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Role Of Extra Regional Powers In The Indian Ocean Region

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Zone of Peace. There have been numerous attempts to declare IOR as a ‘Zone of Peace’ dating back to 1971. Various meetings to work out the modalities have been fruitless. Former United States, Secretary of State, Madeline Albright had said that the efforts to make the Indian Ocean Region a ‘Zone of Peace’ should be disbanded because the region has too many states whose interests are far too varied and the IOR states maintain more important relations with foreign states than within themselves [1] .

2. Having seen the strategic relevance of IOR in Chapter 2, let us now analyse the role and interest of a few important extra-regional powers.


3. Genesis of America’s Role. The US strategic presence in the Indian Ocean Region grew with the process of decolonisation in IOR. The 1973 Arab-Israel war and the subsequent oil embargo resulted in strong efforts being made ensure oil traffic and price security. In his State of the Union Address on 23 Jan 1980, President Carter asserted that, “Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the USA, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force [2] “.

4. US Naval Presence. The US Navy maintains a permanent presence of between 15 to 35 warships in the Indian Ocean at any given time. The US Fifth Fleet is based at Bahrain. Besides, the Fifth Fleet, the Sixth Fleet of the USCENTCOM and the Seventh Fleet of the USPACCOM are readily available to augment forces in the Indian Ocean [3] .

US Pacific and Central Command

5. Interests. US role and policy in the IOR depends on fulfilling the following self-interests:-

(a) Energy Security.

(b) Economic Security.

(c) Restrict China’s influence in IOR.

(d) Support/Basing facilities for War against Terror.

(e) Strategic Partnership with India.

United Kingdom

6. British Territory. In 1965, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was formed out of individual groups of islands in the Western and Central Indian Ocean. In 1966, Diego Garcia was leased to US [4] . The British Royal Navy however maintains a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf in the form of multinational forces, UN Peace-keeping duties, and a Naval and Marine detachment at Diego Garcia.

7. Interests. Economically, the region is vital to UK being the source of about 40% of its oil supplies and an important supplier of non-ferrous metal imports. However there is no intention to maintain naval presence in the region though it is militarily supporting US policies in the region [5] .


8. French Indian Ocean Territories. France possesses a large number of strategically located islands in the Western Indian Ocean, the largest of these being Le Reunion and Mayotte islands. France maintains a sizeable force in the IOR, comprising of about 10,000 men and 20 warships. Additionally, Djibouti is a major logistics base for French naval forces deployed from the Atlantic and Mediterranean commands. Owing to the islands, France considers herself to be a ‘regional’ power in the Indian Ocean, rather than an extra -regional one. Consequently, France is a member of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), an organisation for regional cooperation, which includes Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros. France’s deep involvement in the Indian Ocean is also evident from her defence agreements with Djibouti, Comoros, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Madagascar and Mauritius [6] .

Reunion – Headquarters of French Forces in the Indian Ocean

9. French Interests. The French EEZ in the Indian Ocean amounts to a approximately 2 ½ million square kilometres, which is more than a quarter of the total French EEZ. Consequently, French naval activity in the waters of the Indian Ocean represents about 30 percent of the total French maritime activity. The French Indian Ocean territories are of strategic significance as they are on the cross roads of major commercial maritime traffic. There is extensive fishing, meteorological and geophysical research activity being undertaken by the French in these regions. France depends on West Asian oil and has trade interests with various littorals [7] .


10. Japan’s proactive role in IOR is pre-requisite to Japan not only for its global status but also vital for its economic interests, especially since the sub-region is the source and transit for its energy lifeline. It is also wary of China’s domination in South China Sea.

11. JMSDF is a large force which enforces a maritime control zone up to 1000 nm, thereby adequately addressing its security concerns and ensuring the protection of its EEZ assets. However, due to the constraint posed by the Japanese Constitution, it has been unable to assist the sub-region to secure the sea-lines against non- traditional threats. Japan’s commitment to Southeast Asia has thus been limited to financial and technological assistance for navigational safety and prevention of pollution [8] .

12. However, 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 [9] . Japan also recognises India’s strategic location in IOR and understands the vital role that India can play in securing its SLOCs.


13. During Cold war, erstwhile USSR succeeded in gaining access to several bases in the IOR for forward basing and gathering intelligence. Infact, the number of Soviet bases and ships often exceeded those of US. Although it did have a lull period post 1992-1993, she still enjoys diplomatic relations with most of the littorals in IOR. These relations have great potential for cooperation in high technology, oil and gas pipelines.

14. Interests. The Indian Ocean Region is a vital link for Russia because it provides an all weather route for Russia between her Eastern and Western provinces. Besides Russia has security and trading interests in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean. It also wants to maintain bases in the IOR to be able to influence world opinion in its favour.


15. Chinese Influences. Over the years China has been widening her influence in the region. Today, China imports 32 percent of its oil needs, 58 % of which comes from Middle East. This figure is expected to double by 2012 with almost 70% oil requirement being met from Middle East [10] . Chinese state owned oil corporations are acquiring oil assets in Australia, Indonesia, Central Asia and Africa. The relationship between China and Myanmar (Communication facilities at Coco Islands, Sittwe Naval base), Bangladesh (Modernisation of Chittaong harbour), Sri Lanka (Construction of Hambantota harbour), Maldives (Submarine base) and Pakistan (Deep Sea port at Gwadar) have a strategic intention to strategically encircle India through ‘String of Pearl’ [11] . The establishment of a free trade area with ASEAN countries is another important consideration.

16. Chinese Interests. Chinese interests in the IOR are growing and can be summarised as follows [12] :-

(a) Containment of India. The efforts to contain India both economically and geopolitically, because it is the only regional nation that can pose a threat to its expansionist tendency in future.

(b) Second Strike Capability. To maintain a second strike capability in the Indian Ocean.

(c) Counter US Threat. To monitor activities in the Indian Ocean and counter increased US presence in the region.

(d) Secured Oil Supply. China’s energy needs are being fulfilled by import from Persian Gulf. Hence it is significant for China to safeguard these supply lines.

Prognosis of Extra-Regional Influences

17. Indian Ocean region is potentially the most volatile and significant area, where the interests of the world powers are merging. All extra-regional powers have concerns over their energy security coming from Persian Gulf and through various choke points. The security of sea lanes against the threat of piracy and maritime terrorism is another threat. Additionally, these powers do not want the others to grow powerful by influencing the littorals in the IOR. And a few, such as France also need to maintain territorial integrity of their interests in IOR.

18. India has a geographically advantageous position in the IOR and finds herself in a position where she has to perform a balancing act to protect her interests in the region, which are vital to her progress and deal with the presence of extra regional powers.

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