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All at sea in the Indian Ocean
By Ramtanu Maitra

Given the crucial importance of the Bay of Bengal for the security of almost half of Asia, and the Arabian Sea for its importance of oil supplies to enhance global prosperity, India's security concerns will certainly remain pinned on the Indian Ocean as it grows more powerful in the years ahead. - Excerpt from part one of this two-part report: A partnership of unequals

The third largest ocean in the world with an area of 73,500,000 square kilometers (or 28,350,500 square miles), the Indian Ocean's greatest depth, in the Java Trench south of Java Island, is 25,344 feet. The Indian Ocean forms two large indentations in the southern coast of Asia around the Indian sub-continent - the Arabian Sea on India's west and the Bay of Bengal on the east, both of critical strategic and geopolitical importance. The Indian Ocean supports the movement of jihadi terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Asia-Pacific region, and it carries global oil supplies to the rest of Asia. In fact, India sits astride two "choke points" for global oil supplies - the Straits of Hormuz to its west, and the Straits of Malacca to its east.

As former Indian foreign secretary G Parthasarathy points out in a recent article in the Indian Express, the Asia-Pacific region in India's neighborhood is becoming a major consumer of the world's oil resources, with China becoming a growing importer of oil and natural gas. By 2020, oil consumption of this region will reach 38 million barrels per day, with 80 percent of that oil coming from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean. While India now imports around 80 million tones of oil annually, the annual demand for imported oil will grow to an estimated 150 million tones in 2020. Today, some 50 oil tankers traverse Indian shores daily; by 2020, the number is expected to be between 150 and 200.

It is also evident that India will have to share the Indian Ocean with other Asian nations, China and Japan in particular, to provide security to south, east and Southeast Asia. Parthasarathy points out that shortly after China became a net importer of oil in 1993, Zhao Nanqi, the director of the general staff logistics department in the Chinese navy, proclaimed: "We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean only of the Indians."

Chinese interest in naval facilities in Myanmar is widely acknowledged. As India and China, and perhaps Japan, develop a better understanding of what is needed to provide security to Asia, the Bay of Bengal will become a particular focus of attention. The Bay of Bengal provides access to the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia and the land-based road through Myanmar to China. India has already established and consolidated its naval bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In fact, the Nicobar group of islands is closer to Indonesia than to Indian shores.

India's maritime boundaries with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia have already been demarcated east of the Andaman and Nicobar chain. The additional continental shelf area awaiting delimitation would be shared between India and Sri Lanka. According to noted Indian strategist B Verghese, the deadline for submission of claims on the various mineral resources that lie on the seabed has been extended to May 2009, but India has an incentive to act by 2004 so that the matter can be settled before India's term on the United Nations Convention of Laws of the Sea Continental Shelf committee ends in May 2007. An Indian submission before the end of 2004, in consultation with Sri Lanka, could result in an award by 2007. The delimitation principles applied in the Bay of Bengal would also establish a precedent for the Arabian Sea, where the hydrocarbon, fishery and seabed mineral potential of the extended zone calls for early exploration and exploitation.

Further, as Israel has expressed concerns in the face of Pakistani-led nuclear proliferation into its neighborhood and mooted a desire to hide its nuclear arsenal from the prying eyes of the Americans, it is only a question of time before that nation approaches India with a proposal to deploy nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean. India has welcomed Russian interest in projecting its naval power in the Indian Ocean and held naval exercises with the Russians near Indian shores recently. But as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, that relationship will not progress much further, although Russia will otherwise remain a major provider of hardware and training to the Indian military.

Intervention or long-term security?
These developments beg the question: How could the Indians, pursuing a security doctrine based on securing the Indian Ocean, accommodate the United States? Some scholars, such as Yossef Bodansky, director of the US Congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare, maintain that the US and India should work together to keep the Straits of Malacca free for maritime traffic. Bodansky's line of thinking, not fully acceptable to New Delhi but seemingly logical to the diehard anti-China, pro-American lobbies inside India, spells out in no uncertain terms that the Chinese navy should be kept bottled up east of Malacca. If the mighty Chinese navy is allowed to come west of the Malacca Straits, it could not only threaten the world's oil supply, but India as well, argues Bodansky. But as India's recent moves vis-a-vis China suggest, it is unlikely that a security doctrine based on fear of the Chinese navy will get many takers in New Delhi today.

