Connecting the World to the IOR.
You know, the Indo of the Indo-Pacific
You know, the Indo of the Indo-Pacific
Welcome to the first edition of the quarterly Indian Ocean Region Bulletin (IOR Bulletin). We are greatly appreciative to everyone who provided content, proposals, and questions for the community.
We have a wide and diverse set of topics for your preview this quarter. Some highlights:
1. Indian Ocean Island States -- they might be small, but they may be the key to strategic success on a range of issues impacting the region and the globe.
2. Environmental Well-Being -- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib has a call out to form a working group focused on Gulf states environmental emergency response. We also have a question from Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar on the environmental impact of COVID-19 waste on the region's seas. Lots of additional discussion on environment issues and development across the region. Lots to unpack here, and you guessed it -- those island states may afford both lessons and issues to consider for those exploring environmental issues across the region or their own sub-regions.
3. China, India, the U.S., and QUAD -- Surprise! They all make a showing here. Some interesting discussions on geostrategic dynamics off the coast of East Africa, particularly the southern portion, and how the recent past in the Horn may be a projection of what is to come in the southern portion of East Africa. Let's also not forget the Bay of Bengal, as it is increasingly coming back to the forefront of the region (and globe's?) strategic awareness. Some interesting discussions on India's third aircraft carrier and economic policies provide some good grist to contemplate India's role in the region going forward (made even more interesting by the recent announcement of the new Indian Maritime Theater Command).
4. Provocative Guests -- We asked some members of the community to provide brief, written perspectives on the future of the region. Perhaps all is not well?
5. IOR Bulletin -- Of course we we're going to give our two-cents! We reflect on Robert Kaplan's "Monsoon" as it hits its 10 year anniversary; provide thoughts on civil-society information sharing, using the Red Sea as a brief study; and offer our thoughts for the Biden Administration as it considers the role of the region in its strategic calculus.
1. Monsoon Turns 10ish
2. The News
3. Guest Perspectives
4. Calls for Action
5. Recent Works
6. An IOR Bulletin Perspectives
7. What’s Next
Monsoon Turns 10ish
The Indian Ocean Region. It matters. Because Robert Kaplan said so ten years ago in a best-selling book called Monsoon, now we have the “QUAD,” a loose security partnership of the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan, and many other examples. The proof is in the pudding as they say.
This twisted logic of sentences is of course an American’s perspective. What Kaplan revealed to us in America, and the region already knew all too well, was that the "emergence" of the Indian Ocean as a region was not accurate.
The Indian Ocean already existed as a region. It has for thousands of years, as aptly outlined by Sanjeev Sanyal in, The Ocean of Churn. While Kaplan highlights this interconnected reality to Americans through his travels from Zanzibar and Oman to Indonesia, he aimed to help American audiences catch-up with the scholarship long discussed and debated.
Kaplan projected the Indian Ocean Region, or Monsoon Asia, was to become the fulcrum on which the 21st century would tilt. To date, his assessment appears accurate. Not only are China and India increasingly competing in this region as global players, the “QUAD” appears to be on its way to becoming something more than a four letter word. Western, “Indo-Pacific” strategies are proliferating. There is an internal drive within the region to reinvigorate and re-imagine centuries’ old networks of connectivity across the region in efforts such as development of the “Blue Economy."
However, if we are honest – from an American perspective, at least – the Indo-Pacific at times seems to be more about the Pacific than the Indo. Efforts focused on maritime transparency, to offer one example, tend to apply resources toward the Pacific Ocean side of Asia, foregoing the Indian Ocean side. One must work hard to find research areas and collaboration in American think tanks on the Indian Ocean and its unique role within the Indo-Pacific. Europe's largest actors also seem more oriented toward China and the Pacific. While events in the Middle East are clearly on the radar of Europe, rarely if ever do discussions arise seeking to explore issues of Middle Eastern security, migration, refugees, governance, and economic transformation within the context of the Indian Ocean or Indo-Pacific. Finally, when discussing the Indo-Pacific, the very idea of the Middle East or East Africa being part of the story is frequently missed, particularly among non-regional observers.
Ten years later, Kaplan does appear right about the geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean, but except for some key actors like China, India, Iran, Japan, and Australia, the rest of the world, including the U.S., appears to have paid only lip-service to this reality. If Kaplan is right at the end of the day, the question we may reflect on from thirty years hence is, “did the early movers to engage the Indian Ocean Region networks discussed by Sanyal win the geopolitical race, or did the late-comers scramble the field?”
In our inaugural edition of the Indian Ocean Region Bulletin, we hope to begin a sustained journey of being part of the region’s re-invigoration and re-imagination of old networks while also helping the broader world finally come to appreciate what Sanyal and Kaplan have already been telling us.
The Indian Ocean Region. It matters. We are adding our names to that chorus.
Thanks for being the first to hop on board with us.
Scientists warn of massive potential oil spill endangering Red Sea
Piece examines the potential environmental devastation that could be unleashed by the further deterioration of the FSO Safer
Global Toxic Ship Fuel Scandal Revealed By Mauritius Oil Spill: A Special Report
Nishan Degnarain, Forbes
This dive into the investigation of the Mauritius oil spill reveals a potential challenge to global shipping and environment concerns regarding the composition of fuel.
Mozambique Weighs Help to Fight Insurgents in Gas-Rich North
Matthew Hill and Borges Nhamire, Bloomburg
The emergence of an insurgency in norther Mozambique has created challenges both within Mozambique and surrounding states, as this piece details.
US Navy announces nuclear submarine passed through Strait of Hormuz amid tensions with Iran
The U.S. sends a submarine through the shallow Strait of Hormuz amidst a region still embroiled with tension.
Why bigger storms are brewing in the Bay of Bengal
U Tejonmayam, Times of India
The littoral states of the Bay of Bengal face the prospect of intensified weather patterns as a result of climate change.
Does the IOR need a cohesive Blue Economy framework?
Pratnashree Basu and Sohini Bose, Observer Research Foundation
Examines the logic of the IOR pursuing a shared emphasis on the Blue Economy and what such a pursuit means in the aftermath of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“Germany – Europe – Asia: shaping the 21st century together”: The German Government adopts policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region
Government of Germany
Germany details its approach and objectives in the Indo-Pacific.
Great Power Rivalry in the Red Sea: China’s Experiment in Djibouti and Implications for the United States
Zach Vertin, Brooking Institution
A long-time observer of Red Sea regional security examines how China’s interest in the Red Sea region has drawn increased attention towards the region by other major international powers, namely the United States.
Violence at Sea: How Terrorist, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain
Meghan Curran, Christopher Faulkner, Curtis Bell, Tyler Lycan , Michael Van Ginkel, and Jay Benson, Stable Seas
Stable Seas’ team examines how the maritime domain is exploited by violent extremist organizations in the IOR, with particular attention paid towards the Western IOR.
The Eastern Corridor and the Law of the Sea: Ensuring Sea-Lane Security
Pratnashree Basu, Observer Research Foundation
A piece that examines various legal components that impact the security of the IOR and the cohesion of the Indo-Pacific.
After “Malabar 2020”, What? – Next Steps in Consolidating Our Maritime Space
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, National Maritime Foundation
The Director General of NMF examines what India’s next steps are after Malabar 2020 to secure its interests in maritime domain.
China Maritime Report No. 11: Securing China's Lifelines across the Indian Ocean
Becker, Jeffrey, United States Naval War College
"China Maritime Report No. 11: Securing China's Lifelines across the Indian Ocean"
This report examines how China sees the challenges to its national interests in the IOR and how capabilities are being addressed to overcome them over time.
Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard Release Maritime Strategy
Government of the United States of America
The United States’ Tri-Service strategic concept provides context for how the United States is interpreting trend lines in the maritime domain.
The IOR Trendline Away From Progress
Dr. Ian Ralby
The most concerning trendline in the Indian Ocean Region is the active reversion from progress that has been made. While not limited to the maritime context, maritime examples provide an excellent illustration. The region has become a remarkable example of how multilateral cooperation can be applied to defeat the common enemy of piracy. Yet some of the missions, mechanisms and agreements established in that fight are being dismantled or rescinded. The departure of the United States troops from Somalia and the uncertainty as to the future of the EUNAVFOR ATALANTA mission together with the end of the prisoner transfer agreement that allowed pirates who were tried in Seychelles or Kenya to be held in Somalia, and the release of a number of pirates before their sentences were up, all signal the potential end of a cooperative era of counterpiracy. Given the attack on a merchant vessel on 5 December 2020, there is legitimate concern that this reversion could open the door to the return of piracy. Given that piracy has continued to rise at the other end of the Indian Ocean, this could bring new challenges for maritime commerce and the critical supply chains on which we all rely.
At the same time, climate change and the “blue economy” have been focal points of a lot of Indian Ocean states from Maldives holding a cabinet meeting underwater, to Seychelles piloting the “debt for dolphins” innovative financing scheme, to Kenya hosting a major global conference on the blue economy. With the challenges brought on by the 2020 global pandemic, changes in leadership, a drastic decline in tourism, and the tragic spill in Mauritius from the MV WAKASHIO, this progress is at a challenging juncture. Embattled economies have difficult decisions to make and some appear to be moving away from the blue economy push, sometimes in favor of revenue from the illicit trades, particularly narcotics. One of the fastest growing trade routes for drugs, the Indian Ocean basin already has states whose export of illicit drugs is among their top economic activities, even though they are not produced in those states. This retreat from climate and blue economic advances could be a victory for criminal groups and terrorist organizations who find footholds for pursuing illicit profit. It may also take the region’s eyes off forthcoming and preventable problems like the looming spill of the FSO SAFER in the Red Sea that will create large-scale environmental, humanitarian and economic challenges if not addressed. Turning away from progress can not only signal the return of old problems but can, itself, create new ones.
Outlook for the Indian Ocean in 2021: Persistent Naval Competition between China and India
China appears to be well back in business of its rapid naval buildup, as evidenced by recent reports of shipyard expansion and a series of sea trials for newbuild warships. Riding on the back of steady economic recovery amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, China’s bluewater naval ambitions cannot be seen in isolation from the concurrent evolution of its national interests. Late last month, the amended Law on National Defense was approved at a Standing Committee of the National People's Congress session, which came into effect at the start of this new year. This amended law notably incorporated a new mention about “development interests” that would warrant national or partial mobilization of China’s armed might should they be threatened.
This ambiguous exposition of Beijing’s national interests, coupled with China’s naval buildup and attempts to reinvigorate the Belt and Road Initiative, which includes a maritime component – the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative – aimed at fuelling post-pandemic economic recovery and growth, have direct ramifications on the Indian Ocean. The strategic context of the ongoing Sino-Indian border tensions, which have dragged on for months without a clear end in sight, is important. Following the fatal clashes in the Galwan Valley between Chinese and Indian troops back in June, ties between the two Asian powers are no longer the same. The Sino-Indian relations are marred by heightened mutual suspicion, and in no small part because of this, Beijing and New Delhi are expected to jostle for influence in the region.
For China, its continued outreach to India’s smaller and weaker Indian Ocean littoral neighbours will continue to hold centrepiece of its “look west” engagements characterized mainly by economic enticements. Beijing has since entered into various post-pandemic debt restructuring or relief agreements, and continued dialogues and cooperative ventures on infrastructure development investments – and of course, not forgetting its “vaccine diplomacy” in the Indian Ocean region. Given the persistent strategic and economic importance of the Indian Ocean in the post-pandemic era, clearly China looks set to not only maintain but further expand its physical presence in the region. That would have to include opportunities for the Chinese military, fronted not least by the burgeoning bluewater navy, to “show the flag” and provide a standing force presence ready to defend those “development interests” in the Indian Ocean.
By contrast, India appears to have lagged in its economic recovery though it is almost certain that it would be back on its feet in the foreseeable future and return to its economic growth trajectory. While being bogged down on two fronts – the Line of Actual Control with China, and the Line of Control with Pakistan – and increasingly wary of the Sino-Pakistani nexus, New Delhi has duly recognized the need to keep at its military modernization efforts as well. There is reinvigorated effort to build the Indian Navy, including the push for a third aircraft carrier that is not least targeted at China’s growth in this capability area. While still maintaining its non-alignment stance, India will continue to build on its bilateral (with Japan and the United States in particular), and multilateral defense and security relations to offset the Chinese forays. Together with Australia, Japan and the United States, India will likely build on existing gains within the Quad framework, while at the same time cultivating closer strategic and economic relations with Southeast Asia.
In 2021, both Asian powers will remain mainly preoccupied with containing the pandemic at home, and promote economic recovery. This of course does not preclude the need for China and India to tussle with each other for influence in the Indian Ocean to secure their national interests. While there will still be persistent naval competition between China and India in the Indian Ocean region, the likelihood of a conflict at sea remain remote.
