Contesting for supremacy in the Indian Ocean

Contesting for supremacy in the Indian Ocean

(Views expressed in this presentation were of the speaker’s own and do not attribute to his affiliations.) 

The Indian ocean is the ocean of the present and the future, said Captain Rohan Joseph in a special guest lecture themed ‘The US- China influence in the Indian Ocean: A Sri Lankan Perspective’ on the 30th of October 2019 at the BIDTI. 

In an insightful and encompassing lecture, Captain Joseph explained key areas of discussion and areas of concern. Among which is the rise in international presence in the region. Since 2013, China has increased its presence in the region particularly due to its ambitious ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. Consequently, the USA since 2017, has prioritized the region through the ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ strategy. Both countries, with the world’s largest economies have prioritized the region due to its strategic importance. 

The Indian ocean region, contains one third of the world’s population. It also harbours sea lanes that transport 80 percent of the world’s energy and 50 percent of the world’s container cargo. This region hosts countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Bangladesh that are projected to dominate the world economy in the future. Thus holding significant importance in sustaining the world economy. However, this importance may decline due to the emergence of the Arctic route and the inland routes built by China to Europe via Central Asia which is more cost effective for China. 

Other actors such as India and Japan have also increased their presence in the Indian Ocean. Japan is the biggest advocator of the ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ strategy in the region. Similarly, India through its “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) doctrine and through policies such as the “Asia- Africa Growth Corridor” emphasize cooperation among states in the region. As such both countries are attempting to increase their sphere of influence in the Indian ocean region. 

However, the Indian ocean today is the background for a “clash of strategies” rather than cooperation.  The main competitors being USA and China thus bringing the question of who hold greater influence in the region. 

The USA is the richest country in the world with the largest GDP and the highest defence expenditure. It has the largest number of military bases than any other country in the world. It also has a significant hold in the world markets as much of the world’s renowned brands are from the USA with China and other states holding a much smaller share.  China on the other hand, has the second largest economy and has 124 trading partners whilst the USA has 56 trading partners. Hence China has significant potential to increase its sphere of influence considering that the USA has declined its international presence due to nationalist policies.

Regardless of other actors, China and the USA hold significant footing in the Indian Ocean, and have identified potential threats to the peace and stability of the region. As a result, both countries have increased their military presence in the Indian Ocean as a means to maintain the peace.  This in turn, increases the possibility of an armed conflict, threatening the stability and growth in the Indian Ocean Region. 

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