US should wade carefully into the Indian Ocean – Asia Times

US should wade carefully into the Indian Ocean - Asia Times

The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region is considerable and growing.

Consisting of vast and diverse maritime geography of several subregions, including the Indian subcontinent, parts of Australia and Southeast Asia, West Asia, and Eastern and Southern Africa; it is home to 2.7 billion people — over a third of the global population — with an average age of 30 years old; it is resource-rich; and it is comprised of some of the fastest growing countries.

The region also connects peoples and economies worldwide via sealines and telecommunication fiber optic submarine cables; significantly, 80% of global maritime oil shipments traverse Indian Ocean waters.

The region, of course, faces major challenges, including actions by nefarious non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and terrorists. The ongoing attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red and Arabian Seas that are wreaking havoc on global maritime trade exemplify this problem.

Other challenges include the impact of climate change, which affects the region disproportionately, and growing naval competition, notably as China is increasingly flexing its muscles in the region.

How should the United States approach the Indian Ocean region?

Ambitions and realities

The United States recognizes the importance of maintaining a peaceful, secure and prosperous Indian Ocean region.

In recent years, Washington has embraced the terminology “Indo-Pacific,” as opposed to “Asia-Pacific,” and in 2018 it renamed the US Pacific Command the US Indo-Pacific Command. Even if US strategy documents say little about the Indian Ocean region, several US officials have recently stressed that Washington is committed to elevating its engagement there, notably through new partnerships.

Admiral Eileen Laubacher, special assistant to US President Joe Biden and senior director for South Asia at the US National Security Council, reiterated this commitment at the recently concluded 2024 Indian Ocean Conference.

Admiral Eileen Laubacher. Photo: US Navy

The annual event is spearheaded by the India Foundation and this year was hosted by the Perth USAsia Center in Australia and supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

There are problems, however. The US bureaucracy is not structured to engage the Indian Ocean region.

The US Department of State approaches it through four different bureaus: African Affairs, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, and South and Central Asian Affairs. The US Department of Defense, for its part, separates it into three combatant commands: the Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and Africa Command.

These divisions make it difficult for the United States to appreciate and address dynamics of the region as a whole, especially maritime developments.

Another problem is that the United States – unlike India, Australia, Japan, and a few others – does not include the Western Indian Ocean or the eastern coast of Africa in its conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific.

The US framing of the Indo-Pacific coincides with the Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility, which ends with India. That further complicates the United States’ ability to craft a unified strategy for the Indian Ocean region.

Perhaps partly due to these bureaucratic and conceptual issues, US engagement of the region has been limited.

US military planes parked at Diego Garcia military base, December 2017. Photo: Facebook

Recognizing it as a priority route and theater for US military power projection, the United States has of late improved its technology and facilities, notably its joint naval base (with the United Kingdom) at Diego Garcia, and increased logistics and supply cooperation with India, with which it wants to strengthen relations, notably as both countries worry about China’s rising power.

But the United States has been slow to roll out non-military programs and engage smaller regional countries. It only has one “ship-rider” agreement in the region (with Seychelles), constraining its ability to promote security cooperation, and only three embassies and two defense attaches to cover seven countries.

The United States also participates as a dialogue partner in one of the two primary regional multilateral bodies, the Indian Ocean Rim Association. But it’s not part of the other, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. More worryingly, in terms of assistance for the development of small regional countries the United States is falling behind China, which is investing massively in ports, fiber optic cables, and other maritime infrastructure.

The United States, therefore, should take immediate steps to adapt its approach to the Indian Ocean region. It should do so by embracing the region as a whole and ramping up engagement, notably by acting as a problem-solver and committed partner.

Embrace the region as a whole

The United States should begin by clearly defining its interests, goals, and priorities in the region as a whole and developing a strategy for it. That work, as mentioned, has not been done.

Broadening the US Indo-Pacific construct to include the Western Indian Ocean and eastern coast of Africa would be a good start. Not only would it bring the United States in line with many of its key partners, notably India, Australia, and Japan, but it would also help identify ways to implement the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States should probably steer clear of undertaking a major bureaucratic restructuring to better grasp, and act on, dynamics in the Indian Ocean region because it is too labor-intensive and time-consuming. Yet the appointment of nodal points or coordinators for the region in the US State and Defense Departments would be a good, easy fix to address the problems associated with the current US bureaucratic structure.

