Indian Ocean Power Competition

[op-ed snap] India must negotiate growing Chinese presence in Indo-Pacific region


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Power equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific region


  • “Indo-Pacific” is today a buzzword that has been interpreted differently by various countries in their outlook or vision documents.
  • India is increasing the area covered by its Indo-Pacific policy to include the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
  • This means that ASEAN is not only the heart of the Indo-Pacific, but includes the Gulf States and Africa.

Indo-Pacific concept

  • The Indo-Pacific is a geographic region of Earth’s seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia.
  • The Indo-Pacific concept is also moving beyond economic, cultural and historical linkages to include an overarching strategic imperative.
  • Since 2011, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is being used increasingly in the global strategic/ geopolitical discourse.

When did the power game begin?

  • Back in 1971, when Sri Lanka proposed the notion of an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP), it was more about the presence of Western powers and establishment of foreign bases.
  • Ironically, China then stood with countries like India in opposing bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India’s move forward in Indo-Pacific

  • India earlier opposed the presence of foreign powers in the Indian Ocean but it now carries out joint exercises with a number of them to promote interoperability.
  • It welcomes the presence of the US, Japan and other partner countries in the Indian Ocean as a counter to the growing Chinese presence.
  • In the Pacific Ocean, the debate was never about the presence per se of great powers.

Various power tussle

  • The US military presence on land and sea in the region was taken for granted after World War II.
  • The French and British too, as in the Indian Ocean, continued to have their colonies.
  • As a legacy state of the Soviet Union, Russia has never ceased to be an Indo-Pacific power.
  • It avenged the humiliating destruction of its navy in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war by driving Japan out of the northern Korean Peninsula and taking South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in 1945.
  • Today, it holds joint exercises with China in the South China Sea and a trilateral exercise with China and South Africa in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese assertion is at the core

  • In general terms, the scramble in the SCS is more about fishing rights, natural resources and the domination of trade and energy sea lines of communication.
  • However, the situation in the South China Sea is more complex.China has yet to produce a clear line with exact co-ordinates on a large-scale map in support of its claims.
  • Earlier, in 1974, China took the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam, with a US in retreat.
  • Later, China took Scarborough in 2012 and used swarming tactics involving fishing boats at Thitu Island against the Philippines in 2019, the defence treaty between the US and the Philippines notwithstanding.

Its inglorious justifications

  • China justifies its increasing forays in the IOR, including with nuclear submarines, by claiming that it has “always” had a historical right to the Indian Ocean, citing the few voyages of Admiral Zheng He’s fleet more than five centuries ago.
  • In fact, there was no Chinese presence in the intervening period because after the brief maritime interludes during the Ming dynasty, China was not a maritime power until recently.

US construct of the Indo-Pacific

  • The US, India, Japan, Australia and many others, advocates freedom of navigation and over-flight, and respect for the rule of law and international norms.
  • It adheres to many tenets of UNCLOS without having ratified the treaty.
  • However, China’s adherence to UNCLOS is more honoured in breach than in the observance.

The new battlefield for US-China trade war

  • The world today is undergoing a fundamental transformation. There are several facets to the emerging uncertainty.
  • Traditional and non-traditional security threats have grown in magnitude. For the US, China’s economic rise is redefining the geostrategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.
  • There is no doubt that the US-China trade war has been disruptive. It has coincided with the power tussle in the indo-pacific.
  • This makes for difficult choices. Power, whether economic, political or military, is fractured. No single country can dominate on all issues.

Subtle shifts are more visible

  • Trade and technology are fiercely contested. Nationalism and regionalism are on the rise. There is less multilateralism but greater multi-polarity.
  • The “Asian Century” appears inevitable, but the question remains if it will be unipolar, bipolar or multipolar?
  • Will it be a century of peace and development, or will it involve long-drawn contestations?
  • Global engines of economic growth have shifted to Asia, first to the Asia-Pacific, and now, more widely, to the Indo-Pacific that includes South Asia.

Looking beyond geo-politics

  • The term Indo-Pacific is certainly more inclusive and better accommodates the growing aspirations of a wider constituency.
  • However, the economic success in the Indo-Pacific region has not been matched by stable security architecture. The region has some of the highest military expenditures.
  • Trade, territorial disputes and geo-strategic contestations are rampant.
  • This places limitations on the region’s ability to engage in a process of give and take as seen in the RCEP negotiations.

Way Forward

  • There are fundamental disruptions to the existing equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific.
  • The emergence of the US as a major energy exporter to Asia has eroded the importance of the Gulf oil producers in the Western Indian Ocean.
  • In the South China Sea, the dependence of ASEAN on China for its prosperity and security assurances is growing.
  • India at this juncture does not have to make a binary choice in the Indo-Pacific between a development-centric agenda with ASEAN centrality and a security-centric outlook revolving around the Quad.
  • India will have to manage its relations with China, no matter the challenges.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments