Conflicts - TensionsFree and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPSouth Asia

Free and open Indian Ocean at maritime crossroads


A growing Chinese presence has increased tensions in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese Communist Party’s buildup in the critical strategic domain, along with its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure scheme and attendant debt burdens on coastal nations, has put India and other states on edge.

More than one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and two-thirds of its oil and gas shipments traverse the Indian Ocean, a region that stretches from eastern Africa to western Australia and is home to 2.9 billion people, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported in June 2023. Seaborne transport is the cheapest, most efficient way to move bulk goods, and the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes provide global access to food, minerals, precious metals and energy resources.

A Chinese research vessel bristling with antennas and communication gear docks at Sri Lanka’s Chinese-run port of Hambantota in August 2022 despite concerns from India and the United States about potential spying. The Yuan Wang 5 secured permission to enter the deep-sea port on the condition it would not conduct research.

Three Indian Ocean chokepoints — narrow shipping lanes between land masses — support much of the trade: the Strait of Hormuz at the Persian Gulf’s mouth; the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; and the Malacca Strait, the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The U.S., Allies and Partners assure economic prosperity via safe and secure sea passageways. As geopolitical conflicts threaten trade and security, however, control of the region’s sea lines of communication looms as a tipping point.

Four-fifths of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) oil passes through the Malacca Strait and the nation’s leaders for years have worried that a blockade of the shipping lane could severely damage the country’s economy. Beijing has expanded operations as part of the maritime portions of OBOR, building commercial ports and related facilities in South Asian nations, staging maritime exercises with Iran, Pakistan and Russia, and leveraging other countries’ growing economic dependence to advance its political agenda, the U.S.-based Atlantic Council think tank reported in August 2023.

The PRC’s Indian Ocean naval fleet has grown in recent decades, raising the prospect of military advantages far from its shores, Joshua T. White, a Johns Hopkins University international affairs professor, wrote in a Brookings Institution report in June 2020. India, the U.S. and their Allies and Partners should watch for Chinese deployments that exceed needs to counter piracy or undertake humanitarian activities, new maritime-based means to gather intelligence and efforts to bolster the resilience of logistics networks during a potential conflict, White wrote.

“China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean has raised concerns among some countries, particularly India, which sees China’s activities as a strategic challenge to its influence in the region,” Sajjad Ashraf, an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore and former Pakistani diplomat, wrote on the China-U.S. Focus website in April 2023. The Indian Ocean also is a “key competitive flashpoint,” he noted.

Among PRC port and infrastructure projects along the Indian Ocean rim: Chittagong, near the Karnaphuli River’s mouth in Bangladesh; Gwadar, at the base of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan; Hambantota in Sri Lanka; and Kyaukpyu, along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar.

Chinese state-owned companies have financed many of the projects, including airports, pipelines and communication networks. Some recipient nations have struggled to meet their debt obligations. In 2017, for example, a PRC-owned company took control of the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease when Sri Lanka defaulted on debt payments.

New Delhi has long worried that Beijing could use the ostensibly commercial ports to facilitate its naval operations. Yet there are indications that India has successfully pushed back against the PRC’s attempts to gain influence, the Rand Corp., a U.S.-based think tank, reported in August 2023: “Overall, India appears to be winning the strategic competition in South Asia. But there is no guarantee it will stay that way.”

The Indian Ocean should be considered in its entirety, not segmented into subregions, according to Darshana M. Baruah, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program. Nations should strive to understand the region, “whether it is illegal fishing, maritime piracy, climate change, maritime domain awareness or anti-submarine warfare,” Baruah testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2023.

She and other analysts favor a coordinated regional effort to keep Indian Ocean sea lanes free and open. “Establishing a cohesive approach to and a maritime identity for the Indian Ocean will allow for better coordination and collaboration among all players,” Baruah and other Carnegie researchers wrote.

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