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indian ocean

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is an immense maritime space of great geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is a crossroad for sea trade that connects the advanced economies of the East and the West. At the same time, there are also many factors that threaten its stability. These are often closely related with the international dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, to the point that the two areas can be considered as single reality.

West: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa

On its western part, the Indian Ocean touches the shores of the vast African continent. This creates a peculiar mix of opportunities and challenges for coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Thanks to their position, they can easily reach important economic areas such as India, the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Engaging in maritime trade with these regions could provide a major economic boost to these African states and improve the living conditions of their citizens. In addition, emerging powers like China and India are heavily spending in Africa to access its much-needed natural resources and exploit the opportunities for high investment returns. Yet, in the case of China, this also raises concerns. While African states welcome Chinese investments as they come with no legal precondition on the respect of civil and human rights, some worry that its economic penetration might result in political leverage and in a form of economic neo-colonialism.

There are also two states whose situation is particular. The first is Ethiopia, the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. As other states along the continent’s eastern coast, it can greatly benefit from international sea trade, but unfortunately it is a landlocked country. This largely explains the recent deal it reached with Eritrea to settle their longstanding conflict: turning Eritrea into a friend would enable Ethiopia to access the sea and engage in maritime trade along one of the busiest routes in the world. As a matter of fact, the Red Sea is an obliged passage for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. Ethiopia has even expressed its intention to build a navy, which is a clear sign of its seafaring ambitions.

The second peculiar case is Somalia. In theory, it is also poised to take advantage from its position on the Indian Ocean, but in practice it is a failed state ruled by armed groups where the central government has not enough power to pursue such kind of maritime policy.

This raises the issue of the threats to sea trade along the Western shores of the Indian Ocean. Somalia is part of the problem, as it has become a hub for piracy. The difficult economic conditions have pushed many Somalis to start attacking cargos navigating along the country’s coasts. This became a serious problem that prompted the international community to organize a military operation to patrol the Somali waters and combat piracy. These efforts succeeded in securing the area and in reducing the number of attacks, but as long as the socio-economic conditions of coastal population do not improve, the risk of piracy will remain.

Then, there are two important chokepoints that connect the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, which can be considered as a peripheral area of the Indian Ocean putting it in communication with Europe: first, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait; second, the Suez Canal. Both passages are essential for sea trade, and any interruption would have a major impact on the global economy.

North: India & Hormuz

Located to the North, India is certainly the main regional player. A large and fast-growing economy, it is one of today’s most important rising powers and its influence is growing worldwide. New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean as “its own” maritime space, a vector for power projection and economic growth but also an area to be preserve from the intromissions of hostile powers for the sake of national security. India can enormously benefit from its position protracting towards the ocean midway along the vital East-West sea lanes, and in fact it already taking advantage from it. At the same time, by building a powerful navy it can extend its power abroad and protect its interests. As a matter of fact, New Delhi is concerned over the presence of foreign actors in the Indian Ocean, most notably Beijing. The PRC is indeed investing heavily in the region on the basis of its Maritime Silk Road plan, aimed at creating a string of ports to sustain trade with Europe. This is of central importance for China’s economy, which relies on sea trade for exporting goods and importing hydrocarbons; but some consider that the real objective of the project is to extend its influence in the region by economic means. In a context of broader Sino-Indian rivalry, New Delhi worries about Beijing’s presence in countries like the Maldives or Sri Lanka, considering it as a potential threat to its security. Similarly, India also sees unfavorably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will connect the PRC with the ocean via the port of Gwadar.

Again, there is also a strategic chokepoint to consider: the Hormuz Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. This passage is vital for tankers carrying Middle Eastern oil to Europe and Asia and any interruption would have catastrophic economic consequences. Unfortunately, this is not a remote event: in case of a serious standoff between the US and Iran, the Strait would soon become a major flashpoint, since Teheran’s deterrence strategy is largely based on blocking the Strait; which it can do with relative ease due to geographic reasons.

East: the Indo-Pacific

To the East, the Indonesian archipelago and Australia separate the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. Similarly to Somalia, the waters around Indonesia had become infested with pirates in the recent past; and the phenomenon has been reduced only thanks to multilateral military and development efforts. Yet, if the living conditions of coastal populations deteriorated again, the problem may arise once more.

That said, Indonesia and Australia benefit from their position between the two oceans. It allows them to project their power in both directions, to reach the large European and East Asian markets and finally to access Africa with its resources and its potential for investments. Indonesia is particularly relevant in this regard: it is another emerging economy with a great potential, and its virtually controls all the major straits connecting the two oceans: Sunda, Lombok and most importantly Malacca. Indonesia’s growth is largely due to its position on these sea lanes, and Singapore has based its incredible wealth on it. Again, these passages are essential for maritime trade between Europe and Asia as well as for the latter’s energy security; and would become hotspots in case of war, notably between the US and China. If the US Navy closed them, it could seriously harm the tenure of the PRC’s economy. At the same time, they are also essential for American allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; meaning that the US will use its naval power to ensure no hostile power blocks the Straits.