Act as problem-solver

The United States could be tempted to engage the region primarily — even only – with an eye to countering China because, after all, that goal is driving much of its foreign policy. Some have made that case, advocating that Washington focus its competition with Beijing in the Indian Ocean region because it has a bigger advantage there than closer to China’s coastline.

A blockade in the region, the argument goes, could help deter Chinese adventurism in the Pacific because it would force Beijing to devote resources to a distant area where it has disadvantages and trigger greater balancing by regional countries, notably India, which would feel threatened by a larger Chinese presence in the theater. The idea is that horizontal escalation in the region could replace vertical escalation in the Pacific.

It is unclear that this approach would work, however, either at the required speed or at all. Balancing by regional countries would also not be given because many have a favorable view of China, and even those that do not, are not prepared to go “all in” against China.

S Jaishankar, Indian minister of external affairs. Photo: Sputnik

Of note, virtually no one participating in the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth this month uttered the words “China” or “deterrence,” let alone in the same sentence. Even S Jaishankar, India’s minister of external affairs, only took oblique swipes at China in his keynote address, never mentioning it explicitly. Besides, many Indian Ocean regional states are suspicious about, and some even opposed to, cooperation with the United States, and there is a deep tradition of non-alignment in the region.

Rather than “countering China,” then, the organizing principle for US engagement in the region should be “fixing problems.” The United States should present itself as a problem-solver, a country that can help address issues of direct concern to IOR countries.

Although regional countries have different goals and priorities, by and large, that means helping respond to non-traditional security threats, including, but not limited to, nefarious non-state actors; illicit trafficking of all sorts; illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing; or climate change.

The recent US commitment to do just that is a good first step, but words should quickly turn into deeds so that regional countries can “see” more concrete deliverables, more regularly.

In this regard, the United States should bear in mind that building partner capacity to respond to non-traditional security threats can have multiple purposes, and therefore multiple payoffs. Enhancing a partner’s ability to combat maritime crime, for instance, simultaneously provides tools useful vis-à-vis China’s maritime developments.

Be a committed partner

Doing more in the Indian Ocean region does not mean that the United States will have to divert resources away from other theaters or the Pacific. The United States can – and should – ramp up engagement of the region while remaining focused on the Pacific.

In addition to repurposing some of its in-theater resources from continental to maritime challenges and maximizing its diplomatic and military visits to regional countries as it transits in the region, as some have recommended, the United States can do more by building on its existing relationships with regional countries and, more importantly, supporting regional leaders.

So, the United States should present itself not just as a problem-solver, but also as a committed partner.

Partnering with India, the predominant regional power, should be priority number one. The United States should build upon the recent flurry of cooperation agreements it has concluded with India and work out ways it can best support Indian activities in the region, be it through

In so doing, the United States should let India be in the driver’s seat, both because Washington should focus on the Pacific and because of possible backyard anxieties from New Delhi about an overly active US presence in the Indian Ocean region.

Ram Madhav. Photo: Wikipedia

Such an approach could benefit the United States in other ways. For instance, Ram Madhav, the President of the India Foundation, has argued that US appreciation and upholding of India’s primacy in the region would encourage New Delhi to “get involved in the imperatives of the Pacific region.”

In other words, US support for Indian leadership in the Indian Ocean region will trigger Indian support for US leadership in the Pacific, a clear upside from a US perspective.

Of course, the United States should work with other regional leaders as well. A staunch US ally often described as the United States’ “southern anchor” in the Indo-Pacific, Australia immediately comes to mind. So do other non-Indian Ocean regional countries, such as Japan, France or the United Kingdom, all of which play important roles in the region.

The United States should seek to leverage their roles to do more in the region, including to resolve longstanding issues such as the Diego Garcia stalemate; some have proposed innovative approaches to the problem.

Alfred Thayer Mahan. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

The United States also should urge mini-lateral arrangements such as the Quad, a security arrangement that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, to pivot to the Indian Ocean region and perhaps even to develop ties with the “I2U2 group,” a new cooperative partnership between India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the now famous US naval strategist, reportedly prophesied in the late 1890s shortly before he became admiral that “The destiny of the world will be decided” on Indian Ocean waters. These words continue to ring true today, and it is thus high time the United States gave the Indo side of the Indo-Pacific the attention it deserves, even as it remains focused on the Pacific.

David Santoro ([email protected]is president of the Pacific Forum. He specializes in strategic deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation. Santoro’s current interests focus on great-power dynamics and US alliances, particularly the role of China in an era of nuclear multipolarity.

This article, originally published by Pacific Forum, is republished with permission.