The Indian Ocean: The Strategic Situation – Analysis


By Dr. Ramesh Somasunderam

The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world, but has 47 countries and several islands within it.

It is estimated the Indian Ocean has 40 percent of the world’s oil production. There are fresh exploration for oil in the seas of India, Sri Lanka and Burma. The Indian Ocean is a vital waterway and it covers half the world’s containerized cargo. It also carries two-thirds of the oil shipments.

The article examines the growth of China and India in the Indian Ocean within a global context. While the facts are stated the major question is whether the old concept of the balance of power can be applied to this complex situation. While the US arose as the single most powerful nation in the world the rise of India and China makes the picture complex, and a new word called co-competition has been used to describe the situation within the Indian Ocean. The word implies that you can complete in some areas but cooperate in others. The biggest dilemma for students of strategy is in what areas do the US, India, and China cooperate with each other and also compete with each other.

Introduction: The Strategic Setting

Huntington’s essay on the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, appearing in the Foreign Affairs Journal (1993), gives the new ideological clash that will follow the end of the ‘Cold War’. This new international conflict is related to cultural identities, basically ethnic and religious. To use Huntington’s own words: ‘the central focus of conflict will be between the west and several Islamic and Confucian states’. By Confucian states he was referring to China and certain East Asian states. Huntington pointed to an anti-western front: ‘a crescent shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa and Central Asia’ (p.31). He ends by stating ‘Islam has bloody borders’.1

The resurgence of Islam saw this religion also emerge as a global force in the 1980s to challenge Western notions of organisation and appropriate life ways. Like communism, Islam has similar notions of a world community, and along with other ideologies it reached out across national borders to challenge mass loyalties to secular political leaders. In this sense not only was the West and Christianity challenged by this alternative ‘ideology’, but many communists’ states as well, sometimes violently. The resurgence of Islam therefore had a considerable impact on world politics. It resulted not only in the solidification of many Islamic Republics but also in conflicts between different sects of the religion itself, principally between the Sunnis and Shiites which emerged as a destabilising factor in world politics. Moreover, Islam as a transnational religion ultimately emerged as the ideology of many terrorist groups determined to use force to achieve their objectives.2

South Asia and the Indian Ocean

Portuguese sea power laid the foundations for European domination, and other European powers, including the British, built their maritime empires on this. Basically it involved the control of the entry points into the Indian Ocean. By establishing naval bases at vital points, with a superior technology, the sea and ships were able to be patrolled. These strategic points were Socotra, Sri Lanka, Goa (in India), Malacca (in the Malay Peninsula), and East Timor (in Indonesia). Sri Lanka, at the extreme south of South Asia and the Indian sub-continent, was considered vital for the Portuguese to pursue their overall naval policy for controlling trade and commerce. Colombo and Galle, on the west coast of the island, were the chief harbours and ports for naval deployment. With the arrival of the Dutch as a European rival in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese turned their attention to the east coast of Sri Lanka, especially to the strategic natural harbour of Trincomalee. Technological developments, like the construction of iron and ships, and the change to coal fired and subsequently oil engines, led to a further hold by Europeans over the Indian Ocean region. Finally the construction of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century cut the distance between Europe and the Indian Ocean, and thereby made it a great strategic asset to control the whole region.

Britain emerged as the major sea power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century. This position was aided by the process of the disintegration of the Mohghal Empire in India, and the victory over France under Napoleon. This made the British supreme in the oceans of the world: a position she held until the twentieth century when her naval superiority was challenged by Germany and the navies of Japan and the United States of America. During this period of British naval supremacy the Indian Ocean was dominant. Naval bases in Aden, the Suez Canal, Simonstown in South Africa, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Malacca and Singapore for example, ensured that no other navy would challenge her supremacy within the Indian Ocean region.3

This position continued until World War II. Japan for a period dominated a part of the Pacific Ocean, over the Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia, and units of her fleet entered the Indian Ocean. At this critical juncture Trincomalee served as Britain’s naval base in the east, and the South East Asia Command was established in Sri Lanka under Lord Louis Mountbatten. At the end of World War II the European colonial maritime empires in Asia (followed by those in Africa) disintegrated, and in this process the British Empire in South Asia disappeared, beginning in 1947. From then on till 1967 the British naval presence was maintained in the Indian Ocean, and thereafter the United States of America gradually took over the western naval presence, especially in the Persian Gulf (with its strategic position and oil resources) and its joint base with Britain at Diego Garcia. During the ‘Cold War Period’ there was rivalry with the then Soviet Union for dominance in the naval sphere, but with the end of the ‘Cold War’ the United States of America has emerged as the supreme naval and military power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as far as foreign powers are concerned.4