The eastern part of the Indian Ocean plays a fundamental role for maritime security; and the importance of the juncture between the two Oceans is leading many scholars, analysts and policy-makers to consider them as a single maritime region: the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean is extremely important for states in East Asia because it represents the necessary passage to reach Europe; and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and of the Asia-Pacific are closely related. China’s New Silk Road initiative, the forays of its Navy in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Indian competition, the free flow of oil from the Gulf and piracy in Indonesia are all strategic issues that tie the two oceanic regions. This explains why the concept of Indo-Pacific is also taking importance in American strategic discourse: the economic and security dynamics of the two areas are so intertwined that they must be considered as a single space. Other powers are applying the same logic, and this is having practical consequences: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue uniting the US, Japan, India and Australia indicates their willingness to strengthen their political and military cooperation to face shared security challenges like the rise of China; and it represents the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a political and strategic reality.

Conclusion: an Indo-Pacific future?

Many scholars believe that “the future is Asian”, which is even the title of a recent book by Parag Khanna. But Asia’s rise largely depends on trade with Europe and on oil imports from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean. As such, Asian states have major strategic concerns in this area. China, Japan and South Korea need to keep the sea lanes open. India is an emerging power whose influence is growing across the world via the sea. Indonesia is the pivot connecting the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The United States, the world’s primary security provider, is facing many challenges in both Oceans and is committed to preserving the freedom of navigation. Moreover, the interests of the various stakeholders in the area are sometimes colliding, such as in the case of China and India. As such, with Asia’s importance growing every year in both economic and political terms, the Indo-Pacific is also gaining primary strategic relevance.

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Is Sri Lanka, China’s New Colony?

China & Sri Lanka: an enduring alliance?

China’s rise as a global economic power – and potentially a global political power too – is attracting more and more attention. From the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to China’s increasingly aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, the activities of the People’s Republic are one of the biggest stories in international relations.

Whilst in the West, and particularly in Britain and America, the debate is often centred on whether the inexorable side of China represents a threat or an opportunity, the countries living in close proximity to China are scrambling to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power.

Some countries, notably Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, find themselves in territorial disputes with China as a result of the People’s Republic aggressive boundary setting moves in the south China Sea.

In addition, there is the more long-standing political dispute between China and Taiwan centred on the former’s claims of sovereignty over the latter. What all these myriad territorial and political disputes have in common however is the involvement of the United States.

In nearly all cases the US intervenes on behalf of states who feel aggrieved by China’s actions in the South China Sea and beyond. Whilst Washington justifies its own aggressive actions – including challenging Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly islands – as part of its drive to ensure “freedom of navigation” in disputed maritime areas, the reality is that the US is above all concerned with the prospect of China displacing America as the dominant regional power.

But there is another side to the rise of China, both in its immediate environment, regionally and more broadly in a global setting. This is a story of successful Chinese outreach to multiple states, characterised by massive investments in infrastructure and resulting political influence.

One of these states is Sri Lanka, a country strategically perched next to India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has come a long way since gaining independence from Britain in February 1948. In the 70 years since independence Sri Lanka has established relatively stable political institutions, in addition to successfully prosecuting a quarter century long counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil separatists in the north and east.

Sri Lanka is important to China for many reasons, much of it revolving around the island nation’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to China’s great rival India. In addition, Sri Lanka presents China with a wide range of investment opportunities which in the long-term can help entrench Chinese influence in the country.

China’s strategic motive

In keeping with its emerging great power status China’s approach to foreign policy is shaped primarily by strategic considerations. To that end, the Chinese leadership has identified three core strategic rivals and potential enemies, namely India, Japan and the United States. Historic Chinese relations with all three powers has been marked by high tension and conflict, particularly with India and Japan.

Therefore, the thrust of Chinese foreign policy is to blunt the influence and reach of these three powers in China’s immediate neighbourhood, or areas where China has traditionally identified as its backyard.

For example, China’s support for North Korea is designed to deter the United States from acknowledging Taiwanese independence. More broadly, China’s support for North Korea is also designed to send a strong message to Japan, whose re-militarisation unsettles China’s historical consciousness.

To its immediate West China is confronted by the Indian giant, a country whose population is only marginally smaller than China’s. India not only challenges China economically, but also politically, on account of the fact that India is considered a “democracy” (albeit with an Asian twist) whereas China is still deeply authoritarian and officially at least still wedded to a communist ideology.

Furthermore, at a strategic level, India is a major rival to China, as similar to the People’s Republic India is incrementally augmenting its military capability with a view to projecting power well beyond its immediate sphere of influence. The development of a so-called blue-water navy (basically a maritime force with global reach and capability) is demonstrative of India’s ultimate ambitions.

In view of India’s strategic ambitions, China has devised a variety of economic, political, diplomatic and military tools to contain its big neighbour to the West. In terms of direct political intervention, and in order to offset Indian meddling in Chinese affairs (as demonstrated by India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama), China is suspected of supporting left-wing militant forces in south-eastern India. These forces have come to be known as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and are based mostly in Andhra Pradesh state.