Indian Ocean in Geopolitical Competition
Darshana M. Baruah
The Indian Ocean is a key theatre within the Indo-Pacific construct, a theatre which importance will only continue to rise as geopolitical competition continues to unravel. The lack of an active competition in the region meant maritime attention in the recent past was focused on the Pacific. In the meantime, however, there has been fundamental and significant changes in the IOR dynamics, primarily led by small states and island nations and their relationship with the US, India, China, France and the UK. The IOR will continue to attract attention from policymakers and the strategic community in the coming years in an effort to better understand the region that most Indo-Pacific governments have ignored since the end of the Cold War. Looking forward to 2021 there are two trends or factors that warrants further research, debate and discussions.
First, the need to engage with the IOR as one theatre instead of simply through its sub-regions. Over the years, government policies for the region divided the IOR into multiple sub-regions through continental desks such as the Middle East, South Asia or Africa. Therefore, the emerging trends and changes in the maritime domain, some that are consistent from East to West have gone unnoticed. To better understand the IOR, we must look at it as one continuous region while acknowledging its many dynamic sub-regions with its own security concerns.
Second, while the changing dynamics around the IOR reflects China’s interests and priorities, we must look beyond Beijing at other rising and emerging powers such as Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These three nations have consistently stepped up collaborations with islands from Sri Lanka to Comoros through economic, diplomatic, cultural and religious engagements, which could effectively change regional power dynamics. It is also worth exploring the engagements between these three countries and China whether at a bilateral or trilateral level to assess the changing relationships and identify the trends of the Indian Ocean- a region which today stands at a remarkably different environment than the Post-Cold War era.
This analysis is borrowed from the author's research for a book project on strategic islands in the Indian Ocean Region.
Calls for Action
Working group for an emergency response in the Arabian/Persian Gulf
The world has witnessed two major low-probability, high-consequence technological calamities with long-lasting environmental effects and regional aftermaths in just the last eight years which are the BP 2010 oil spill and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in 2011. The emergency responses to these two disasters suffered from a lack of prior planning and interoperability among different responding agencies and organizations that seriously affected consequence mitigation and disaster recovery. The Gulf region a transit area for 60% of the world oil a host of nuclear plants faces the risks of similar disaster and has engaged in very little cooperative planning for regional disasters. Despite the political differences among the different countries, they face similar challenges and potential risk hence cooperation is needed for a joint emergency response.
Click link for full project description: https://drive.google.com/file/d/114jdqvHG7QB6hVLUvGXESjJAClle5ldK/view?usp=sharing
Interested participants should send a brief bio prior to February 1 2020 to: Dr Dania Koleilat Khatib -Research Center for Cooperation and peace building (RCCP) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor Najmedin Meshkati- Department of Civil/Environmental Engineering Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering-University of Southern California Email: email@example.com
A Question for Dialogue from Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar:
COVID-19 Medical Waste --- How much of this (plastics specifically) is going to find its way into Indian Ocean Region (and global) waters?
Send your thoughts to us on twitter @Bulletinior #COVIDWASTE
Dr. David Brewster
Highlights: Indian Ocean Island States development opportunities (and risks out of COVID-19); Indian economics back to the future and a third carrier?; China basing in Southern Africa?
Dr. Abhijit Singh
Highlights: India's maritime counter options to China's land grabs; New Delhi's Diego Garcia Dilemma with London and DC; India's maritime science and technology cooperation with China a way to impose rules on China?; and New Delhi - DC interest non-aligment in the Western IOR.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar
Highlights: Will China allow itself to become the glue pasting together global partnerships that otherwise might be in contradiction to one another?
Highlights: Renewed engagement in Southeast Asia and with ASEAN is not enough now; U.S. needs to strengthen the relationship.
Commodore Anil Jai Singh
Highlights: Indian Ocean Island States are central pillar to strategic IOR; any maritime security architecture needs to include them.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Highlights: Iran, Turkey-Qatar, Saudi Arabia - UAE vying to shape Middle Eastern order (the western exist/entry of theIOR), yet none can be the regional arbiter without backing from an off-shore balancer.
Highlights: Indian Ocean Region - "laboratory of cooperation;" US and UK stances on Chagos vs. South China Sea - Great Power Competition considerations; Indian Ocean Island States in the QUAD Plus?
