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Who Will Call The Shots In The Indian Ocean? – Analysis

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Indian Ocean security is an enduring maritime issue. Tensions on the high seas also include focusing on the Indian Ocean. As an area of water, policing and securing these sea lanes has always been a challenge. Today, the issues are becoming more complicated but manageable with deconfliction measures when necessary.

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Size matters in terms of the scope of Indian Ocean area of operations. The Indian Ocean covers a vast area stretching from the coasts of East Africa in the west, to Malaysia and Australia in the east, to South Africa in the south. Its broader territory runs from the waters of the Arabian Gulf to the South China Sea, covers 70 million sq. km, or a whopping 20 percent of the world’s water surface, hosting one-third of the world’s population, one quarter of the world’s landmass, three quarters of global oil reserves, iron and tin, and more than 70,000 ships cross its expanse every year by hugging the coastal outline of the maritime arena. About 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves belong to just 10 of the Indian Ocean littoral states. The Indian Ocean hosts the world’s most significant “sea lanes of communication” and as such already played a pivotal role in the global economy, even before COVID-19 interrupted supply chains.

The world’s major choke points are also located in the Indian Ocean. These are: The Strait of Hormuz, Bab El-Mandeb (west) and Malacca Strait (east), creating “brackets of troubles” for seafarers, shipping companies and international security. A large portion of global trade and most Gulf oil en route to Asia passes through these chokepoints. As such, they are strategically important for global trade and economic development.

Despite its significant strategic position as a trade route and home to a large part of the world’s population, the Indian Ocean was for a long time rather neglected. The rise of India and China as global economic powers has significantly increased their energy needs and their dependence on Gulf oil supplies. Consequently, their energy security interests give these two Asian players direct stakes in the security and stability of the Indian Ocean, in particular the safety of transit lines form the Arabian Gulf toward the east coast of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal which surround India’s long coastal area. This has positioned India and China as major contenders for the share of the ocean’s dominion. Increasingly, China and India are bumping up against each other on East Africa’s coastline.

Historically, regional merchants moved throughout the Indian Ocean network and established diaspora communities. Through these diaspora communities, merchants introduced their cultural traditions to local indigenous cultures along coastlines. Often native customs and outside traditions existed side-by-side in relative peace, and local communities sometimes even adopted new practices and beliefs from the merchant diaspora. That peacefulness becomes interrupted by nation-state competitions over sea lane access.

For quite a long time, the Indian Ocean has been largely dominated by the US. With the economic rise of both India and China in the past two decades, the division of world power has started to change from a unipolar toward a multipolar world in the Indian Ocean basin. This shift has brought the Indian Ocean back into the center of geopolitical attention and strategic gravity as a potential field of malign activity.

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The Indian Ocean’s sea lanes are also key factors in global trade and economic stability as oil and other trading material passes through its waterways on the way to Asia, Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. Any disruption in trade causes significant stress and strain in many world economies. This is why supply chain interruptions have a recoil effect when ports are unable to accept cargo — either because of disease or local violence that destroys port facilities, or political moves making access illegal through legal means.

Who will call the shots in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades depends on many factors. The world is progressively moving toward a new international energy order, which for better or worse will be dictated by the supply and demand of key energy resources: Oil, gas and coal on top of the sanctions by the West on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Countries rimming the Indian Ocean have greater potential through the growth of supply chain networks, closer international cooperation with all the states of the Indian Ocean, increased defense ties with those states, and the injection of money in states across a broad spectrum of security issues — whether maritime, food, climate or economic capacity building. The more that countries try to band together on Indian Ocean security issues, the better for potential deconfliction.

There are multiple scenarios of how the Indian Ocean affects global power sharing. The creation of the I2U2, or the West Asian Quad, is an example of a quadruple alliance that has port connectivity as part of its commercial outlook. To be sure, population control, wealth distribution, investment in human capital, development of new technologies and use of clean energy sources will be decisive factors in keeping both the supplier and consumer countries in the playing field. Opposite the West Asian Quad are China, Russia and Iran, creating the potential for high seas hijinks.

As always in this age, with a plethora of international security issues boiling, Indian Ocean countries and those who access its sea lanes need to begin thinking in the long term to guarantee the safety and security of this broad expanse of sea.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former Advisor and Director of Research for a number of UAE institutions. Dr. Karasik was a Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, Middlesex University Dubai, and the University of Wollongong Dubai where he taught “Labor and Migration” and “Global Political Economy” at the graduate level. Dr. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. Throughout Dr. Karasik’s career, he has worked for numerous U.S. agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religio-political issues across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism. Dr. Karasik lived in the UAE for 10 years and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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