New Threats and Dilemmas

Apart from ethnic conflicts, border disputes, resource wars and other conflicts in the 1990s the world now also faces three other concerns: the proliferation of ballistic missile technology in many unstable parts of the Third World. All are ingredients for dangerous conflict in the future and demand appropriate responses from the world community. In this era, the United States, for its part, remains a superpower. Though economically weakened it is still by far the greatest power on earth and in the world community many still expect it to play the role of ‘world policeman’. Gone, however, is the ideological justification for such a role. To intervene to establish order could be construed as an act of aggression unless it is supported by the world community through the United Nations. As such, many Third World governments are mindful that to support US and UN intervention in world trouble spots, not only gives the appearance of the First World exerting its dominance over the Third World, but it also sets the precedent for interference in their own affairs.

The US also faces a dilemma. How can it maintain its sphere of influence and international web of strategically placed military bases without ideological legitimation? Without such legitimation US involvement in regional conflicts to protect its economic interests runs the risk of appearing quite starkly as typical great power imperial behaviour. Moreover, revolutionary nationalism in the Middle East, in the Pacific, and in Asia, looms as the greatest threat to US interests.5

The Indian Ocean: Regional Trends

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has come to be recognised increasingly in recent times. This recognition has been accompanied by growing militarisation throughout the area which has included naval build-ups, both by the littoral states and the great powers.

There are three aspects to great power interest in the region: the strategic location of the ocean basin, the existence of natural resources, especially oil and gas; and local rivalries. Oil is particularly concentrated around the Arabian Gulf which is separated from most industrialised states by the long shipping route round the Cape. The concentration of oil resources and the extended sea routes make supplies from the area extremely vulnerable. This has led to a permanent great power naval deployment in the Indian Ocean.

There are numerous sources of conflict in the region and these tend to spur on local naval expansion. Disputes over boundaries and/or resources often interact with historic rivalries. The great power naval presence and frequent involvement by the great powers in local conflicts are regarded as potentially threatening by local states and can lead to requests for protection as well as self-defence measures.

While the ocean basin is the object of numerous disputes, the major conflicts in the area have been predominantly land-based. These include the various stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the conflict between India and Pakistan, the US invasion of Afghanistan and the war within Iraq. The escalating great power naval presence in the Indian Ocean should therefore be seen as a result of the growing East-West polarisation of the littoral states rather than as a cause of it. Naval confrontation in the Indian Ocean has rightly been regarded as probable if some major destabilising event should occur.6

India’s Military Expansion

With the expansion of the Indian economy, the Indian Strategy is to modernise its military machine. This ranges from weaponry pertaining to ships, aircraft and tanks to advanced weapons such as unmanned aerial vehicles and the latest technology in electronic warfare. The following indicates the range of its modernisation:

• Israel is supplying India with the latest electronic technology. This pertains to electronic warfare and guided missiles. The Indian Israeli trade pertaining to arms is estimated at two billion dollars.

• USA has made moves to expand their military trading with India. The significance of this trade is the removal of restrictions on trade in space and military research. India paid the United States 50 million dollars for amphibious USS Trenton. The US firm Boeing was awarded a contract for two billion dollars for eight P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Lockheed Martin won a $1 billion contract for six C-1301J transport aircraft. Together with Obama’s recent offer to sell C-17 and F-414 aircraft, these deals have put the United States on the path to becoming one of India’s most important suppliers.

• British company BAE Systems was given the contract to sell advanced jet trainers to the Indian Airforce.

• Russia leased a nuclear submarine and the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkoe. Russia also sold the first Mig Fighters to India in the 1960s.7

The biggest ongoing contract for the Indian Military is for the 126 Multirole Combat Aircraft. This is a competition between the US, France, and Russia for this 10-12 billion dollar contract.

