Geostrategic Importance of Indian Ocean
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Published: Thu, 20 Jul 2017
“The Indian ocean region had become the strategic heartland of the 21st century, dislodging Europe and North East Asia which adorned this position in the 20th century…the developments in the Indian Ocean region were contributing to the advent of a less Western centric and a more multi-polar world.”
-Donald L. Berlin, Head of Security Studies, Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii
The Growing Importance of IOR
The Indian Ocean has emerged as a critical maritime space in the Asia-Pacific littoral in view of the transformed strategic, security and economic significance of the region. The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is the greatest maritime-littoral space that has the largest concentration of population, resources, developing economies, congested sea lanes, and contested territorial spaces. It is thus significant in a geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic sense  .
The Indian Ocean is home to many choke points, such as the Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Lombok and the Sunda Straits. Any disruption in traffic flow through these 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. Given the spiraling demand for energy from India, China and Japan, it is inevitable that the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and choke points of the region have become strategically important for these countries & that they are extremely sensitive to their security  .
The Indian Ocean and the states on its littoral are of significant and growing importance. The region contains 1/3 of the world’s population, 25% of its landmass, 40% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It is the locus of important international sea lines of communication (SLOCs). The region is home to most of the world’s Muslim population as well as India, one of the world’s likely “rising powers.” The Indian Ocean also is home to the world’s two newest nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran, which most observers believe has a robust program to acquire nuclear weapons  .
The Oil Factor
The Indian Ocean has seen intense maritime activity for the past 600 years, primarily for trade. While centuries ago, the motivation was for silk and spices, today it is for oil. Persian Gulf contains 65 per cent of the world’s proven reserves and accounts for more than half of the world’s oil exports and almost all of Asia-Pacific’s imports. Due to growth in global economy the world wide demand for oil imports from the gulf is expected to grow and this fact is most critical while considering geo strategic significance of Indian Ocean. Despite efforts by nations to diversify sources, disruption of oil supplies is bound to impact severely on national economies leading to inflation and widespread unemployment.
The US, Europe, China, Japan, India and most of Southeast Asian nations are heavily reliant on oil from the Gulf. In his State of the Union address in Feb 2006, President Bush said that the nation was “addicted to oil.” U.S. gross oil imports from the Persian Gulf were 2.2 million bbl/d during 2006, accounting for 17 percent of the US total net oil imports  . The importance of energy to India, China and Japan is also extensive. At current levels of consumption, the oil import dependence of India is expected to reach 82.2 percent by 2010 and 91.6 percent by 2020. In the case of China it will be 61 percent and 76.9 percent, while for rest of South Asia it will be 95.1 percent and 96.1 percent respectively  .
Sea Lines of Communications(SLOCs)
The economic development of a state is closely linked to its trade and energy supply. Since most of the trade of the Indian Ocean littorals and the South Asian states is seaborne, SLOCs form the lifeline of these countries. According to World Bank estimates, in 1999 the world seaborne trade was pegged at 21,480 billion ton-miles; it is expected to reach 35,000 billion ton-miles in 2010, and 41,800 billion ton-miles in 2014. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Report, “Review of Maritime Transport 2000”, notes that world sea-based trade recorded its fourteenth consecutive annual increase, and Asia’s share of imports and exports was 26.1% and 18.8 % respectively  .
To a military analyst, the SLOCs are related to the maritime instruments of power, and maritime geography becomes the pivot on which forces must be deployed. To a politician, on the other hand, SLOCs signify the state of relations with countries located along the sea route traversed, while for an economist it is just the shortest and most economical travel distance between two destinations. Similarly, for some nations multilateral cooperation on SLOC security may mean a perceived intrusion into aspects of sovereignty. Thus the security of sea lanes requires comprehensive strategies encompassing differing perceptions and national interests of concerned states  .
The Indian Ocean is home to important SLOCs and maritime choke points. A large volume of international long haul maritime cargo from the Persian Gulf, Africa and Europe transits through this ocean. Some of the primary items transported are energy products – mainly oil and gas. Disruption in energy lifelines can also arise from patterns of trade flows. Imports to South Asia from West Asia utilize the Strait of Hormuz. According to EIA estimates, the Strait recorded a transit volume of 15.4 million barrels of oil per day in 1998. Closure of the Strait of Hormuz practically cuts off Gulf supplies to the East altogether and also affects the West considerably. Similarly, the closure of the Straits of Malacca, through which nearly 9.4 million barrels of oil per day flow (according to the EIA), can seriously threaten the economies of Southeast Asia and the energy intensive economies of China and Japan. Due to the geostrategic importance of Malacca Straits to almost all the South and Southeast Asian countries, any maritime contingency in this traffic congested region would have profound security ramifications.
Since most of the trade of the Indian Ocean littorals and the South Asian states is seaborne, SLOCs are critical to these countries as well as to major energy consuming nations such as US, Europe, China and Japan. Exports from West Asia utilize the Strait of Hormuz. Equally strategically located are the eastern straits, Malacca, Sunda and Lombok-Makasser. One-third of the world’s trade and almost all of East Asia’s oil amounting nearly to 9.4 million barrels of oil per day pass through these straits.
