Caught in the middle
The Indian Ocean region (IOR), through which flows 80 percent of the world’s oil, is home to economically weak countries with tiny islands and small populations that encompass large maritime territories. This is emerging as a majorarena of great power maritime competition between China and its proxies on one side and India, Japan and the United States on the other side. Small island states and middle powers along the rims of the Indian and Western Pacific oceans thus find themselves caught in the middle as the two emerging rival blocs strive to extend their influence. Most small and middle powers are reluctant to be pawns of the great powers or get drawn into power rivalries which negatively influence domestic politics and constrain their foreign policy options. Concerned with economic growth and domestic security issues, most small and middle powers seek to play off both sides against each other instead of relying on an exclusive major power patron. Maneuvering between major powers allows the small states to extract benefits from both sides while maintaining their autonomy.6 This is the so-called “non-alignment” strategy that India and many other states pursued vis-à-vis the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Smaller states are now adopting the same strategy vis-à-vis India and China—albeit with slight variations and differing degrees of success.
In the “Great Game” stakes, small and middle powers play a big role. They often determine the nature and outcome of major power competition as major powers become great powers with the support of small and middle powers. Put simply, a major power is not great, it cannot be a leader if it does not have followers, i.e., the support of small and middle powers that serve to magnify its power. The support of small and middle powers, or lack of it, makes all the difference between great power dominance and defeat. That is why small and middle powers are often called “pivotal states” or “swing states.” For example, during the Cold War, China and Egypt were two middle powers or “swing states.” When China and Egypt shifted their support from the Soviet Union to the United States, they became pivotal players and brought about a decisive shift in the Asian and Middle Eastern balances of power respectively. This tilted the scales against the Soviet Union and the rest is history. In a geopolitical replay of strategic competition with China, Washington is now courting the new “swing states”—Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and India—to counter-balance China in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s focus on the Indian Ocean region is relatively new, dating back to the early 1990s to secure energy resources for its growing economy, to expand trade and commercial links. Much of China’s energy supplies (nearly 80 percent) and trade routes are vulnerable as they transit the Indian Ocean maritime chokepoints—the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the narrow Bab-el-Mandab Strait—under the watchful of eye of American and Indian navies. The last two decades have seen a steady transformation of the formerly Pacific Ocean-oriented power into one that straddles both Pacific and Indian Oceans. Unlike its land grab at breakneck speed in the South China Sea, the Chinese naval advances in the IOR are subtle, gradual and mostly under the veneer of (dualuse) commercial projects. Beijing’s MSR or two-ocean (Pacific and Indian Oceans) strategy is quintessentially an Indo-Pacific strategy by another name. However, China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean challenges India’s regional dominance. The tankers that move through the Indian Ocean carry 65 percent of India’s oil and 60 percent of Japan’s, making those sea-lanes critically important to Asia’s three largest economies. However, from the perspective of India’s neighbors, China’s infrastructure megaproject dovetails with their goal of attracting development finance for economic growth and connectivity and Chinese presence provides a useful counterweight to India’s power.
As their need for resources, markets, and bases grows, Asian giants are increasingly running into each other in third countries. New Delhi has watched warily as Beijing, through its ambitious MSR, has made deep inroads into what India once considered its natural sphere of influence. China’s growing economic presence in small states from the Seychelles to the Solomon Islands provides Beijing with significant leverage and latitude to enlist their support for China’s broader strategic objectives. Relatively small investments and aid can go a long way in making friends and influencing elites in a number of states—thereby allowing China to access or even deny vast waters of vital strategic importance to India, Japan and the United States.
For both China and India, “forward presence” has acquired greater salience in their national security strategies to achieve “situational awareness” in areas of strategic interest.7 For Beijing, this means having a presence in the Indian Ocean; for New Delhi, having a naval presence in the Pacific Ocean becomes critical for its strategic deterrence against Beijing especially since $66 billion worth of exports and about 33 percent of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea.
Having consolidated its hold over the South China Sea by militarizing artificial islands, China’s navy has now set its sights on the Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists argue that it is a question of when, not if, a Chinese aircraft carrier battle group is deployed in the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese interests and assets there.8 Chinese media reports suggest that of six planned aircraft carriers, two will be deployed in the Indian Ocean. Beijing’s stance is that the South China Sea is China’s sea, but the Indian Ocean cannot be treated as India’s ocean, which draws New Delhi’s ire and derision. The informal Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan, in May 2018, was aimed at ensuring that the ever-growing divide between China and India over a range of issues (e.g., the boundary dispute, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership and China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region) does not lead to disputes and conflicts either in the Himalayan region or in the Indian Ocean. Notwithstanding the "Wuhan spirit,” there has been little or no let-up in China's penetration of India’s periphery.
Historically, small states are the first to experience major geopolitical shifts. Usually “the bit players” on the periphery of rising powers play a disproportionate role in triggering major crises, which prove to be turning points during powertransitions. Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Djibouti all fit the bill. As discussed later, the changing geopolitical configurations in Asia—China’s growing power and presence and India’s response to it—have also sharpened their domestic political divisions. The intense jockeying for influence and forward presence between India, China and others in the Indian Ocean overcontrol of ports, airports and other pieces of critical infrastructure and for influence over governments have made the vast Indo-Pacific region from East Asia to East Africa a major arena of competition amongst major powers.