Updated: Jun 12, 2021
Who can deny the importance of the ability to command the seas? Perhaps, one should not. Since time immemorial, Naval supremacy has been one dominant characteristic of some of the mightiest empires and states the world has ever seen. Look at the early European empires of Spain, Portugal or even Britain. The command of the seas allowed them to cross over the overwhelming, but land-based Islamic power and access trade opportunities with the prosperous Asian empires. Whether it is Britain’s hegemony before the first World War or the arrival of the USA as a superpower post-1945, having a mighty naval fleet has been a dominant factor.
With that being said, the Indian Ocean, for much of its history has had extreme strategic and economic relevance. However, as times changed and as the centre of gravity shifted towards the West, the Indian ocean lost a part of its glory and the attention it commanded. This is changing again. As India, slowly but gradually, strengthens its roots internally and is seeking for its long lost massive role & influence beyond its borders again, talks related to the Indian Ocean have subsumed coverage not just among the quarters of New Delhi, but also in the public’s consciousness.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the QUAD in its quest to safeguard the interests of domestic nations in the Indo-Pacific region has brought renewed attention towards the relevance of the Indian Ocean, both for India in particular and the world in general. Each ocean has its strategic importance, depending upon the several geographical factors on one hand and the countries that relegate their influence nearby on the other. In today’s piece, The Geostrata attempts to make sense of the ocean by adopting a geopolitical relevance lens for the modern Indian state.
Since the dawn of the first civilisation of the Indian subcontinent, it has been known to indulge in trade with its contemporary- the Mesopotamian civilisation with artefacts being found both at Indian docks at sites like Lothal and in Mesopotamian territories dating as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Soon, the subcontinent became a region invested heavily in trading, thus, bringing immense prosperity and influence to the societies. India became a dominant exporter- famous for a mixture of its luxury craftsmanship deployed on textiles and artefacts, and the spices it produced. The extent can be roughly known by the fact that Pliny, the great Roman author famously complained (around mid-1st CE) about gold and silver being drained out from the Roman empire and reaching India in exchange for its luxury goods.
This phenomenon was aided or perhaps blessed by suitable geographical factors-the monsoon winds in particular. The subcontinent, to this date, experiences cyclical monsoon winds, which then allowed for the sailing of ships. Let us see how. During the first half of the year, low air pressure that forms over the subcontinent’s landmass draws in air from the high-pressure oceanic areas. This process is reversed in the second half of the year as the Sun moves towards the equator and oceans become comparatively hotter, this causes a reversal in the direction of the monsoon winds. For instance, dating as far back as mid-1st CE, “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” is a handbook for sailors that taught them how to use winds to move from the ports of the Red Sea towards the Indian subcontinent.
The subcontinent was at the centre of the trading world, actively trading with China (South-East Asia) in the east to the Romans (European territories) in the west. It was this that attracted several of the European trading companies of the Dutch, the French and the British who competed severely (to the extent of even fighting wars) to access as much proportion in trade opportunities with the local kingdoms as possible.
Let us consider the case of the Chola Empire. It was their command over the naval forces and the control over trade that it brought, which partly explains their gigantic timeline from around 3rd BCE-13th CE. They took active participation in the trade between the subcontinent and the East Asian territories occupied by the Srivijaya Kingdom (modern-day Malaysian and Indonesian islands) and the Chinese territories. Recognising the importance of offshore territories, the Chola Kings established their influence over the island chain that we now call Andaman & Nicobar, perhaps, one of the most crucial island chains of the modern Indian state, as we will see later.
It is no surprise that some of the biggest and beautiful temple complexes and urban centres in southern India were built under their patronage. Such a crucial role was played by the Indian Ocean in not only monetary prosperity but also trickled down into cultural and scientific aspects, in the subcontinent’s prosperous history.
THE INDIAN OCEAN & THE 21ST CENTURY
Times change, and so do the situations. As it turned out, the centre of gravity slowly started shifting towards the West as Europe overtook the other regions-predominantly to its east in several socio-economic aspects. In the second half of the 20th century, the strategic and economic relevance of the Atlantic took precedence over the Indo-Pacific as the United States aided and invested heavily in European economies and Japan being an exception to its east.
Make no mistake, the geographical factors have remained more or less similar since the start, it was the political conditions that sort of led to a monopoly of the trans-Atlantic arena in terms of strategic importance. What is happening now is that this monopoly is being shared more adequately as other regions grow in terms of their relative power and influence.
With the onset of the rapid economic growth (and the political relevance that comes with it) in the Indo-Pacific region- be it China, India and the ASEAN economies, combined with the increasing Chinese aggression in the South & East China seas, it is these factors that have attracted renewed attention of the United States and the democratic-liberal world in general in uplifting the rights of navigation in the Indo-Pacific Area. It is in this broader context that we see the Indian Ocean playing its crucial role.
As the 3rd largest oceanic division of the world with around 70.5 million sq. km of area, it has mighty Africa (with immense potential for economic growth) and the Middle East to its West and China and ‘Asian Tiger’ economies to its east. Geographically speaking, the Indian Ocean sits as the crossroads between these two regions. It provides and serves as a pathway linking some of the busiest (economically, numerically and strategic) straits and potential choke points of the naval world.
For instance, look at the Suez Canal & the Strait of Hormuz-one of the most crucial passageways, from the energy perspective. With the United States becoming energy self-sufficient and Europe’s demands being not too huge, it is the South Asian region where the energy demands are projected to grow higher and higher. The Indian Ocean connects these crucial passageways to the Strait of Malacca. India sits in the midst of this route and it is where it can tap into trade and economy-related opportunities.
Image credits: Bloomberg
The Indian Ocean is a high stakes arena, with so many countries sharing their coastline with it. Strategically, China is eyeing up to counter the sea route by opting for its trillion-dollar, predominantly land-based, Belt & Road Initiative. This is so because China depends upon several chokepoints for meeting its energy needs, this in light of when it is seeking to flex its arms all around its borders to trouble its neighbours, China sits at a relative risk of getting blockaded by the other forces.
India’s Andaman & Nicobar island chain allows the Indian Navy proximity to the Malacca Strait, a cause of worry for the Chinese. This proximity to the ASEAN region, if combined with adequate domestic conditions in India, can allow it to fend off manufacturing opportunities from China, especially in the environment of growing distrust over China due to its alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The United States is not far from the picture. It already exercised its influence through its 5th Fleet and the military base of Diego Garcia-situated on British Indian Ocean Territory. With the QUAD’s growing relevance, America’s stakes are getting deeper into the region. The ocean also provides straight, unhindered access to Antarctica, a potential realm for massive research projects.
Thus, the Indian Ocean is gaining its lost attention and relevance in global affairs. And as India seeks to grow furthermore in its quest of becoming a dominant world power, it is this ocean that it will have to leverage for strategic and economic aspects of its foreign policy.
BY PRATYAKSH KUMAR
CO-FOUNDER THE GEOSTRATA