More broadly, what is then the US perception of providing security in the region? In the MacDonald report, one American colonel is quoted: "The US navy wants a relatively neutral territory on the opposite side of the world that can provide ports and support for operations in the Middle East. India not only has a good infrastructure, the Indian navy has proved that it can fix and fuel US ships. Over time, port visits must become a natural event. India is a viable player in supporting all naval missions, including escorting and responding to regional crises. In the same vein, the US air force would like the Indians to be able to grant them access to bases and landing rights during operations, such as counter-terrorism and heavy airlift support."

This arrangement, as far as it goes, would be acceptable to New Delhi. But the fact is that, contrary to what the colonel says, the US doctrine of providing security has always been directly tied to setting up bases, and there is every reason to believe that the Pentagon still thinks that way today. According to Jane's Defense Review strategist Rahul Bedi, the US wants India's help in expanding its vital naval influence in South Asia and containing China's proliferating sway in the Indian Ocean region. To achieve these twin aims, Bedi says, the US's covetous eyes are on eastern Sri Lanka's Trincomalee port as a staging point for its naval assets stationed in and around its Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean. Washington's sudden interest in the Colombo-Tamil Tigers talks in the aftermath of September 11 have not gone unnoticed.

It was known that the US navy had long been looking for access to a strategically located South Asian port for its Fifth Fleet, established in 1996 for permanent deployment in the Indian Ocean to bolster the US Middle East Force. US missile strikes during the war in Afghanistan were executed by Fifth Fleet warships, among others, demonstrating America's ability to exercise military power against littoral states deep inland. While the massive Fifth Fleet, which in size and capability is equivalent to the Sixth and Seventh Fleet together, watches over the oil fields of Arabia, the US base in Diego Garcia could soon become a concern for Asia as a whole. Diego Garcia, 37 miles long and one of 52 islands in the Chagos Archipelago, is strategically located in the central Indian Ocean.

Diego Garcia
Although historically and legally a part of Mauritius, Diego Garcia was formally constituted as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965 and came under the administrative control of the British government of the Seychelles. With the independence of Seychelles in 1976, the BIOT became a self-administering territory under the East African Desk of the British Foreign Office. In December 1966, Britain signed a bilateral agreement with the US making the islands of the BIOT available for defense purposes to both governments for a period of 50 years, until the year 2017. Approximately 900 American naval personnel are presently based on the island.

According to a scholar previously associated with the New Delhi-based Indian Defense Studies and Analyses, the long-range nuclear weapon-capable and missile-armed B-52 bombers operating from Diego Garcia are formally part of the US Air Combat Command's 96th Bomber Squadron, based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. In addition, nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered attack submarines are capable of berthing at Diego Garcia. These warships remain the most potent in terms of nuclear-weapons capability. Since 1991, the US navy has withdrawn and stored ashore all its sea-based tactical nuclear weapons; these do not, however, include the nuclear-armed Tomahawk land attack missiles deployed aboard submarines or surface ships.

The US propensity to acquire bases to operate in any region is based on its doctrine of intervention, not a doctrine of providing long-term, on-going security to the region. The latter is what India has no option but to adopt for its own, and the region's security.

In addition, US adherence to the concept of preventive warfare, which led to the unilateral declaration of war against both Iraq and Afghanistan, makes the presence of these bases in the region highly dangerous. These bases, like the one in Diego Garcia, afford the US the capability to strike quickly and decisively on a nation it considers an enemy - whether or not India agrees. This kind of disagreement has shown up between India and the US in evaluating the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance.

Nonetheless, the idea of working together in the Indian Ocean will persist. The idea was articulated by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. In his senate confirmation hearings in 2001, Powell talked about India's potential for maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and its vast periphery, and the importance of the US supporting such a role.

But as pointed out by Indian strategic analyst C Raja Mohan in 2001, it is one thing to demand that outsiders get out of the Indian Ocean, and it is another to create a security structure that addresses the concerns of the weaker states vis-a-vis their stronger and aggressive neighbors. In other words, the region consists of many small nations whose interests do not figure prominently in the India-US military relationship. But for India it would be vital to make sure that the security structure it develops embraces the security of the smaller and weaker nations of the region as well.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Jan 22, 2004

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