Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Power Play In The Indian Ocean – Analysis

Power Play In The Indian Ocean – Analysis

The evolving international order and changing security dynamics have pushed both the regional and extra regional powers into more of a complex security framework. It is the changing dimensions of the geo-politics that have entitled states with the responsibility to secure their interests from a broader perspective. The security dilemma of the existing international world order can be stated in terms of anarchy. It is the existence of anarchy that states pursue their self-interest which ultimately sets the stage for power play.

The same scenario seems to have arisen in the premises of the Indian Ocean. It is the economic and strategic significance of the Indian Ocean that has resolved the countries to safeguard their interests and economic gains by strengthening their conventional and nuclear arsenals. This research paper aims to highlight the rising economic and geo-political noteworthiness of the Indian Ocean by featuring the strategic moves of India, China, and the USA, their impact on the security of the overall region. The central theme of the research paper is to study the impact of three contentions i.e. the India-Pakistan security dyad, the competitive economic rivalry between China and India. The third contention can be stated in terms of China and USA where US major goal is to contain China whereas China wants to keep pace as a rising economy of the world. The end result of power play in the Indian Ocean can be studied under two dimensions i.e. break up of conflict or strategic competition between the regional players and the States whose interest are at stake by the change/shift of power balance in the region.


The Indian Ocean is of rapidly increasing strategic and economic vitality. It is at the crossroads of global economic powerhouses and major power posturing. While promising signs of greater trade and economic connectivity loom on the horizon, they are accompanied by sources of tension and insecurity, both new and existing. However, these challenges are not limited to the security front as contesting visions of regional order espoused by major powers have elements of economic competition and strategic rivalry intertwined in them.1 Indian Ocean has just been viewed as the geo-key locale, as it includes every one of those highlights that are globe affecting. The geo-vital criticalness of the Indian Ocean can be satisfied as far as its area, development and exchange introduction. 2

The Indian Ocean has a history of both conflict and cooperation. To state Indian Ocean also served as a decisive theatre for colonial powers like Britain and France and also for rising superpowers like USA and Soviet Union i.e. to either contain their enemies or strike balance of power in the region. This power balancing by the big powers has pushed the region into a complex security framework where now interests of more than one state are at stake.3 It is a shift in the global economic and geopolitical landscape of the 21st century that has reverted back the significance of the Indian Ocean that now has been identified as the new expanded theatre of power competition. In international relations the study of power politics has been closely associated with security studies. The actors mainly states who are considered as the major players in global power politics secure themselves that would ultimately draw them into competition over power.

This very significance of the Indian Ocean sets the stage for researchers and academia to frame the relationship between strategic power play and regional stability/security. Power play in the post realist era can be defined as enduring struggle for power. In structural realist theory the balance of power constitutes the primary logic by which states ensure their security. The prominence of realism in security studies connects the sense that power politics primarily involves balancing behavior, military force and expansion backed by military capabilities. On the other hand balance of power needs to be complimented with alignment and alliance politics.4

To understand the scenario in Indian Ocean and its impact on the regional security, we can utilize Barry Buzan’s framework of security complexes. A regional security complex is defined as a geographically proximate group of states with closely linked security concerns, and usually entails “a high threat/fear which is felt mutually among two or more major states”. Furthermore he asserts that political and military interaction is more intense among the states comprising the complex.

Another security framework that is developed by the analyst to address the role of extra regional powers can be stated in terms of the distinction between higher and lower level security complexes. Lower level (i.e., regional) complexes consist of states with relatively limited power-projection capabilities, and therefore have relatively little impact on security relations beyond the region. Higher level complexes involve the great powers, and are not perforce geographically bounded. The dynamics of higher level security complexes reverberate throughout the international system, penetrating or impinging upon regional complexes. This may take many forms, but most analysts agree that arms transfers have been “the characteristic tool of intervening great powers in almost every security complex.5

Another way to understand the complex military dynamics of the Indian Ocean is in the form of cascade effect. The perceived asymmetries and responses in one nuclear deterrence relationship in the region have a cascading effect on the other both in terms of nuclear and conventional force.6