Highlights: South Asia's weight in the Indo-Pacific strategic calculations to Beijing and DC.
Highlights: The "Indo" portion of the Indo-Pacific has particularities that make it strategically different from the "Pacific" end of the Indo-Pacific.
Center for International Maritime Security
Highlights: Maritime India in an age of global China-US competition and COVID-19;
Captain (Dr) Nitin Agarwala
Highlights: Re-emergence of the Bay of Bengal within Indian Ocean strategic thinking and considerations.
Dr. Mohan Malik
Highlights: China - Pakistan cooperation and challenges and new global disorder courtesy of COVID-19.
RDML (retired) William McQuilkin
Highlights: Moving the U.S.-India relationship forward with an eye toward even greater strategic partnership.
Dr. Christian Bueger
Highlights: Provides theoretical and empirical framework to better understand maritime capacity building.
Dr. Cameron A. Moore
Highlights: Provides discussion on law of the sea and freedom of navigation, with significant considerations for the Indian Ocean Region.
Please note that not all contributors of content are also the contents' authors.
An IOR Bulletin Perspective:
Civil-Society Information Sharing
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is an immense and complicated portion of our world. One could spend a lifetime focusing on but one small component of the larger whole and never completely have the full story of that one portion. How could anyone understand the IOR in total? The IOR Bulletin’s answer to that question is this: learn from the experts and have them guide the way.
The idea of a network like the one the IOR Bulletin seeks to build is not new. Others have already lit a path, so to speak. There are databases, networks, and social media communities that share their data, draw attention to topics too long overlooked, and build general awareness to how this immense region is changing. The IOR Bulletin is unique in that it is focused on security topics within the IOR. Not the challenges facing militaries, security institutions, and constabulary services, nor the ways in which regional and global trade are exploited by illicit networks, nor even the potential effects of climate change. To be interested in the security of the IOR is to be willing to see security from an inclusive vantage point – to wrestle with the complicated whole of security challenges. Our aim is to tie together area specialists, military and constabulary officers, maritime experts, climatologists, and so forth.
The IOR has long been a region in concept, but the connections that tie places together does not exist in abundance in this region. As it is geographically, it is also true that communities of experts focused on the IOR too regularly exist in isolation from one another. While we do not expect to connect all interested parties, we do aim to build as many connections as we can and, most importantly, to help such connections grow strong. Expertise in today’s world matters, perhaps more today than ever before, but we all also know that the interconnectedness of our world and the scale of challenges we face require us to exist in concert with one another in pursuit of security.
After this first edition of the IOR Bulletin, our aim is to have members of this community provide background on issues that require everyone’s attention. As this is the first edition and we are beginning with getting our feet wet instead of jumping fully into the pool, the issue we wish to draw attention to is that of information sharing. Networks are powerful tools. Yet, networks must serve a function and they must advance goals, otherwise they prove, in our opinion, limited in value. Government-led institutions devoted to regional communication have their place and have achieved much in connecting the IOR, but it is our opinion that IOR community-led and civil society networks offer the most powerful lessons as to how to tie this immense region together.
An example to point to is that of the Red Sea, which in recent years has become a much more crowded body of water and a region of increased tension. All major global players have deepened their presence in this region and regional states have projected power more frequently along the Red Sea shoreline. Amidst renewed political interest in the region, there has been an uptick in illicit traffickers whose illegal actions have proven difficult to counter. Addressing such challenges requires international cooperation and as importantly, intranational consultation. Red Sea states have made progress in developing new mechanisms for addressing illicit networks, but the real breakthroughs came from civil society and from looking beyond the confines of the Red Sea itself. Lessons learned addressing similar challenges in South Asia and Southeast Asia were shared among experts that in turn led to consideration by regional policymakers. The importance of coastal community integration into information sharing procedures became routinely discussed by nations and international organizations. Networks did not solve the problem of Red Sea illicit trafficking, but they certainly provide methodologies that can be used to enhance the region’s ability to counter illegality. The IOR provided ideas.
The IOR Bulletin wants to share the word on more occurrences like efforts to address illicit networks in the Red Sea, but we need your help. We need you to share your data, offer your insights, challenge the community with questions, provide us a bearing to discover, and refer us to those with lessons to teach. We welcome your voices and look forward to all that your voices will reveal.