The Indian Navy

The rapid development of Indian naval power is a recent phenomenon. In the first decades of independence naval development was neglected and the importance of the Indian Ocean for national security was played down. Scarce national resources were allocated primarily for ground and air warfare in order to meet the requirements of the successive conflicts with Pakistan and the 1962 border war with China. However, over the last two decades a variety of factors, including maritime aspects of regional conflicts together with mounting great power naval competition in the Indian Ocean have encouraged India’s naval expansion.

The poor Indian showing in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war led to an across-the-board military build-up which included some attention to naval development. India then experienced some naval success in the 1965 war with Pakistan. The following year, the United Kingdom and the United States announced an agreement which allowed the USA naval access to the Diego Garcia base which is strategically placed in the middle of the Indian Ocean. These events helped to increase Indian interest in naval expansion to counter perceived threats. The Indian Navy was able to make a contribution to the 1971 victory over Pakistan through action in both the Arabian Sea and in the Bay of Bengal and this naturally added to Indian awareness of the importance of naval power for national security. The demonstration of naval force by the USA in the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war reinforced Indian concern about the threat to national security represented by the navies of the great powers.

The notion of national enclosure has also served to enhance Indian awareness of the importance of naval power. India has the longest coastline of any country in the Indian Ocean, the seventh largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of all Third World states and the largest EEZ in the Indian Ocean. The existence of extensive natural resources within the EEZ has held forth considerable promise for India provided the large offshore areas could be protected. India also has the largest merchant fleet of any country in the Indian Ocean and has therefore a vital interest in the security of sea routes.

By the 1970s India looked seriously at developing a nuclear propulsion system for her fleet and thereby making it a true ‘blue water fleet’. Further, this nuclear propulsion was related to the growth and development of submarines. This is what led to the Advanced Technology research (AVT) programme, which was inaugurated during the period of years between 1984 and 1985.

A number of Indian agencies were involved in this project: the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Indian Navy (in various shipyards), the Department of Atomic Energy, and a number of companies from the private sector. One of the problems in this whole project was to have a nuclear reactor placed onto a Russian built hull. The designs (the drawings) were made available under the Indo-Soviet Agreement, whereby a Charlie I Class submarine (the I.N.S. Chakra) was used on lease for a specified period up to 1991.

With the end of the ‘Cold War’ and the collapse of the Soviet Union the whole project faced a number of difficulties. In retrospect, the project of leasing a submarine had its own problems. For example, there were Russian specialists aboard the submarine and their presence was a major hindrance to the Indians in pursuit of their own aims and objectives. In addition to this India did not receive a replacement after the expiry of the lease in 1991.8

This put the onus of a development of a nuclear powered submarine entirely on Indian resources. Its development was coordinated by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Its main centres are in Vishakhapatnam, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bombay and Kalpakkam. There are a number of problems found in the project: the connection between the hull and the nuclear reactor, and the steam-electrical turbine which transforms the nuclear energy to the main propulsion system. However its eventual completion would prove that India has the capability and technical understanding on how to develop a ‘blue water fleet’, with a power projection capacity.9

The Indian naval perspectives are very clear: a peninsular country like India has to give up her earlier continental attitude and traditions, and develop maritime traditions. In this regard the Indian naval planners have been quite sophisticated. Unlike the army and air force the Indian Navy has a close link with her domestic industry, thereby ensuring that all her major systems requirements are built within the country.

For instance, attempts are being made to retain the navy’s big carrier ambitions while at the same time funding an ongoing programme of nuclear propelled submarines. When Britain backed out of the submarine programme, India took steps to acquire F Class Submarines from other sources. The first Indian submarine, “Kalveri”, was commissioned in 1987. The Indians realised that the defensive potential of the submarine was great, even against a super power. India acquired a Soviet EKM Type 877 or Kilo Class Submarine. To this was added four German Class 209-15 vessels.

The Indian perception of naval security at present appears to be a fear of China. Japan’s rapid conquest of Malaya and Singapore, which led to her subsequent control of the Bay of Bengal from bases at Malacca, the Andamans, and the harbours on the Burmese coast, have demonstrated that a challenge to India can come from the East: the fear is that of China after the 1962 Sino-Indian Border clash. Chinese bases extend as far as Haihan, and in this sense China, once an expanding power with a modern economy, is a formidable force to contend with. The southern region, in its entirety, has a large Chinese population: in a resurgent China a movement southward cannot be ruled out.10

To the Indians (as to others), it appears that China is in pursuit of Great Power Status. From a naval point of view China’s perception is that India has pushed its fleet into the South China Sea which points to a potential threat to China’s trade. India’s expanding navy, and with Russia at her assistance, in this regard appears to be a disturbing fact. The fact that India has the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and therefore has the potential to stall the ingress and egress into the Straits of Malacca seems to be a worry to the Chinese naval strategists.

