Indian Ocean is fast emerging as the new hot-spot of Sino-Indian rivalry. Whether it is controlling piracy or use of sea resources, boats of the two countries face each other eyeball-to-eyeball. As is obvious from capital outlays in India’s defence budget, India wants to convert its navy into a blue-water navy as early as possible.
The first item on Indian-Navy agenda is getting new aircraft carriers. In his media interviews, the previous chief of Indian Navy used to lament ‘dominance of smaller ships in the naval fleet imposes limitations of reach’. He asserted that ‘the Navy had to be built around three aircraft carriers, at least 30 destroyers and frigates, 20 submarines and replenishment ships’. The present Navy chief’s plans are no less grandiose. He says, “We are looking at a fleet of 140 warships and 300 aircraft” (The News behind the News, April 6, 2009, pp.14-15). What the chiefs of Indian Navy said in the past, or the present chief says is no swagger. Dominating the Indian Ocean has been India’s long-cherished dream since its independence.
George K Tanham, in his Indian Strategic Thought, a RAND research, observes that India wants to establish its hegemony over Indian Ocean by establishing Pax Indica, on the lines of Pax Britannica. He adds, India wants to ‘approach world-power status by developing nuclear and missile capabilities, a blue water navy, and a military-industrial complex, all obvious characteristics of the superpowers’ (page vii). The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water in the world. It occupies 20 per cent of the world’s ocean surface - it is nearly 10,000 kilometers wide at the southern tips of Africa and Australia and its area is 68.556 million square kilometers, about 5.5 times the size of the United States. India understands the importance of Indian Ocean. Forty seven countries have the Indian Ocean on their shores. India’s motto is ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’.
US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan says that ‘this ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century; the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters’. This Ocean includes Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Flores Sea, Java Sea Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Savu Sea, Timor Sea, Strait of Malacca, Bay of Bengal, Mozambique Channel, and Persian Gulf. Indian Ocean is rich with living and non-living resources, from marine life to oil and natural gas.
Its beach sands are rich in heavy minerals and offshore placer deposits. India is actively exploiting them to its economic advantage. It is a major sea lane providing shipping to 90 per cent of world trade. It provides a waterway for heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oilfields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia, and contains an estimated 40% of the world’s offshore oil production. Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy highlighted strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in these words: “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene.
The Indian peninsula (i.e. the Deccan and below) juts 1,240 miles into the Indian Ocean. 50per cent of the Indian Ocean basin lies within a 1,000 mile radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications. India possesses the technology to extract minerals from the deep sea bed. Under the law of the sea, it has an exclusive economic zone of 772,000 square miles. Chennai is a mere 3,400 miles away from Perth in Australia, slightly more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
The Ocean is a major sea lane connecting Middle East, East Asia and Africa with Europe and the Americas. It has four crucial access waterways facilitating international maritime trade, that is the Suez Canal in Egypt, Bab-el-Mandeb (bordering Djibouti and Yemen), Straits of Hormuz (bordering Iran and Oman), and Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia). These ‘chokepoints’ are critical to world oil trade as huge amounts of oil pass through them.Any disruption in traffic flow through these choke-points can have disastrous consequences.
The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based. Since energy is critical in influencing the geo-political strategies of a nation, any turbulence in its supply has serious security consequences.
In view of the spiraling demand for energy, China sensitive to the security of the sea lines of communication and choke- points of the region. Sixty per cent of China’s oil supplies are shipped through the Straits of Malacca. Most of the ships approach the straits through the 10 degree channel between the Andaman and Nicobar islands. To dominate these straits, India established its Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair in the Andamans. It has developed Port Blair as a strategic international trade center and built an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campal Bay in the Nicobar islands.
Indian desire to expand its navy manifold to dominate the Indian Ocean has triggered shockwaves to China and other littoral states. Barry Desker, Director IDSS, Singapore says, “The emergence of new powers like China and India is expected to transform the regional strategic landscape in a fashion that could be as dramatic as the rise of Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century” .
To counter Indian hegemony, China is considering to build up to six aircraft carriers. When New Delhi deployed one ship in the Gulf of Aden in October last year with great fanfare, China deployed two warships to the same area. The presence of the Chinese and Indian warships underlines Beijing’s and New Delhi’s intense economic and strategic interests in the world’s third largest ocean. India is acquiring several nuclear-powered submarines to augment its 155 military vessels in the ocean that it calls its property. India has transformed its Karnataka Bay into an advanced naval installation.
To counter New Delhi Beijing is constructing naval stations and refueling ports around India, including in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. India’s preparation to dominate the Indian Ocean does not augur well for the region. India should concentrate more on resolving its disputes with its neighbours than bolstering its war capabilities. It should let Indian Ocean remain the zone of peace.
Published on 1 July 2009 in