To this end of information sharing, please feel free to draw our attention to your work and issues of importance to you using our Twitter handle, @bulletinior. We will work judiciously to include these topics in our "news" section. Of course, if you or your institution have work you want to specifically draw attention to, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, provide us a link (or pdf copy) of the work, and we will include it in our "Recent Works" section.
Thank you to everyone for making this first edition of the IOR Bulletin possible. We are looking to start the IOR Bulletin on an "easy" pace of quarterly email distributions. Our ask for the future is quite simple: please continue to provide content links to us that you want shared (or regional news you believe needs highlighting). As our "Call for Action" section demonstrates, if you have questions for the larger IOR Bulletin community, proposals for working groups, or other IOR Bulletin community requests for input, send those our way too!
For content (links and pdf file) contributions or calls for action, email us at: email@example.com
For news or events you want us to highlight in our "news" section, tweet us at @bulletinior (it probably wouldn't hurt to send us an email, too).
Our parting thought (from an American perspective), as the U.S. transitions administrations:
Redefining in the Indian Ocean Region in the Biden Administration’s Strategy
As the new U.S. Presidential Administration takes office, President Biden’s national security team urgently needs to engage the Indian Ocean Region...the whole Indian Ocean Region. The Indian Ocean Region is the connective fabric, via sea lines of communication and telecommunications fiber optic submarine cables, that links the economies of Europe, Middle East and Africa, Asia, and Australia as well as a priority route and theater for U.S. military global power projection capability and capacity. Global Great Powers since the 1500’s have sought primacy and control over the important maritime chokepoints and trade routes through the relatively enclosed Indian Ocean, and East-West / West-East trade has featured prominently in the Indian Ocean since antiquity. However, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has largely been viewed by U.S. policy makers through the fractured lenses of U.S. regional policy apparatuses focused on Africa, Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia. That is a mistake militarily, geostrategically, and economically. We’ll outline the crawl, walk, and run steps that the Biden Administration should take in the next few months, years, and decades to regain the IOR as a source of U.S. strategic strength and not an area of strategic vulnerability as it is quickly becoming.
Crawling: Redefining the “Indo-Pacific”
A first step, likely before any formal IOR strategy, could be to correct the Trump Administration’s errors and omissions in the next National Security Strategy (NSS). The White House’s December 2017 NSS made a half-way attempt at conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific region. It was geographically and geostrategically narrow-minded and ineffective by constraining the strategy in the very definition of Indo-Pacific. The NSS excluded the entire Western Indian Ocean in the U.S. definition of “Indo-Pacific”, declaring that the Indo-Pacific Region, “stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” This determination had more to do with internal U.S. military and diplomatic administrative bureaucracy than real strategic foresight.
The 2017 NSS unfortunately set the parameters of subsequent U.S. strategies and actions including the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and renaming U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. “Indo-Pacific Command” in May 2018 - all adhering to the NSS’s restrictive view of the Indian Ocean. The limited U.S. vision of the Indo-Pacific hobbled America from thinking and acting holistically in the entire Indian Ocean Region by prioritizing avoiding internal U.S. inter-agency, bureaucratic political strife - a gross oversight in judgement.
Notably, The U.S.’s allies, partners, and Great Power competitors have not and do not share Washington’s myopic view of the Indo-Pacific. For example, U.S. allies like Japan announced its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative in 2016 from Kenya, on the Western Indian Ocean shores. France and India likewise see the entire Indian Ocean Region from East Africa to Australia as integral to the “Indo-Pacific” Region.
Perhaps most importantly, China’s “One Belt, One Road” or “Belt and Road Initiative'' (BRI) does not restrict its ambitions to the narrow interpretation of the Indo-Pacific that align with Washington’s view. China sees economic and military opportunities in areas of strategic neglect by Washington like the IOR and has actively sought to exploit those opportunities in the past two decades. China has even actively pushed into areas of U.S. security primacy like the Horn of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean and now has permanent military basing (in Djibouti) and a permanent naval forces (the Chinese Navy’s Naval Escort Task Force) at the Western Indian Ocean chokepoints of Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz. Publicly Chinese military forces are in place in the Indian Ocean to provide counter-piracy and non-combatant evacuation capabilities in the region, however, the Chinese Navy (PLA-N) now sends its most advanced destroyers (Type 052D/Luyang III), ships very capable of air defense, anti-surface warfare, and power projection ashore to serve in this nominal maritime security role.