Hence, it is not surprising that the Chinese policy seems to be to get into the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal via Burma. China appears to be working on a communication project (both road and rail) in Burma to facilitate better links with Rangoon and the Burmese ports. The objective seems to be to establish a route from Yunnah to Rangoon to assist transport of goods and materials. This line of approach is obviously an answer to a blockade and interruption to the sea lanes in the east or the South China Seas. Consequential to the development of South West China it is found that the access to Vietnam ports is cut off, due to the conflicts with that country. The alternative route for the south west trade is through Burma: then the Burmese ports in the Bay of Bengal would open new routes into the Indian Ocean.11

China’s Intrusion into the Indian Ocean Region: An Important Aspect in her Global Position

Kaplan, writing in the Foreign Affairs Vol. 88 No. 2, states:
The Chinese government has already adopted a “string of pearls” strategy for the Indian Ocean, which consists of setting up a series of ports in friendly countries along the ocean’s northern seaboard. It is building a large naval base and listening post in Gwadar, Pakistan, (from which it may already be monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz); a port in Pasni, Pakistan, 75 miles east of Gwadar, which is to be joined to the Gwadar facility by a new highway; a fuelling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka; and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Beijing operates surveillance facilities on islands deep in the Bay of Bengal. In Myanmar, whose junta gets billions of dollars in military assistance from Beijing, the Chinese are constructing (or upgrading) commercial and naval bases and building roads, waterways, and pipelines in order to link the Bay of Bengal to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Some of these facilities are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai, and so building road and rail links from these facilities into China will help spur the economies of China’s landlocked provinces. The Chinese government is also envisioning a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, in Thailand, to link the Indian ocean to China’s Pacific coast – a project on the scale of the Panama Canal and one that could further tip Asia’s balance of power in China’s favour by giving China’s burgeoning navy and commercial maritime fleet easy access to a vast oceanic continuum stretching all the way from East Africa to Japan and the Korean Peninsula. All of these activities are unnerving the Indian government. 12

Kaplan, in an article published in the Foreign Affairs Journal of May/June 2010 entitled The Geography of Chinese Power, quotes:

Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia, that only Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000 mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.) China’s virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lands of the Pacific Ocean.

Later, in “Democratic Ideals and Reality”, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States and the United Kingdom, China would eventually guide the world by “building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western”.13

Kaplan’s latest book Monsoon (published 11/15/2010) points to the Indian Ocean as a dynamic area which is vital for American power in the twenty-first century.14

Specific reference is made to the Chinese construction of an inner harbour at Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka. He states as follows:

By 2023, Hambantota is projected to have a liquefied natural gas refinery, aviation fuel storage facilities, and three separate docks giving the sea port a transhipment capacity, as well as dry docks for ship respire and construction, not to mention bunkering and refuelling facilities.

The project has the capacity to evolve into a large submarine base. The Indian Ocean (unlike the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean) is said to be a better venue to hide submarines due to the geothermal qualities of its waters. Submarines within the Indian Ocean cannot be easily located by sonar or by satellites. In this context, this base will be a vital element in the Chinese presence within the Indian Ocean Region.

China’s naval strategy appears to go beyond commercial objectives to obtain great power status. Its navy is being modified, and the strategy called a ‘String of Pearls’ is being followed as seen in these naval projects:

1. Pakistan – Gwadar – 400km east of the Straits of Hormuz.

2. Sri Lanka – Hambantota – extensive bunkering facilities for Chinese Submarines and War Ships.

3. Maldives – Marao – a Chinese Submarine Base

4. Myanmar – Great Coco Islands – The Chinese are constructing two helipads and storage facilities for weapons. There is also evidence of a Chinese Electronic Intelligence Unit.

