World News

Dahabshiil long banner 728x90
Eritrea for mobile viewing

ModernDiplomacy.eu: Indian Ocean: An emerging hot-spot of rivalry

Posted by: Berhane.Habtemariam59@web.de

Date: Sunday, 03 March 2019

Amjed Jaaved

By

Recent International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Chagos Islands has catapulted Indian Ocean into limelight. The `advisory’ is a blow to UK’s forcible occupation of Chagos Islands, including the strategic US airbase of Diego Garcia atoll. Many countries, including India are trying to dominate the Ocean

India’s interest

 Forty seven countries have the Indian Ocean on their shores. The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water in the world. It occupies 20 per cent of the world’s ocean surface – it is nearly 10,000 kilometers wide at the southern tips of Africa and Australia and its area is 68.556 million square kilometers, about 5.5 times the size of the United States.

India’s motto is ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’. US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan says that ‘this ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century; the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters’. This Ocean includes Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Flores Sea, Java Sea Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Savu Sea, Timor Sea, Strait of Malacca, Bay of Bengal, Mozambique Channel, and Persian Gulf.

Indian Ocean is rich with living and non-living resources, from marine life to oil and natural gas. Its beach sands are rich in heavy minerals and offshore placer deposits. India is actively exploiting them to its economic advantage. It is a major sea lane providing shipping to 90 per cent of world trade. It provides a waterway for heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oilfields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia, and contains an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s offshore oil production.

Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy highlighted strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in these words: “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. The Indian peninsula (i.e. the Deccan and below) juts 1,240 miles into the Indian Ocean. 50per cent of the Indian Ocean basin lies within a 1,000 mile radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications. India possesses the technology to extract minerals from the deep sea bed. Under the law of the sea, it has an exclusive economic zone of 772,000 square miles. Chennai is a mere 3,400 miles away from Perth in Australia, slightly more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

The Ocean is a major sea lane connecting Middle East, East Asia and Africa with Europe and the Americas. It has four crucial access waterways facilitating international maritime trade, that is the Suez Canal in Egypt, Bab-el-Mandeb (bordering Djibouti and Yemen), Straits of Hormuz (bordering Iran and Oman), and Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia). These ‘chokepoints’ are critical to world oil trade as huge amounts of oil pass through them.

Any disruption in traffic flow through these choke-points can have disastrous consequences. The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based. Since energy is critical in influencing the geo-political strategies of a nation, any turbulence in its supply has serious security consequences. Most of the ships approach the straits through the 10 degree channel between the Andaman and Nicobar islands. To dominate these straits, India established its Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair in the Andamans. It has developed Port Blair as a strategic international trade center and built an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campal Bay in the Nicobar islands.

China’s interest

In view of the spiraling demand for energy, China is sensitive to the security of the sea lines of communication and choke- points of the region. Sixty per cent of China’s oil supplies are shipped through the Straits of Malacca.

India and China: Eyeball to eyeball

Indian Ocean is fast emerging as the new hot-spot of Sino-Indian rivalry. Indian desire to expand its navy manifold to dominate the Indian Ocean has triggered shockwaves to China and other littoral states. Whether it is controlling piracy or use of sea resources, boats of the two countries face each other eyeball-to-eyeball. As is obvious from capital outlays in India’s defence budget, India wants to convert its navy into a blue-water navy as early as possible. The first item on Indian-Navy agenda is getting new aircraft carriers. In their media interviews, the chiefs of Indian Navy have lamented ‘dominance of smaller ships in the naval fleet imposes limitations of reach’. He asserted that ‘the Navy had to be built around three aircraft carriers, at least 30 destroyers and frigates, 20 submarines and replenishment ships’. The present Navy chief’s plans are no less grandiose.

