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Indian Ocean, Conflict Zone of Another Great Game

Brigadier Intekhab Hussain Shah (Retd)
Member Board of Experts, Center for Global & Strategic Studies (CGSS), Islamabad

1. Indian Ocean has witnessed maximum human activities e.g. trade, transportation, explorations, communication even piracy during known human history. Great civilizations in history evolved either on the rim of this great water source or in its near confines. Its fundamental reason is the human population living around it. The regime includes 28 continental and island states with 35% of the world population. Natural resources especially Hydro Carbon stocks around this ocean have also been a great attraction for power aspiring nations. Earlier, it could be reached through either Cape of Good Hope or Strait of Malacca but opening of the Suez Canal boosted shipping and trade to unprecedented limits. Another important factor that transformed this ocean into a power struggle regime is access to energy rich Middle East and Central Asia. Thus, its dominance is mandatory not only to protect trade objectives but trade resources through military dominance being interdependent. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Great Britain ruled the world from East to West. The basis of this ascendancy was greatly due to the authority over the Indian Ocean. British formulated a policy known as possession of “String of Pearls”. It entailed physical occupation of important port cities starting from Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to Malaya (Malaysia) including Zimbabwe, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, India, and Burma.
2. After the decline of Great Britain, the USA progressively replaced the vacuum but instead of physical occupation on the rim of the ocean, a strong naval presence was adopted followed by intrigues and conspiracies to instill puppet regimes in the rim countries of the Indian Ocean. The nations resisting to this strategy were embroiled into unrest and civil wars and many settled and prospering nations turned into ruins like Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Yemen. So is the case in a power struggle in the contemporary world. After the fall of USSR, US became a guardian of the world and ruled the globe on its terms and conditions being a single superpower. Many nations were devastated for disobedience directly or indirectly. Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were openly invaded and destroyed while Somalia, Liberia, Zimbabwe, and Egypt were pushed into internal unrest and civil wars. Millions of people were killed and millions displaced. Pakistan and Central Asia stood fast although suffered a bit merely because of strong armed forces and religious/ethnic strengths. At the same time, another power aspiring nation was rising in the East. China was winning the world instead of applying arrogance, policing, coercing, and punishing as policy tools but affection, support,
and trade as gears of extending influence. Today, China is felt everywhere in the world regardless of strong and bitter US opposition. The US own debt to China was $23.4 trillion as of Feb 19, 2020, which may signify the economic strength and prospects of Chinese designs, capabilities, and future. Chinese military muscles are also compatible in terms of naval inventory, aerial might, and space pursuits. Shall the US succumb to new geo-political change without resistance and reactions? Will the Indian Ocean witness a new conflict in terms of military clash is the scope of this study with a view to evaluating the effects of future geo-political milieu in the Indian Ocean and nations living around. Overview of recent past and present settings in the region are: –
a. In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US Naval strategist emphasized on importance of naval power to dominate the globe. In his famous book “The influence of sea power on the history, 1660-1783″ he denotes that ” whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”. After the WW-2, Britain influence in the world started declining while naval presence also dwindled. In 1968, US virtually took over the command of Indian Ocean from UK. US established a naval base in Diego Garcia while her flotilla patrolled Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. By then 50% of the world business and 80% of energy trade was taking place in Indian Ocean making it an International Trade Highway.
b. China was a growing economy and her energy demands were ever increasing. All routes leading to China for supplies were physically dominated by US. A cold war was being fought between West and Warsaw Pact countries. China wisely remained away from this clash. After the demise of USSR, US became single guardian of energy resources of the world while her blue water navy guaranteed domination in Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. In the arena China could not afford one on one confrontation with US.
c. Another stake holder in the region was India. India has a 750 km long coast along the Indian Ocean with important islands like Andaman and Nicobar. Although, India is considered a stakeholder and boosts to be a future broker of power in Indian Ocean, Indian mind set is accustomed to a proxy status or subordinate role with liberty to a limited extent. This state of mind has developed due to prolong and sustained slavery by the people of sub-continent. US saw a potential proxy in the region while India after USSR gone, found a friendly master thus a new collaboration started. India unfortunately, could not get rid of Pakistan centric policy while US had threats from China. A duo formed with divergent objectives. A new great game commenced in Indian Ocean which is possibly ending soon with US recoiling from the globe due to economic degradation.
