Quest for Oceanic Dominance: Militarization in the Indian Ocean
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Mar , 2015

Oxford dictionary describes Militarization as “preparation for an immediate combat situation or a violent conflict by nations or arms groups”. It can be of many forms, from raising armed groups, stockpiling of weapons, to deployment of troops. Here, militarization of Indian Ocean is carried by foreign nations and countries sharing territorial boundaries with the Indian Ocean.

The largest communist nation has created a ‘circle of influence’ around India, followed by few failed diplomatic approaches in Maldives.

The US and the USSR

The beginning of modern militarization of the Indian Ocean stretches back to 1960s. In the beginning of the cold war, USSR sent various naval boats and ships to further vast areas. These routes included Pacific Ocean followed by Indian Ocean and the horn of West Africa. Through these routes USSR was able to establish strong diplomatic relations with Yemen, allowing USSR ships to replenish fuel and stocks in the Yemeni harbour.

America was shocked by the USSR’s “model of approach” and felt threatened by the activities and wide influence in the region. With United Kingdom on its side, the US established its first naval base in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) island Diego Garcia. The name of the island is a synonym to the base.

China and India

Jumping forward to the 21st century, India and China entered in the picture. Both the rapidly developing nations are in a battle for the influence in the IOR. China specifically has been involved in a lot of activities in the IOR.

These activities include establishing numerous naval bases followed by surface to air missile launching stations along with political and economical approaches. By financing the “post cities” of Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, China is in a hurry to modernise the ports. The largest communist nation has created a “circle of influence” around India, followed by few failed diplomatic approaches in Maldives.

China feels its ‘pursuit of interests’ is being threatened by Indo – US relations.

China feels its “pursuit of interests” is being threatened by Indo – US relations. Many experts see the growing US influence as a blow to Chinese government’s “theory of expansion” thus forcing china to influence other nations. It is also a fact that Chinese influence has given its activities a cover all along. Countries supporting China are willing to follow the Chinese leadership, along with the controversies that comes with it. This is very clearly seen as nations following Chinese leadership have still not ratified Taiwan as an independent nation.

Additionally, Chin is rapidly building ship based advanced weaponry, quite possibly for their influence in the region. “What is the point of developing weapons, when you are mostly at peace”, says Michael Webber, a foreign expert on south Asia. China as also spent a lot on drone research and development. The Wing Loong, a recently designed Chinese drone is almost a replica of the US drones deployed in Pakistan. Clearly, this fleet will have military capabilities aside from patrolling and reconnaissance.

However, despite being actively offensive, China also appears to have significant interest in peacemaking. Objectively, China calls the region of Indian Ocean as the “Zone of Peace”. However some experts say that Chinese navy might use this as a medium to react quickly during natural calamities, while some differ, claiming this, a “good cop, bad cop” approach.

…Pakistan and Yemen have been, till today, failing or failed states, as both the nations are gripped in severe militant control …

Rise for Power

With numerous speculations however, Chinese intentions are very clear, it wants to fortify the region, while US (and India) losing its naval grip in the region. Many nations welcome this change, not openly, but for strategic needs (specifically those in the “Circle of Influence”) whereas some nations like India and Australia strongly oppose the Chinese tactics.

The battle of influence is not just between the nations with power, it is also among the smaller nations. While obviously not able to influence other nations through independent approach, these small nations have chosen sides, and receiving protection and more trade options in return. There are two distant groups: those around India (indirectly with US) and those supporting China.

With tensions rising on one side, and quest for military dominance on the other, the situation might attract more players as the tension escalates.

Failed States 

In Indian Ocean region, failed states are typically classified into two: western powers and militant organizations. Thus, creating a battle of influence in the Indian Ocean. Two nations in particular, Pakistan and Yemen have been, till today, failing or failed states, as both the nations are gripped in severe militant control specially Yemen where the president is taken by the Islamists rebels. Thus, there is vast support from the militancy to battle with the western powers.

Today Piracy costs $13 to $16 billion in goods each year worldwide. Most of the amount is robbed within the IOR…


Today Piracy costs $13 to $16 billion in goods each year worldwide. Most of the amount is robbed within the IOR, especially in and around the Somali Coast and the Strait of Malacca.