One chief said, “We are looking at a fleet of 140 warships and 300 aircraft” (The News behind the News, April 6, 2009, pp.14-15). What the chiefs of Indian Navy said in the past, or the present chief says is no swagger. Dominating the Indian Ocean has been India’s long-cherished dream since its independence. George K Tanham, in his Indian Strategic Thought, a RAND research, observes that India wants to establish its hegemony over Indian Ocean by establishing Pax Indica, on the lines of Pax Britannica. He adds, India wants to ‘approach world-power status by developing nuclear and missile capabilities, a blue water navy, and a military-industrial complex, all obvious characteristics of the superpowers’ (page vii).

Commodore (Retd) Uday Bhaskar of the Society for Policy Studies says, `India needs to project itself as a credible and long term partner in a more persuasive manner, than what has been the experience in recent years’. He added, `Islands in the Indian Ocean Region have acquired distinctive strategic relevance and India will have to step up its appeal and comfort index, more so since it is pitted against China’s deep pockets.

Barry Desker, Director Institute of defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore says, `The emergence of new powers like China and India is expected to transform the regional strategic landscape in a fashion that could be as dramatic as the rise of Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century’.

To counter Indian hegemony, China is intends to have six aircraft carriers. When New Delhi deployed one ship in the Gulf of Aden in October last year with great fanfare, China deployed two warships to the same area. The presence of the Chinese and Indian warships underlines Beijing’s and New Delhi’s intense economic and strategic interests in the world’s third largest ocean.

India is acquiring several nuclear-powered submarines to augment its 155 military vessels in the ocean that it calls its property. India has transformed its Karnataka Bay into an advanced naval installation. To counter New Delhi Beijing is constructing naval stations and refueling ports around India, including in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

As is obvious from capital outlays in India’s defence budget, India wants to convert its navy into a blue-water navy as early as possible. India wants to ‘approach world-power status by developing nuclear and missile capabilities, a blue water navy, and a military-industrial complex, all obvious characteristics of the superpowers’.

The Ocean is a major sea lane connecting Middle East, East Asia and Africa with Europe and the Americas. It has four crucial access waterways facilitating international maritime trade, that is the Suez Canal in Egypt, Bab-el-Mandeb (bordering Djibouti and Yemen), Straits of Hormuz (bordering Iran and Oman), and Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia). These ‘chokepoints’ are critical to world oil trade as huge amounts of oil pass through them.

Any disruption in traffic flow through these choke-points can have disastrous consequences. The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based. Since energy is critical in influencing the geo-political strategies of a nation, any turbulence in its supply has serious security consequences.

India is acquiring several nuclear-powered submarines to augment its 155 military vessels in the ocean that it calls its property. India has transformed its Karnataka Bay into an advanced naval installation. To counter New Delhi Beijing is constructing naval stations and refueling ports around India, including in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

India’s troubles in Maldives, Seychelles and Agalega Islands

India denies that its projects in Indian Ocean neighbourhood have never been acquisitive or “colonial”. However, it faced severe resistance, for instance, in Seychelles and Maldives and the Agalega Islands. After facing resistance over placing its helicopters in the Maldives’ Addu atoll and the virtual cancellation of its project to develop the Assumption Island in the Seychelles, New Delhi moved swiftly to ensure its US$87 million project in the Mauritius does not run into trouble. The project involved constructing  a jetty, rebuilding  and extending  the runway, and building  an airport terminal. Mauritian vice prime minister explained in the parliament that `the jetty is being improved to be able to receive ships and to extend the runway, which is in very poor condition, from the existent 1,300 metres to 3,000. At present, `only emergency medical evacuations are allowed due to the poor surface of the runway’. While the vice prime minister claimed ` she did not know “of India’s military plans, Indian Naval sources confirmed their involvement in the project. Mauritian opposition members point out lack of transparency in the project.  Mauritian government is still to answer why it has exempted the project from any Environmental license process (EIA clearances).