Protection of the sea-routes through the Indian Ocean becomes a strategic priority for many states. America thus has maintained a massive military presence in the region, poised to do whatever necessary to maintain the choke points and the flow of region’s essential energy supplies to the rest of the world. The stakes are so high that Pentagon has now drawn up plans to annihilate Iran’s military capability in three days  .
Strategic Importance of IOR for Extra Regional Forces
United States of America. For almost 200 years the British exercised predominant military power in the Indian Ocean by establishing bases at key choke points and along critical sea lines. In the 1960s however British Government decided to drastically cut the British presence east of Suez. During the succeeding years the Indian Ocean became a distinct area attracting international attention due to inter and intra state instabilities in the states bordering the region , prominent being the Iran-Iraq war. In reaction to this instability both the superpowers started deploying naval forces on a regular basis in the Indian Ocean to ensure their energy security  . The dramatic event of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, led to US establishing its naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean to react quickly to a situation threatening access to the oil resources in the region. This was the beginning of the so called super power rivalry in the IOR. Successive US administrations have followed up these developments with a vigorous search for facilities across Indian Ocean and have met with considerable success in getting such facilities in Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia , Kenya and Singapore. Their base in Diego Garcia is however the key element in providing the US capability to act at relatively short notice in the region  . By the end of 1980 US established a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) at Diego Garcia. On 01 Jan 83 RDJTF was converted into full fledged strategic command and was named the Central Command (CENTCOM). Hundreds of B 52 bomber flights were flown by US from this base during 1990-91 war against Iraq  .
Russia. The initial deployment of Soviet Navy in the Indian Ocean was governed by need for a reciprocal arrangement with littoral states that would assist its attempt to break through Western containment of its long southern flank. Soviets developed their facilities in Ethiopia and South Yemen close to Bab-al- Mandeb  . In 1979 the Soviets signed an agreement with Vietnam for a 25 year lease of base at Cam Ranh Bay close to Malacca straits. Russian government continued the lease of Cam Ranh Bay primarily for SIGINT activities in South China Sea. At the end of 25 year period, Russia decided to withdraw from Cam Ranh Bay. Its presence in other erstwhile bases is also on the decline.
Australia. Vital to Australia’s economic well being is the security of maritime trade, particularly in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. The world’s principal trading blocs, USA, EU, Japan/Korea/China/East Asia, comprise mercantile trading nations dependent on Middle East oil to sustain their economies. Australia’s economy is tied to these principal trading blocs  . Besides straddling vital sea-lines for naval and commercial mobility Southeast Asia has always provided Australia the strategic ‘defence-in-depth’ for its security. Post-Cold War, Australia rushed to forge new security bonds in the sub region to augment its existing Five-Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) with Malaysia and Singapore. This caused apprehensions, but its proactive stance and especially its leadership role during the 1999 East-Timor crises demonstrated a commitment to the sub-region. However, the perception of Australia’s pro-West character since the beginning of the 20th century has led to Islamic fundamentalists targeting its interests. Its interests thus converge with that of other concerned powers to combat non-state maritime threats in Southeast Asia.
Japan. Japan’s proactive role in Southeast Asia is vital for its global status and economic interests, since the sub-region is the ‘source’ and ‘transit’ of its energy lifeline. Primarily due to this reason, it is averse to Chinese domination in the South China Sea  . Despite its potent maritime forces however, Japan has been unable to assist the sub-region to secure the sea-lines against nontraditional threats due to the constraint posed by Article 9 of Japanese Constitution, which does not permit its military to have a ‘collective security’ arrangement. Japan’s commitment to Southeast Asia has thus been limited to financial and technological assistance for navigational safety and prevention of pollution. Japan is now actively considering a Constitutional review to break free from the ‘legal handicap’, including in terms of collective-security. This would make Japan more militarily assertive and enable it to safeguard its vital security interests in Southeast Asia.
Natural Resource Wealth
The Indian Ocean is known to contain natural resources, the significance of which has yet to be fully determined  . Other than the oil in the gulf, the Indian Ocean holds 65 per cent and 31 per cent of world’s strategic raw minerals and gas respectively. Large occurrences of hydrocarbons are being trapped in the offshore deep bedrocks of Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Australia. Beach sands rich in heavy minerals and deep sea polymetallic nodules are actively exploited by bordering countries, particularly India, South Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The Bay of Bengal is known to hold an immense wealth of resources in terms of fossil fuels, minerals and fish stocks. The discoveries of huge gas reserves in the Krishna-Godavari basin has added to the known potential of the area. The A&N island chain itself is known to bear substantial hydrocarbon reserves. It is only a matter of time that offshore platforms, similar to those at the Bombay High, would sprout in these waters. Its fish are of great and growing importance to the bordering countries for domestic consumption and export. Fishing fleets from Â Russia,Â Japan,Â South Korea, andÂ TaiwanÂ also exploit the Indian Ocean, mainly forÂ shrimpÂ andÂ tuna. The endangered marine species include theÂ dugong,Â seals,Â turtles, andÂ whales  .
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