However, piracy in the IOR has been declining since last year. Investors in shipping business are willing to back attacks hence, increased awareness and massive global support is reducing profitability and raising the risk involved. The last reported piracy was a hijack attempt of October 1, 2013. While in 2010 to 2012 36 piracy cases were recorded.

Thus, the attempts to curb piracy globally have been more than successful. In the Strait of Malacca, assistance from the boundary nations and mutual understanding between the neighbouring nations and India has brought piracy down to a zero level. This is a perfect example of achieving objectives through coordination rather than militarization. Merchant ships are now equipped with Private military personnel on board. In the Strait of Malacca, safety has come with heavy patrols. The Indian Army has also building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) base on the Andaman and Nicobar Island.

So, now the IOR is protected against piracy, weaponry is in abundant supply. If the weapons are to go, piracy will return subsequently. Although it is also true that these weapons are easily deployable and can be used for various purposes. Dealing with piracy in Somalia is entirely non militarization but deployment of weapons in Indian Ocean pose a grave threat to the neighbouring nations.

The exercises enable nations to work together, understand each other strengths, and enable military coordination and manoeuvres specifically in the IOR.

Military Exercises

The member nations of Shanghai Cooperation Organization are widely involved in joint military exercises, also known as “Peace Missions.” The most recent Peace Mission was the Peace Mission of 2010 which involved over 5,000 personnel from the original Shanghai Five (although Uzbekistan did not participate).

Inspite of the name, the Peace Missions and joint military exercises are widely seen as provoking to nonparticipant nations of the IOR where exercises are generally held. The exercises enable nations to work together, understand each other strengths, and enable military coordination and manoeuvres specifically in the IOR.

The major participants in the Peace Missions are China and Russia. They also design the peaceful missions. Uzbekistan, which pulled out of Peace Mission 2010 at the last moment, was critical of the operations. The nation firmly believes that the military exercises have become a tool to “show of” the nations military power rather than equipping the member nations to combat the modern threats.

Since its beginning in 2003, India and Russia have been widely conducting “INDRA” military drills. Naval INDRA drills are occasionally conducted in the IOR. In 2011, an INDRA drill was planned, but the Russian military backed out, signifying strained Russia-India relations. INDRA 2012 took place in August of 2012. However it was a land operation.

If the US drives out of IOR, China will be free to maintain its influence in the region followed a controlled dominance over the South Pacific.

The Strait of Hormuz and Iran

The Strait of Hormuz links the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, in other words, it is the biggest links of oil to the western world. In December of 2011, Iran, for the second time, threatened to close the strait in response to the sanctions imposed on it. The situation escalated rapidly as Iran warned against any military intervention in the Strait of Hormuz. As the months passed, more sanctions were imposed on the nation, it become clear that the nation was on the verge of closing the strait. However it is very clear that US will not hesitate to response if Iran moves towards closing the strait.

If Iran were to close the Strait, the global economy will hang on the balance as oil prices will shoot high creating an economic imbalance followed by oil scarcity. Along with the economy fall out many nations will align against Iran. Thus to evade such a result Iran should communicate either diplomatically or through its close allies before closing the Strait.

International Stand

United States of America

The US has many reasons explaining its presence in the IOR. Firstly, the US is actively in war in the Middle East. Establishing a base in Diego Garcia in the IOR means easy and rapid deployment of naval forces in the conflict.

Second, China has made it very clear that their objective is drive out the US, specially the Indians, bleeding them dry out of any base in the region, preventing any possibility of influence. If the US drives out of IOR, China will be free to maintain its influence in the region followed a controlled dominance over the South Pacific. Even if the US ends the conflict in the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that they will drive out of IOR as doing so will make China uncontested in the IOR.

Due to increasing suspicions on Chinese activities, India has looked to the US for assistance in an effort to maintain peace and good diplomacy in the IOR.

This leads to our third point. Some nations like India, Australia and New Zealand seeks US support and this will only be possible if US maintains its dominance in the region. Even in coalition the nations will never challenge China without proper support from the US or other major powers in the NATO.