In the diplomatic and economic spheres, China is engaged in extensive outreach to India’s neighbouring states, in particular Pakistan, which is viewed as a counter to India in the subcontinent. China has massive investments in Pakistan, notably in the deep-sea port of Gwadar. More broadly, China is stepping up its longstanding military cooperation with Pakistan, particularly in the ballistic and cruise missiles sphere.

China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is ultimately explainable in the context of China’s strategic posture and associated calculus. Although Sri Lanka is not a large and powerful state like Pakistan – and its relations with India is nowhere near as fraught as Indo-Pakistani relations – nevertheless by establishing influence on the island nation China gains more leverage in its emerging great power rivalry with India.

What does Sri Lanka offer to India?

As stated earlier, Sri Lanka’s close proximity to India inevitably makes it attractive to Chinese strategists. And of course, with geographic proximity comes a high degree of cultural proximity. Indeed, there are strong cultural bonds between the two nations, centred on the Tamil community in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, who are the ethnic kin of the large Tamil community in India’s deep south.

The fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka were embroiled in a decades long conflict with the central government renders this dimension even more important to the Chinese. More on this later. But suffice to say it is in China’s strategic interest for Sri Lanka to have a strong and stable central government.

A unified and strong Sri Lanka is much more likely to oppose core Indian strategic positions, notably the expansion of Indian influence in the Indian Ocean, and to that end a strong and stable Sri Lanka satisfies China’s strategic priorities.

China cynically exploits tensions in Indo-Sri Lankan relations, notably the majority Sinhalese’s guarded attitude toward India, and Sri Lanka’s natural inclination towards India’s rivals. Note that Sri Lanka has strong ties to Pakistan, India’s nemesis on the subcontinent. Moreover, China seeks to contain Western influence on Sri Lanka, and where possible to drive a wedge between Colombo and Western capitals.

For example, China shields Sri Lanka from Western criticism on human rights issues, focussed on Colombo’s reported mistreatment of the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. By containing and deterring Western influence in Sri Lanka, China is effectively constructing an outer defensive ring around its core territorial, political and economic interests much further away in the South China Sea area.

From this perspective, China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is an important example of China’s emerging global ambitions and a thinly-veiled desire to project power and influence well beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

The economic dimension   

Interestingly, the issue of human rights is bound up with China’s entry into Sri Lanka’s economy. This entry began in earnest in the immediate aftermath of the successful conclusion of the counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. At the time Colombo was chafing under Western criticism of its alleged human rights abuses, notably the reported killing of thousands of Tamil civilians in the northern Jaffna Peninsula in the closing stages of the war.

China, similar to Russia, has a policy of non-intervention in the domestic politics of the countries it tries to cultivate. To that end, the Chinese not only did not care about the possible massacre of Tamil civilians, but in fact they undertook active measures – by way of diplomacy and media propaganda – to protect Sri Lanka from Western criticism.

Since 2010 China has invested significant sums in infrastructure projects in southern Sri Lanka and more recently Beijing has begun to invest in northern Sri Lanka as well, including the Jaffna Peninsula, which was the site of the most ferocious battles of the Sri Lanka Civil War of 1983-2009. For example, a major Chinese engineering company is set to build 40,000 houses in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Whilst successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed Chinese investment, Beijing’s increasing economic influence on the island nation is not completely free of controversy. The case of the Hambantota Port Development Project is being increasingly cited to highlight the exploitative dimension of China’s investment strategy in Sri Lanka.

Construction of the port began in January 2008 and it is set to become Sri Lanka’s largest port, displacing the Port of Colombo from the top spot. But the project incurred heavy losses and was only kept going by Chinese loans, to the point where Sri Lanka was effectively forced in December 2017 to lease the port for 99 years to the Chinese.

China’s critics and detractors often use this case to demonstrate Beijing’s alleged cynical use of loans and investment funds to advance political and strategic ambitions. They also argue that massive infrastructure projects driven and funded by Chinese loans and associated finance potentially undermine the sovereignty of small states like Sri Lanka and to that end they can be construed as a form of Chinese imperialism.

How stable is Sri Lanka?

At present Sri Lanka is embroiled in a political crisis after President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe only to replace him with hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa. This arbitrary dismissal of a sitting government has been fiercely resisted by the Sri Lankan parliament, to the point where there is political stalemate.

Sri Lanka is currently in the strange position of having two prime ministerial claimants – and potentially two rival governments – and hence on the threshold of deep political turmoil and potential bloodshed. However, despite the deep political uncertainty, the country is relatively calm and smooth administration continues apace.

This speaks to Sri Lanka’s bureaucratic resilience as embodied by the country’s civil service. In the past ten years China has tried hard to cultivate deep links to Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy with a view to investing in the country’s long-term stability. By cultivating allies in the Sri Lankan civil service Beijing believes it can mitigate the instability emanating from Colombo’s volatile politics.

In the final analysis, all the available evidence suggests that China – in keeping with its far-sighted global strategy – is set to deepen its influence in Sri Lanka in the years and decades to come.

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