Briefing: Indian Ocean as new strategic playing field

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

Every day, one-quarter of world oil production flows from the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean toward makers of computers, sneakers, and more. Finished goods make their way back to world markets by the same body of water – the key reason that Somali piracy is a top concern. But lost in that focus on trade is a bigger issue: the strategic realities that will reshape the balance of power in the Indian Ocean in this century.

China and India, the world's two most populous nations as well as economic rivals with a tetchy relationship, are expanding their navies as their economies grow. Though the United States has ruled the Indian Ocean since World War II, US ships will have to negotiate more crowded waters as the emerging economic superpowers jostle for influence.

Are China's military interests in the Indian Ocean a threat to the US?

US Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Pehrson called China's military strategy in the area the "String of Pearls," defining it as a "manifestation of China's rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces."

He wrote in 2006 that "a question posed by the 'String of Pearls' is the uncertainty of whether China's growing influence is in accordance with Beijing's stated policy of 'peaceful development,' or if China one day will make a bid for regional primacy."

That question is being weighed by strategic thinkers in the US and elsewhere. In 2008, China boosted defense spending to $60 billion – nearly 20 percent.

The United States Joint Forces Command, in its 2008 assessment of the global strategic environment, carries a graphic detailing China's "pearls," which stretch from its deepwater port at Hainan Island, past a string of port facilities on the Burmese coast and in Bangladesh, on to a deepwater port in Pakistan that China finished overhauling last year.

China is also building a $1 billion port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka that will be used by its Navy for logistical support, a concession won in return for extensive military aid to Sri Lanka in its fight to defeat the Tamil Tigers.

As China's economy grows, so will its ability to project force in the Indian Ocean. The US military assessment says that it is "easily possible" that China's military strength will be about one-quarter of America's by 2030. Will China then continue to play second fiddle to the US in the region, or will it use its growing clout to shift the landscape in its favor?

What about India?

While China has the second-largest navy in the world (still far behind the US) and is expected to be the world's largest economy in the next 20 years, India is not far behind. Its Navy ranks third, and the country is expected to be among the five largest economies within 20 years. India's defense budget is about $27 billion, a 10 percent increase over its last budget year.

India is as aware as China that the Indian Ocean is key to its economic interests and stability. The Indians were chagrined when Sri Lanka, a longtime ally, began taking arms from China in 2007 (India had stopped supplies due to domestic pressure). India's security minister, M.K. Narayan, said: "We are a big power in the region. We don't want [Sri Lanka] to go to Pakistan or China...."

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.

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."

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