Now talking about Iran, US made it very clear that it would take severe action against Iran if it were to close the Strait of Hormuz.


India has always been suspicious of the Chinese actions in the IOR. As clearly stated by the Indian Navy Chief, “Each pearl in the string (the Circle of Influence) is a link in the chain of the Chinese Maritime presence.” Due to increasing suspicions on Chinese activities, India has looked to the US for assistance in an effort to maintain peace and good diplomacy in the IOR. On the other hand, India has extremely good relations with its old partner Russia. This is clear from the point that India was initially invited by this SCO founding member. During the period of 2000s India had a close relationship with Iran. However as the relationship with US improved, India criticised many sanctions against Iran.


Australia, like India, is quite suspicious of the Chinese movements in the IOR. It would accept a US-China congestion rather than Chinese dominance in the IOR. This Island nation believes that China will stop at nothing to become a super power in the South Asia.

Peoples Republic of China

As stated above, China will stop at nothing to become a super power in South Asia. This can be widely stated from the importance of IOR followed by the growing dominance of China in the region. China is as a matter of fact, in short of resources thus cloaking their intententions with bogus natural causes.

Yemen and Pakistan have chances of becoming failed states and action needs to be taken before any such transformation takes place.

One clear explanation of the Chinese presence can be the presence of oil trade in the region. The fuel route passes through many risky areas in the IOR, like the Strait of Malacca. By deploying naval ships in the region, China is meagrely protecting its energy resources. The main problem in regards to the perception of Chinese actions is that they are not very clear. Countries do not know whether China is trying to become a responsible power, or dominant one that is not afraid to use military might.

Yemen and Pakistan 

Yemen and Pakistan have chances of becoming failed states and action needs to be taken before any such transformation takes place. In Pakistan’s case, it has support from the US, which is fighting terrorism, and China is constantly funding and on many occasions they sent planning experts to modernise the port of Gwadar. Yemen too feels that the presence of US will eliminate many high ranking terrorists.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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8 thoughts on “Quest for Oceanic Dominance: Militarization in the Indian Ocean

  1. Dear Anant,

    France is also present in the IOR through its “ocean territories & departments” and its navy and army forces in naval bases and outposts.

    Anyhow, due to this and its defence cooperation with India, France is another player of the IOR chess plate.



  2. India can & should be the leading force in the IOR. India has 4 domestic naval commands i.e. western, eastern, southern & A&N command. However the Navy’s reach is limited currently, due to the vast area of IOR. India currently has berthing rights in countries like Oman and Djibouti, apart from listening posts in Madagascar and Oman. It will also install and integrated radars in countries like Mauritius & Seychelles recently. However, if India wants to be a leading force in the IOR, it should establish air, marine and naval bases in countries like Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, etc. India should establish 2 theater commands for this purpose. One in Middle East & North Africa region and another in South Western India Ocean region. The ME region is critical for oil supplies and NA region for global trade passing through Suez canal. India needs to ensure that it has sufficient resources in the region, to quickly deploy in case of any conflict in this volatile region. Hence bases in these regions are critical. Further down in the SW IOR, countries in East Africa and other island countries also play a critical role growing global trade. Further, India also needs to be active in this region due to the presence of US base and interest of China’s PLAN. Its better for India to be dominant in its own neighborhood instead of depending on friendly countries. It should also be noted that US was not so friendly during the cold war and had dispatched CBG and SSN during liberation of Bangladesh. Hence its better to be proactive than reactive.