5. Bangladesh – Modernisation of the Chittagong Naval Port with Chinese Aid.

China has a large naval base at Sanya, which is in the South China Sea. It is an underground nuclear submarine base.

The Chinese White Paper on Defence published on the 20 January 2009 clearly points to its global reach and its increasing and significant presence in the Indian Ocean Region.15

The Chinese plan of entering the Indian Ocean is by means of the Kra Canal. This Thai Canal proposes to connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea through Southern Thailand. The canal is to be 102 kilometres long and 500 metres wide. It was estimated to cost 810 billion baht (US$1 = 39.5 baht).

This proposed canal will challenge Singapore’s position as the main regional port and, will enable the Chinese to have a direct sea route into the Indian Ocean, avoiding the straits of Malacca. This has great strategic significance for naval deployment, and to a great extent challenge India’s present position of predominance in the Bay of Bengal. It will further strengthen China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, which seeks to point to the rising of China’s power within the Indian Ocean Region. From the point of view of India the Chinese have already within this ambit of the “String of Pearls” a decisive say in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Pakistan. 16

(He can be reached at [email protected])

End Notes

1. Huntington, S.P., “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs 72(3) (Summer), pp.22-49.

2. Mazrui, A.A., “Islamic and Western Values”, Foreign Affairs

(a) September/October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 5, pages 118-132.

(b) Ayoob, M., “The Politics of Resurgent Islam”, Australian Outlook (December 1980).

3. Pannikar, K.M., India and the Indian Ocean – An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History, London, Allen and Unwin (1941).

4. Pannikar, K.M., India and the Indian Ocean – An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History, London, Allen and Unwin (1941).

5. La Feber, W., America, Russia and the Cold War: 1945-1992, 7th Edition, New York, McGraw Hill (1993), Chapter 13.

6. Kemp, G., “Maritime Access and Maritime Power: The Past, the Persian Gulf, and the Future” in Alvin J Cottrell and Associates, Sea Power and Strategy in the Indian Ocean, Georgetown University, Sage Publications (1981), pp.15-71.

7. Sunil Dasgupta and Stephen P. Cohen, “Arms Sales for India – How Military Trade Could Energize U.S.-Indian Relations”, Foreign Affairs, (March/April 2011).

8. Interview with Admiral Ramadas, Frontline (20th December 1991).

9. Joshi, M., Sea Power, Frontline (20th December 1991).

10. Wortzel, L.M., “China Pursues Traditional Great Power Stance”, Orbis, Vol.38, No.2 (Spring 1994).

11. Wortzel, Larry M., “China Pursues Traditional Great Power Stance”, Orbis, Vol.38, No.2 (Spring 1994).

12. Kaplan, R.D., Foreign Affairs Vol.88, No. 2, p.22.

13. Kaplan, R.D., The Geography of Chinese Power, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010), p.22.

14. Kaplan, R.D., Monsoon (2011), published by Black Inc., Victoria, Australia.

15. China’s Naval Strategy: Implications for India, Sanjay Kumar, Article No. 2823 (2nd of March 2009).

16. Asia Time Online (11 September 1999), Southeast Asia – The Grand Canal Plan unveiled (Business Times).


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “The Indian Ocean: The Strategic Situation – Analysis

  • June 4, 2011 at 8:56 am

    The “string of pearls” is just a hypothesis with no supportive basis. Gwadar port had been handed to and operated by Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) for commericial basis for 40 years.Hambantota is a port constructed by the Chinese at the request of the Sri lankan government after being snubbed by India. There is not an iota of evidence that Marao in Maldivies is being used as a Chinese sub base. If at all, not only India, but US and Britian will also be alramed because both had base in a unpopulated island in Indian Ocean. Chittagong Port is requested by the Bangaladesh government because of the heavy port traffic in Dhaka port and bottle-neck currently faced in Chittagong. In any event Bangaladesh want to be used as a commercial conduit between South-Western China, Mynmar and Bangladesh. Lastly is Cocos Island where there is no evidence whatsoever that it was turned to a Chinese base.

    Hainan Island is different. It is situated in Southern China and the headquater of South China Fleet. Surely one would expect warship and sub to be around as a security protection of mainland China.

    This is all. Please don’t play up the threat or alarming game. Cols War had been over for more than 20 years!!!

  • June 4, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Sorry – last line should read Cold War and not Cols War


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