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Briefing: Indian Ocean as new strategic playing field

Emerging economic superpowers China and India may compete here. What should be the US role?

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Indian concerns have not abated. "China is fishing in troubled waters," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidam­baram said recently. Air Force Chief Fali Homi Major told the Hindustan Times that China is a "greater threat" to Indian interests than Pakistan, its fellow nuclear power and longtime rival.

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India is developing relationships, and pearls, of its own, helping Iran expand the port of Chabahar. Though not expressly a naval facility, it could be used that way.

What should the US be doing?

The chance of a naval confrontation in coming years is slim. The US is firmly allied with India, but is working to integrate China into multilateral security arrangements in the Indian Ocean. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Singapore in May, said: "In coming years, we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond."

Secretary Gates said the US was working with China on shared concerns that make it essential "for the United States and China to find opportunities to cooperate wherever possible."

Cheng Lee, an expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says security in the region depends on US engagement with China. "The Chinese ... don't believe that in the future China should be a hegemon, but they're saying 'Hey, we should be at the head of the table,' " he says. "[China's] military modernization is moving at a very high speed, and it very much wants to increase its energy security and regional footprint."

He says chances for trouble between India and China are greater. "There's lack of understanding between the US and China, but the lack of understanding between India and China is 10 times larger," he says.

Mr. Lee says China must be reassured that the US isn't hostile to its development. "What's needed is further integration of China into the international community, on security issues and other matters. The US and China have many areas of interest in common – piracy, health issues, antiterrorism – more than China and India do, so the US does have a chance to help guide this properly."

The stakes – and the shared threats

While great-power frictions will inevitably crop up, everyone in the region – from Japan, with a growing Navy of its own, to tiny Singapore – shares an ultimate goal: the safety and security of shipping.

In the April issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argues that the Indian Ocean "forms center stage for the challenges of the 21st century."

He points out that the bulk of the world's Muslim population lies along the ocean's fringes. The Indian Ocean "combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered, multipolar world."

He argues that America's days as the Indian Ocean's naval hegemon are numbered. "The task of the US Navy will therefore be to quietly leverage the sea power of its closest allies – India in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the western Pacific – to set limits on China's expansion. But it will have to do so at the same time as it seizes every opportunity to incorporate China's Navy into international alliances; a US-Chinese understanding at sea is crucial for the stabilization of world politics in the 21st century."