  3. The Indian Ocean has been militarized since inception. The major threat to the Indian Republic began with the US base in Diego Garcia long before China’s “string of pearls”. India has no strategic or militaristic thinking at all. The biggest deficit is in competence rather than in money. Accentuated after the super annuation of the WW II tempered KCOs. As a result, India has been wasting money on “appearance” rather than serious efforts at area denial, area control and area dominance in an imitation of India’s pot bellied “scare crow” cops. India wastes money on equipment that does not function or is unfit for purpose rather than what it desperately requires. What does the Indian Navy need? Multi-layered surveillance including satellites radar and sonar with tight coupling to activatable lines of force, flotillas of high speed missile destroyers along the coast, tiny bases along India’s archipelagos among which torpedo boats, submarines, interceptor aircraft, and light destroyers can be moved at will or concentrated rather like Maratha fortresses supportive of guerrilla warfare on the sea and a detereent force of Nuclear armed nuclear submarines. All this is more than forty years over due. Instead, India has invested in military-economic anchors such as obsolete aircraft carriers that may look good in “Fleet Reviews” but serve little purpose other than the patrol the skies above North Karnataka. This is because India’s higher command has been thoroughly corrupted to reflect their civilian overlords. What we have today is a Gilbert and Sullivan’s military with INSAS rifles that look good on RD parade but jam when fired and an LCA that has been in the making since 1963 (HF 24) and is waiting for a tad more of “reservations” and unaccountability to be put into a kite flying competition with real manja. India, above all, needs competence and integrity. Top down. Till then, the armed forces will be as unfit for purpose as the Neta-Babu-Cop-Milard-Crony Kleptocracy.

  4. A very good analysis on the subject of militarisation of the Indian Ocean. While the interest of China has been covered in detail, the interest of USA in providing security to the Indian Ocean region has been dealt with rather perfunctorily. Nor has the author covered in detail the interest of Russia in the Indian Ocean region. It is clear through the analysis that India, which has the biggest stake in the Indian Ocean region, is not capable of protecting her own interest in the Indain Ocean region and has to look over her shoulders for military assistance from other countries, notably the USA. This is a dangerous policy and needs to be viewed carefully by India. In the ultimate analysis, there are no permanent friends in International relations, there are only permanent interests. India will have to build it’s own military prowess to ensure security of the Indian Ocean region, over a period of time. The government should be concerned over this requirement and should take suitable measures to protect her own interest in the region.

    • It seems, that the military in India wants the attention of the political government of India. Because defense matters don’t encourage people to vote for representatives of political parties generally, I don’t know whether military leaders want the attention of their political counterparts because they feel that otherwise, defense concerns will be overlooked in India. Pt. Nehru did not overlook defense concerns, he followed an international policy where he didn’t want any nation to look at India as a military threat.
      It seems, India’s military is very vocal about her defense concerns because otherwise, the political leadership would feel India has no defense concerns at all. India is such a vast nation, and so heterogenous in consideration, that the present govt. political and administrative machinery seems to be very stretched in function, and they don’t function as they would like to. We feel that our democratic govt. structure shouldn’t evolve, or perhaps we lack the will or the confidence to evolve politically and in administration. Our population has crossed the 1 billion number, and this is the reason why we face our political and administrative challenges.

  5. China wants to be the business partner to the world. Her business relationships with the United States and India, is very important to her interests. Because the business relationship is a two way relationship, I don’t think China wants to attack India or the United States. I think, China wants to police her business interests, and she has decided that South East Asia is potentially a crisis zone. Pakistan and Burma are not good states, according to the U. S., and neither are Yemen, and Iran. The U. S. is mending ties with Iran, in the present period. Because Burma is shunned by the U. S., and Pakistan is censured by the U. S. also, there is no nation that these states can look up to in the liberal democratic world that make up the western powers. France must have had some liberal dialogues with Iran, in my surmise, but it is only now, that the U. S. is engaging Iran in dialogue. It seems, that without a power like the United States engaging the so called ‘failed states’ of South East Asia, these states can become increasingly unstable, and they can also go to war with their neighbours. Neither China nor the U. S. want the I. S. I. S., but since the U. S. is waging the conflict against I. S. I. S., China is not in the picture, it seems, in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Syria, fighting the I. S. I. S.. It is not in China’s interest to do so.
    It seems incredible, that China and the U. S. believe that they might actually go to war against each other. The U. S. is actually trying to prevent a war against China by trying to contain her. The U. S. doesn’t know what China wants to do. Neither does China know what the U. S. wants. If the U. S. believes that nations want to engage her diplomatically and economically because she is the paramount business state, then China wants the world to engage her similarly because she is the largest manufacturing nation in the world. Perhaps China wants to be a credible power, in both the economic and military sense, by her presence in Asia.

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