C Joshua Thomas
“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters,” Alfred Thayer Mahan, arguably “the most important American strategist of the 19th century”, is said to have noted. Not surprisingly, the US has, since its arrival as a world power, considered the Indian Ocean as a “global common”, as the India-born American strategic thinker Ashley J Tellis has observed.
Closer home, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, not only thought that India’s independence and survival depended on its control of the Indian Ocean but also that its “geographical destiny” had placed India “right in the middle of it,” noting that India belonged at once to South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.
K M Panikkar, the amateur historian, administrator, and diplomat, wrote a monograph on the ocean in 1945 titled, “India and the Indian Ocean: an essay on the influence of sea power on Indian history”. Kishore Mahbubani, the former Singapore diplomat has, in his recent book The ASEAN Miracle, has written extensively on Indian Ocean trade from the colonial times to the present era.
Mahan’s perceptive vision has come true as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has emerged, as India and China rise, as one of the most significant regions in the world due to its geological, political, economic and strategic characteristics. It is imperative that the Indian Ocean be transformed into a “ocean of peace and economic growth”.
The Indian Ocean has played a significant role in influencing socio-economic and political developments of the littoral countries as well as in the strategies of the leading world powers since ancient times. The Indian Ocean has been a vital link in sea communications between East and West; it is an area with a common colonial past; and its vast, untapped mineral resources and raw materials offer allurement to the advanced nations located far outside the region.
The desire to maintain free access throughout this vast region and to exploit its resources not only creates rivalry among the world powers but also provokes regional and intra-regional conflicts. The major players in the Indian Ocean in the 21st century are the US, India, China, Japan and Australia.
In a nutshell, the East Asian, South and South East Asian economies are dependent on the Indian Ocean as the lifeline. In the case of India, overall foreign trade – imports and exports -accounts for nearly half its GDP; maritime trade accounts for 90% of that trade by volume, 77% by value.
Likewise, the Indian Ocean plays a vital role in China’s maritime trade with the rest of the world. About 85% of China’s imports and between 70-85% of her energy supplies pass through it. Although Chinese shipping companies and port operators have already emerged as global leaders, the strategic vulnerability of this route, where choke points are controlled by the US and where India wields a significant power, has long been a geostrategic concern for Beijing.
Thus, choking these sea lanes of communication is not in anyone’s interest, especially neither India’s nor China’s. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is closely linked with the South China Sea and hence close regional understanding, cooperation and coordination between India, China and the Asean countries is necessary.
India and China increasingly vie for strategic advantage in the IOR, while also cooperating on some transnational security issues such as anti-piracy, disaster relief, drug smuggling, search and rescue, etc. They are keen to assume greater responsibility in policing the maritime commons and to be recognised as major powers.
China’s activities are likely to expand in conjunction with its Belt and Road Initiative, but this does not have to come at India’s expense. Broader initiatives like the Brics Development Bank and the AIIB are pulling India into a larger leadership role alongside China.
Future major powers in 2016, the GDP of the US was $18.57 trillion, China’s $11.2 trillion, and India’s $2.264
Projections vary, but by 2030, the line-up would be: China a€” $25.6 trillion; US a€” $22.8 trillion; and India a€” $6.68 trillion (Goldman Sachs, 2012).
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