Indian view is that `unlike the military bases run by other countries [like Diego Garcia], the Indian model is of a soft base’. India does not ` bar locals from moving through any Indian-made project’. So `these governments get more control over their domain, without diluting their sovereignty’. Even when AFCON and RITES engineers visited the islands `they are greeted by the locals, who took their boats up to the ship that brought them in and even accommodated and feed them during their stay’.

Mauritian prime minister faced tough questions in the National Assembly over Indian involvement in the project, its costs and military implications. Mauritian vice-prime minister had to declare, `Agalega is and will remain a Mauritian territory’. `This is an important project. We don’t want the jetty and the airstrip to remain in poor condition,” she added. Even local people protested when they saw  Indian naval and coastguard’s setting up transponder systems and surveillance infrastructure. Several Islanders, including some from Agalega, which has a tiny population of 300, formed the “Koalision Zilwa Pou Lape” (Islanders Coalition for Peace), to lobby against the Agalega project.

A similar situation led to Maldivian President’s decision to cancel the loan of two Indian military helicopters and the visas of about 28 naval personnel. `The Agalega islands, with land of only about 25 square kilometres is now in the crosshairs of similar concerns, although most officials aware of developments believe India’s “softer” methods will ensure the success of the project.  

UK and USA’s Garcia headache

The ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf observed, `The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible’. The ICJ ruled that separation of  Chagos Islands from Mauritius during decolonisation in the 1960s constituted an “unlawful detachment” and was a “wrongful act”. A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shrugged off ICJ’s verdict. Saying: ‘This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment. Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully. The defense facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.’

According to Prof. David Vine, a public anthropologist at American University in Washington` [Between 1967 and 1973] the British loaded the inhabitants, known as Chagossians, onto ships and sent them off to Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1,200 miles to the west across the Indian Ocean, where they live to this day. A court case is under way in Britain seeking damages, and the government there has reportedly paid almost $30 million in compensation to the islanders. Last year, the Chagossians were allowed to visit the graves of their relatives for the first time’. The colonisers even `killed the islanders’ dogs, loaded the pets into sealed sheds, gassed them, and cremated them’. Diego Garcia is off-limits for journalists and tourists . Some Germans and Italians who tried to visit the island were hounded, impounded with their fishing boat and deported. After forcibly evicting residents of Diego Garcia, UK and USA assured the world that the Island was uninhabited.

Diego Garcia covers 6,720 acres of restricted military space on a low- lying, depopulated atoll 1,000 miles from the nearest continent. In 1966, the U.S. signed a secret agreement with Great Britain allowing the Pentagon to use the Indian Ocean territory as an airbase in exchange for a big discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. Three years later, hundreds of Navy Seabees arrived by  ship and began pouring out two 12,000-foot runway that would become a bulwark of American Cold War strategy in the region, and a key launching pad for the first and second Gulf wars, the 1998 bombing of Iraq and invasion and carpet-bombing of Afghanistan.

The base can house more than 2,000 troops and 30 warships at a time. It has two bomber runways, a satellite spy station and facilities enabling the use of nuclear-armed submarines. It served as a CIA black site (like Guantanamo Bay) to interrogate and torture terror suspects including those from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The base holds key to America’s Afghan exit plan, by year 2024, to avoid a rout at the hands of Taliban. With Garcia in trouble, Pakistan will be the only trump card in Trump’s hand for Afghan exit plan 2024 or earlier). The lesson for Modi is that truth ultimately prevails. India cannot forcibly keep the tortured Kashmiri enslaved forever.

Conclusion

Despite adverse advisory opinion  on Chagos Island, including Diego Garcia atoll,  by International Court of Justice, United States’ forces are still entrenched there. Besides, France maintains naval bases in the Indian Ocean and stations frigates off its Reunion islands. China has a string of naval assets in the region from Gwadar to Djibouti.

India’s ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean does not augur well for the region. It should let Indian Ocean remain the zone of peace.

Dm eri tv subscribe

Danakali's new CEO leads development of unique Colluli Potash Project in Eritrea