d. Many small economies are dependent on the Indian Ocean like Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, UAE and Indonesia. Except UAE, the remaining countries have strong influence and presence of China in their business infrastructure in the form of investments, experts and technical support. China is physically present at all important ports on the rim of Indian Ocean. US roars are that of a dying lion as economic strength is shrinking fast with strong and draining military in size and deployment.
e. Another key disadvantage to US is an unreliable and untrustworthy proxy. India has history of switching partners, owing to its economic and geographic lollipops. Any rapprochement with China whereby India sees advantage, India shall happily depart from US’ embrace into Chinese arms. China is probably already working on such lines. Indian strategists are perplexed rightly as US also has long history of abandoning partners after the completion of objectives. Thus India is not willing to dump China totally lest a future superpower become hostile next door.
f. China takes a broader approach. Geo-strategically, China defines South Asia and the Indian Ocean as an extension of its Maritime Silk Route, the trade and infrastructure corridor linking coastal China to other Asian countries. The Maritime Silk Route is half of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to expand China’s links throughout Eurasia. Thus, Beijing treats the region as extending from coastal China, through Southeast Asia, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the Arabian Peninsula and African reaches. Unlike India’s limited objectives, the Chinese view of the region is an integral part of a broader geo-economic and geostrategic vision.
g. Pakistan despite feeble economic state, some governance and administrative issues have been convincingly wise in the great game unfurled in the context of Indian Ocean. Without alienating US, Pakistan joined hands with China. Resultantly, deep Sea port Gawader is coming up while CPEC is progressing. Trade and military ties between China and Pakistan have always been strong and upbeat. Hopefully, China taking over Indian Ocean regime shall benefit Pakistan with surprising pace and quantum.
3. In the wake of the above referred conclusions, Afro-Asiatic region with Indian Ocean, a medium of future conflict, following is likely to transpire sooner or later: –
a. China unlike US has devised a policy whereby spirit of Belt and Road vis-a-vis Maritime Silk Route objectives are trade and commerce, incorporating other nations as partners and equal beneficiaries although its military advantages shall also be reaped. Thus competition and revelry are expected to be least except India. India shall strangely react with whatever possible means considering herself a big market economy and attractions for West and US.
b. India could benefit more by joining Chinese economic and broad trade and transportation pursuits but as mentioned earlier, Indian intelligentsia has unique mindset which has shaped owing to centuries long suppression and tends to conspire, intrigue and deceive. Resultantly, India fails to visualize a larger picture. Another issue of Indian policy is enmity of Pakistan which forces India to forego bigger advantage if Pakistan gets a share even smaller. A recent standoff with China is an example where India was prompted by US and India got engaged into nonproductive and worthless conflict.
c. China has already established its grip starting from South Africa to Indonesia. The String of Pearls has reemerged with better planning, resources and future designs. Chinese Naval force with two aircraft carriers is already operating and a growing fleet of sub-surface ogre shall be able to regulate and influence military maneuvers and trade in Indian Ocean. India is likely to react but in the absence of substantial support from US, India alone may not sustain opposition for longer duration.
d. US shall be rolling out of region sooner or later due to declining economy and ethnic unrest which is growing. While contemplating US withdrawal from Indian Ocean, it may be remembered that USSR had huge war waging potentials but crippling economy compelled USSR to forego the status of the spear head of an opposing camp instead of contesting a futile effort. A wise and timely departure even casted USSR fragmentation. If US does not extricate timely, fate may not be different from USSR.
e Australia although is showing interest in the region and express close cooperation with India but Australia is not that strong in international geo-politics while India herself is not that strong and role worthy therefore, no significant role may be contemplated from Australia.
4. The geo-political setting of the region are changing fast. Although, a game of thorn was already fought in the context of Indian Ocean but COVID-19 has increased the speed manifolds. The resistance of stake holder has retarded due to health and economic issues at home. Recent threat of US president to WHO is sign of a same depression, anger and helplessness. US sponsorship dwindling, Middle Eastern economies shall stall besides no policy of own. India, propagated as emerging economy is cosmetic and over-exaggerated. India with new fascist internal outlook and poverty with corruption in administrative working can never be global or regional power. Russia neither has fortitude not capabilities to exercise some significant role in Afro-Asiatic region except supporting aspiring nations in the region. China shall not only govern global supremacy in term of trade, business, and transportation, communication but military expressions too and shall solely dictate the geopolitics in Indian Ocean. Pakistan being close and trustworthy partner shall also have a defining role in the regional regime.

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