The Indian Ocean region is a vital area of interest for both China and the United States, as it connects the world’s major economic and political centers. The region is also home to some of the most pressing security challenges, such as piracy, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and maritime disputes. Therefore, American geostrategy in the Indian Ocean region has great implications for regional stability and cooperation.
The aim of American geostrategy in the Indian Ocean region is to maintain its hegemonic position and prevent the rise of any rival power that could challenge its interests and values. The United States has a long history of involvement in the region, dating back to the Cold War era, when it sought to contain the Soviet influence and support friendly regimes. Today, the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy aims to contain Chinese strategy masquerading to promote ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’. The United States also seeks to protect its vital hegemonic interests in the region, such as the sole insurer of the security of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) that carry about 80% of global trade, safeguarding its allies and partners such as India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN countries, and keep pressure on rival states such as China, Iran and North Korea.
In the context of 21st century, the American geostrategy in the Indian Ocean region is to leverage its military, diplomatic, and economic tools to achieve its aim of full spectrum dominance. Already, America has a strong military presence in the Indian ocean region, with bases in Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Djibouti, and takes operational support from INS Hansa naval air station of India, and Australia. Besides, America is increasing its engagement with regional naval forces by conducting regular patrols and exercises. It also engages in security cooperation with regional countries through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, such as the Quad (a strategic dialogue among the United States, India, Japan, and Australia), the Malabar naval exercise (involving the Quad members), Quad Plus, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). America also supports regional initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) that aim to enhance maritime security and cooperation. Moreover, America uses its diplomatic influence to unsettle self-determined regimes in disguise of promoting good governance, human rights, and democracy in the region, as well as to implant and nurture conflicts and crises. America also provides economic assistance and investment to regional countries through various programs such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative (IPTI), and the Blue Dot Network (BDN) in order to keep its image strong and effective to take geostrategic advantages.
The aim and strategy of American strategy against China in the Indian Ocean region are seen as hostile and hegemonic. China perceives America as a declining power that is trying to contain China’s rise and undermine its legitimate interests in the region. It views the Indo-Pacific strategy as a thinly veiled attempt to form an anti-China alliance with like-minded countries. It also regards the American military presence and some diplomatic activities in the region as provocative and destabilizing. There are reasons for China to believe that America could use its bases and naval forces to interfere with China’s trade and energy security, or even blockade China’s access to the Indian Ocean in case of a conflict. It also resents the US interference in its internal affairs and sovereignty issues, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the South China Sea.
The present strategy of a rising China in the Indian Ocean region is to counterbalance and compete with the America by expanding its own influence and capabilities. China has pursued a comprehensive approach that combines military and diplomatic approach centring economic elements. China has increased its military presence and activities in the region by deploying naval ships and submarines for anti-piracy missions, escorting Chinese merchant vessels, conducting joint exercises with regional countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman etc., establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and seeking access to strategic ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Chabahar in Iran, as well as the strategic submarine base of Bangladesh. To counter American diplomacy, it has also enhanced its diplomatic engagement with regional countries by initiating dialogues such as the China-Indian Ocean Countries Cooperation Forum (CIOCCF), supporting regional organizations such as IORA and IONS, participating in multilateral mechanisms such as IORA-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Dialogue (AMCD), offering mediation and humanitarian assistance in conflict situations such as Yemen and Somalia, and promoting its vision of a community of shared future for mankind. It startled the world for enabling environment between Iran and Saudi Arabia to break a geopolitical gridlock crafted by the west. China has also invested heavily in the region through its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to build infrastructure and connectivity projects that link China with the Indian Ocean countries. China has also provided loans, grants, and trade opportunities to regional countries, as well as supported their development and poverty alleviation.
The geostrategic implications of American and Chinese geopolitics in the Indian Ocean region are location-dependent and driven by the strategic importance of specific places. On the one hand, there is a potential for conflict and confrontation between the two powers, as they compete for influence and resources in the region. The risk of miscalculation and escalation is high, especially in the absence of effective communication and confidence-building measures. The region could also become a battleground for proxy wars and ideological clashes, as the United States and China support different regimes and groups in the region. The region could also suffer from the negative externalities of the US-China rivalry, such as environmental degradation, economic hardship, corruption, human rights violations, etc. On the other hand, there is also a possibility for cooperation and coexistence between the two powers, as they share some common interests and challenges in the region. The Indian Ocean region could also play a constructive role in shaping the norms and rules of the regional order, based on mutual respect, inclusiveness, and win-win outcomes. The future of the region will depend on how the two powers manage their differences and find common ground, as well as how the regional countries balance their interests and values.
This opinion is written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitcal Analyst, Strategic Thinker and the Editor at geopolits.com
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