Global consideration of Asia is fixated on the rise of China. However, changing power dynamics in the Indian Ocean could represent a bigger shift. Sea powers are emerging along the entire ocean, and countries are integrating their security and supply chains. A new order is emerging based on Asian principles. The U.S. and China will struggle to become part of the reemerging Indian Ocean.

Our observations

  • The countries bordering the Indian Ocean are home to one-third of the world’s population (2.5 billion people). The average age of people in the region’s countries is under 30. Half of the world’s container traffic passes and some 80% of the world’s maritime oil trade flows through the Indian Ocean. Due to the rise of China and India, this will only increase.
  • In Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Indian economist Sanjeev Sanyal looks at world history through the lens of the Indian Ocean. Its maritime trade networks were established more than 4000 years ago. Cultural exchange flourished as a result: for example, Arab merchants brought Islam to Indonesia. Sanyal provides many examples of the deep integration of Indian Ocean civilizations: in the 8th century, after an Indian king died without leaving an heir, a delegation of Brahmin scholars sailed to contemporary Cambodia to return with a distant heir whose roots traced back to the family of generations ago.
  • In Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan argues that the Indian Ocean will become the central geopolitical theater of the 21st century: from the violence- and famine-plagued nations of the Horn of Africa, the geopolitical challenges of Iraq and Iran and the fissuring cauldron of Pakistan to the awakening of the Eurasian giants of India and China, the reemergence of the glorious seafaring Arab civilization and the dynamic rise of Indonesia.
  • For centuries, Western powers dominated the Indian Ocean, but that is changing. After the reign of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires, the final phase of Western hegemony in the Indian Ocean is coming to an end, as the U.S. is increasingly cooperating with local maritime powers. The American Indo-Pacific strategy shows that the U.S. will increasingly hand responsibilities (e.g. maritime security) to India, Japan and Australia. Last week, the foreign minister of Australia welcomed the leadership of India in the Indian Ocean.
  • China and India are engaged in a struggle for influence in the Indian Ocean. Both countries are building up influence in other countries in the region (e.g. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Seychelles).
  • The Gulf states, which already have strong connections to India, are increasing their presence in East Africa. For instance, the UAE temporarily stemmed Ethiopia’s debt crisis, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are investing in Eritrean ports.

Connecting the dots

The Indian Ocean is a truly global ocean, connecting Arabs and Persians to Indians and Chinese. In fact, Asian maps put the Indian Ocean at the center of the world (contrarily to Western maps). Because Western powers dominated the ocean for 500 years, international commentators still look at the Indian Ocean through the lens of Western concepts such as hegemony, conquest and colonization. But the Indian Ocean is now reintegrating based on Asian principles.
Like the pre-colonial history of Asia, the world of the Indian Ocean will be multipolar. No country will ever dominate the region as Western powers did. This becomes clear from the rise of multiple Indian Ocean powers: besides China and India, powerful sea powers from the Gulf (e.g. Qatar, UAE) to Southeast Asia (e.g. Indonesia) are establishing naval forces, shipping networks, and cross-ocean investment in the region. As such, in the Indian Ocean, no one country is powerful enough to dominate others. This is the natural state of affairs of the Indian Ocean. Over the millennia, Africans, Arabs, Indians and Chinese have learned that no one can control the Indian Ocean by themselves. This means that Western concepts of hegemony, conquest and colonization have not prepared us for what the future holds in the Indian Ocean. Hegemony (one superpower dominates all others) and colonization (faraway powers wield significant influence) play a smaller role in the history of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, countries such as India and Iran do not believe they can conquer each other, as Germany and France have in the past. Rather, countries in the Indian Ocean will compete over access to supply chains. This is what Parag Khanna calls “connectography”: in the emerging global network civilization, countries will increasingly compete over connectivity rather than borders. Nowhere will this become clearer than in the Indian Ocean: its history of multipolarity,

civilizations that cross sovereign borders and ethno-religious diversity all fit the digital paradigm of fluidity and connectivity in a borderless world. As such, integration is not led by countries (as in the colonial period), and is rather shaped by infrastructure: trade routes, energy grids and security frameworks, of which multiple countries can benefit.
Both the U.S. and China fear being excluded from the reemerging Indian Ocean civilization. The U.S. will enter a maritime alliance with India, Japan and Australia to safeguard the Indian Ocean for global trade flows. Meanwhile, China has bigger ambitions. The history of China is characterized by attempts to access the Indian Ocean. In the 15th century, the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He, with ships many times the size of European ones that discovered the New World, repeatedly sailed along the Indian Ocean towards Africa. But in China, the high costs of such distant expansion were difficult to justify in light of pressing domestic challenges. This problem could return today as China seeks to expand its foothold from East Africa to Southeast Asia, while domestic challenges increasingly require the attention of China’s leadership. Notably, the entire BRI project can be understood as an attempt to access Indian Ocean trade: the core of the project is CPEC and its access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar; China is digging a canal through Thailand to reach the Indian Ocean; it loaned billions to Kenya for a railway from Nairobi to the ocean port of Mombasa; and China has increased its presence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. However, as in the 15th century, pressing domestic challenges could mean that China increasingly loses out to India, which is historically more tightly connected to other Indian Ocean civilizations and, naturally, the ocean itself.

Implications

  • An Indian Ocean based on Asian principles requires a different assessment of risk. Instead of the possibility of, for instance, violent conflict, risk analysis should more so focus on the disruption of supply chains, shifting allegiances and trade deals, and domestic destabilization due to factors such as weak institutions and climate change.
  • The Indian Ocean could exclude the land powers of Eurasia. While lucrative opportunities are arising in countries along the Indian Ocean, huge land powers such as China and Russia have a more inward-looking mentality, as China’s maritime history shows, which will make maritime expansion more difficult.