In drafting the 2017 NSS, the U.S. must have thought it would have been too difficult to mix bureaucratic and administrative boundaries between the organizations in the State and Defense Departments to take a holistic view of the Indian Ocean Region. This must end now. In the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, the new administration should correct the restrictive errors of the 2017 NSS and expand the Indo-Pacific concept.
Walking: Develop a Strategy with the Ends in Mind
After righting the wrongs of the 2017 NSS in relation to the Indian Ocean, the Biden team should develop an Indian Ocean Region Strategy that builds, expands, and innovates on the U.S. strategic direction in the IOR. Key to any strategy will be articulating the “ends” or goals a U.S. Indian Ocean Regional Strategy would intend to achieve within the U.S. Government Interagency, U.S. commercial and NGO/civil society stakeholders, and Allies and Partners.
With external audiences, a public-facing strategy focused on “competing” with or even “denying” in the region to China will simply not suffice; it is simply too late in the Monsoon season for those types of theatrics from the U.S. owing to the realities in the region. Rather, the Biden Administration must define what a proactive, prudent, and engaged United States would seek to achieve in terms of economic and security objectives and how those efforts would benefit the Indian Ocean Region’s countries and stakeholders. That is the only way to compete with the growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean.
Internally to the U.S. Government, however, the Biden Administration should be crystal clear in internal, potentially classified strategy addendums. The internal U.S. strategy should articulate how proactive economic and security engagements in the Indian Ocean will enable the U.S.’s ability to compete with and counter China, and to a lesser extent Russia and Iran and Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs), in the Indian Ocean Region in the short and long-term. Having a clear strategic vision of what the U.S. goals and objectives are in the IOR in concert with Allies and partners will allow the U.S. to invest its time, money, and energy accordingly.
Running: Words into Action...Executing the Strategy
While a strategy can focus a government on the “ends” and objectives, the real work comes with implementing and executing the strategy; a Biden Administration Indian Ocean Region Strategy will be no different. The Administration must write the strategy to galvanize the “whole of U.S. Government” for sustained action in the Region over many years, even decades. The strategy must be the north star that guides the Department of State, Defense, USAID, Commerce, Energy, and other agencies over successive budget cycles and political fortunes.
This is no easy feat, however, and anything less than a concerted U.S. effort would continue to erode America’s relative power and influence in the Indian Ocean Region, perhaps precipitously. This has happened before for the U.S. in the Indian Ocean. During the first two decades of the Cold War, the Indian Ocean was an afterthought. The U.S. and British remained uncontested in the IOR and the Soviets had little excess naval power to spare outside of the core areas in the immediate European and Pacific theaters. However, two things changed in the 1960s. First, the independence movements in the Third World removed the European colonial power structures that favored the U.S. and denied the Soviets basing and access in the Indian Ocean. African and other Indian Ocean countries became free to pursue relationships with the U.S.S.R. giving the Soviet Navy and Air Force previously restricted access to ports and airfields in the Indian Ocean. Second, the Soviet Navy’s capability and capacity had grown significantly due to major investments and upgrades in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This new found capacity enabled the Soviets to deploy an entire Indian Ocean Squadron by the late 1960’s while the United States remained embroiled in the Vietnam War. These developments of global Soviet naval expansion shook the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Zumwalt. Zumwalt’s “Project Sixty” in 1970 identified the threat posed by Soviet naval expansion in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. would spend the next decade building the access in the Indian Ocean Region and changing deployment patterns to regain prominence in the Indian Ocean. By the mid-1980’s the U.S. had largely diminished the threat from the Soviet Union in the Indian Ocean Region as Soviet power receded and ultimately collapsed. The Soviet threat in the IOR spurred the U.S. to action during the Cold War, but it took nearly a decade of considerable U.S. effort to overcome the Soviet head start due to U.S. strategic and operational neglect...the U.S. simply does not have that luxury any longer.
A Must for the Biden Administration
In conjunction with that update of the NSS, or in a subsequent Indian Ocean Region Strategy, the Biden Administration should speak directly to the hopes and challenges of the Indian Ocean Region and lay out a proactive, well-resourced, “whole of government” approach to engaging with the countries in the Indian Ocean, in concert with Allies and Partners. If the Indian Ocean Region is left as an afterthought in U.S. strategic thinking, the U.S. will soon wake up to an Indian Ocean Region that views the U.S. as the afterthought.