What we’re wrong about the Indian Ocean

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It may be time to update our political geography map of the Indian Ocean (Image: 1596, public domain)

Posted on 08 May 2022 21:56 by

Brian Gicheru Kinyua







Recent studies in geopolitics seem to agree on the fact that the rim of the Indian Ocean could become the most important economic region in the world, surpassing the rim of the Pacific. Indeed, competition among the world’s superpowers for control of the Indian Ocean and its resources has intensified.


An important trade route for centuries, the Indian Ocean now commands major shipping lanes through which half of the world’s container ships transit, as well as 70% of global oil shipments. It is an essential resource for the riparian states of the region, as well as for external powers.


However, as more and more countries jostle for a share, some blind spots in geography and major regional players have emerged. This hampers the ability to assess the importance of the region for global competition.


“The Indian Ocean is often divided between the regions of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but these artificial divisions emphasize the landmasses and push the maritime domain towards the periphery. they shift the concerns and priorities of island nations, who would otherwise act as important regional players, in the face of the challenges of their mainland counterparts,” observed Darshanah Baruah and Caroline Duckworth, marking the launch of a new interactive map by the Carnegie Endowment aimed at modernizing the understanding of the region.[1]


To fully track and absorb key developments in this strategic maritime domain, the Indian Ocean must be viewed as a single region, argue Baruah and Duckworth.


For example, Sri Lanka and Maldives are considered part of South Asia, while Mauritius and Seychelles are considered part of Africa. Although these regional divisions suggest that these nations have major differences in economic goals and security needs, they are united on issues of climate change, the importance of multilateralism and the continued promotion of the blue economy.


Additionally, four key points arise when Baruah and Duckworth view the Indian Ocean holistically.


Firstly, although the Indian Ocean is known to have three bottlenecks – the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb – the Mozambique Channel has become a vital relief trade route . This was visible during the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021, when some ships diverted around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Mozambique Channel.


These choke points provide a strategic military advantage to any regional player who takes control of them. If a single nation obtains the power to keep these maritime lines of communication (SLOC) open in times of peace, it also has the power to close them in times of conflict.


Take the case of the Strait of Hormuz, where approximately 21 million barrels of oil transit each day, according to estimates by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Even a minor event along this route can affect global energy supply and trade.


Second, while China is considered the biggest trading partner of the Indian Ocean island nations, their trade with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) frequently exceeds that of China, India and the United States. . In addition, Qatar and Turkey are emerging as new players in this commercial dynamic. , gradually replacing the European and African countries which were its historical trading partners.


Third, the fifteen ongoing territorial disputes in the Indian Ocean highlight the region’s complex colonial heritage. Notable unresolved issues include France’s multiple disputes with Comoros and Madagascar, and the protracted dispute between the UK and Mauritius over the Chagos Islands.


“These sovereignty disputes with the West open the door for the islands to deepen their relationship with China. Although it is assertive in the South China Sea, China does not have territorial disputes in the South China Sea region. Indian Ocean, seeking instead to balance Western influence,” Baruah and Duckworth note.


Finally, considering the Indian Ocean as a unique theatre, France, India and Australia have an essential regional role. Due to the presence of territorial islands in the Indian Ocean, their military and commercial security objectives overlap. Hence the need for a harmonized strategy, implemented in collaboration through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).



The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.



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