has long become a topic for the international strategic community and a concern for governments of the region. The conflictual aspect and potential of China’s undertakings to ascertain the protection of its trade routes through the Indian Ocean is less visible and less in the minds of the international attention. But for India, these undertakings have been a major concern. Hence, the strategic obsession with the “string of perls” indicating on the Indian side the fear of being encircled by Chinese positions around the Indian Ocean. In fact, Chinese strategies had started to turn Burma/Myanmar into a Chinese vassal state until the regime there took the fundamental decision to get rid of China’s exclusive domination. This rapid development was, by the way, one of the most remarkable events in the region for some years. But Chinese influence in the region surrounding India had already reached a level which guarantees that China is there to stay. It has established strategic bridgeheads in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, from where it can not only protect the maritime modern time silk-road carrying Chinese goods, but from where it can develop its means of monitoring and eventually intervening in India’s energy supply from the Persian Gulf region. China has started to invest in infrastructure of the small but strategically very important island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives, and is expanding its footholds in the wider region. India knows and fears those policies, but does not seem to know what to do about it. A month ago, Prime Minister Modi undertook a trip to all those states, concluding it in Sri Lanka, the immediate neighbour with which India shares a most complex relationship. The Prime Minister was carrying with him offers for Indian engagements in the development of those island states. This move proves once again (we have repeatedly identified smart strategic thinking in Modi’s policies) that the current Head of the Indian Government understands, better than his predecessors, what is strategically at stake. And what he is doing is the right thing. But it is by far not the absolutely necessary thing. Britain ruled the world for one century by “ruling the waves”; the USA has been ruling the world for over half a century with its dominance on the oceans of the globe. China is building up its maritime power and has, today, three times more surface combatant ships than India, four times more manpower on those ships than India and five times more submarines than India. Stalin once asked, inappropriately, how many army divisions the Pope had. We ask today, completely appropriately: How many Indian maritime warfare equipment would be needed in order to keep India in a sort of dominant strategic position in the Indian Ocean? The Prime Minister’s visit to Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka was the right move. Carrying offers of investments in those island states’ infrastructure was a good idea. Developing India’s military maritime capabilities faster than China does would be the fundamental strategic requirement. With Modi at the helm of the government there is hope. But hope is not the ultimate achievement.    

28th April 2015 / Philippe Welti


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