The Indian Ocean is a major testing ground for great power relations between the US and the potential emerging contenders like China and India. Both India and China are starting to consider the Indian Ocean in terms of prerogatives and responsibilities. While Pakistan would continue to assert its position by establishing alliance with China and by building its own capacity especially in the domain of naval power.7 The rising economies of East Asia are acquiring more and more purchasing power and are in search of a strategy to secure their energy needs. This affects the vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean. These are becoming increasingly packed with cargo ships, oil tanks and patrolling navy vessels. This would trouble the Ocean’s water and pose a potential threat to the stability and security of the region.8

The central theme of the research is to evaluate the power scenario in terms of acts of militarization and the already ensuing debate on stability-instability paradox in South Asia. It also encompasses the impact of transfer of arms, economic and military alliance on the security of the region.

The research questions that needs to be addressed while reviewing the oceanic challenges can be stated as follows:

  1. What is the status of strategic stability in South Asia and how the existing conventional and nuclear disparities can escalate the threat of nuclear proliferation?
  2. What are the drivers of nuclear escalation in the IOR and its implications for the security of the region?
  3. What is the theoretical framework that seems applicable to power play in the Indian Ocean?
  4. What needs to be done to strike strategic stability in the region OR what are the conditions that would ensure strategic stability?

The Status of Strategic Stability in South Asia:

Strategic stability comprises at least three elements i.e. deterrence stability, crisis stability and arms race stability.9 The basic logic of the of the concept of strategic stability was to stabilize the bipolar confrontation by ensuring that each side had the ability to strike back effectively.

On the other hand, the element of crisis stability focused on mitigating any pressures that would push a crisis towards spinning out of control. The third important variable for determining strategic stability can be highlighted in terms of arms race stability. It is a common belief that proposition that the costly and possibly deadly spiral of the arms race could be averted if each side’s arms developments were manifestly designed to conform to the enduring reality of mutual vulnerability rather than as plausible attempts to gain strategic superiority.10 It is in the context of these three mentioned elements on which we can build our argument that nuclearization of the Indian Ocean would affect the principle of strategic stability.

The South Asia security dynamics have an extra element of confusion which emerges out of unconventional geometry of the conflictual state to state relations in the region. The formation of a triad security pattern between India, China, Pakistan has inside it two dyads of threatening connections i.e. India and Pakistan and China and India. The challenges to the strategic relationship in this triad can be traced back to the security dilemma of Cold War in which actions taken by one state to secure itself made the other feel less secure, has given way to the “security trilemma”: actions taken by one state to protect itself from a second make a third feel insecure. As states see and respond to the actions and perceived intentions of others, this dynamic could ripple through all the world’s nuclear powers, which are connected by dierent but intersecting deterrence relationships.11

In context of South Asia, it is not difficult to assume that the greater conventional military asymmetry between India and Pakistan, the lower will be the nuclear threshold. The growing asymmetry is extremely prone to inject instability in South Asia.12 The other challenge to the South Asian strategic stability can be stated in terms of India’s limited war doctrine. The doctrine argues that there is a space for limited conventional war under the nuclear overhang. Moreover, India’s adoption of a ‘Proactive Operations Doctrine’ commonly known as the Cold Start Doctrine, once fully operationalized would create the perpetual fear of a surprise attack. Pakistan, on its part, has responded to this provocative doctrine by introducing short range battlefield nuclear weapons. In this backdrop, any miscalculation or misinterpretation of intentions during the course of a serious future crisis could lead to an escalation of the conflict to a strategic level.13

Regrettably, the context of strategic stability in South Asia is more often built on the concept of conventional and nuclear stockpiles. In this regard the China, India and Pakistan security relationship is a case in point, wherein, China might take certain steps to safeguard its security vis-a-vis the Unite States which may result in a cascade effect within the Sino-Indo-Pak security triangle by making India feel insecure. The Indian response to the perceived Chinese threat would in turn cause anxiety in Pakistan, which would then act to redress the imbalance caused by Indian actions.14 The operationalization of India’s nuclear powered submarines equipped with nuclear tipped Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), which will surely be followed by Pakistan in due course, will certainly pose serious challenges to their current policies of assertive centralized control over their nuclear forces. 15

Though some analysts believe that the introduction of the maritime legs of the respective nuclear triads would extend the nuclear competition between India and Pakistan into a new domain with serious ramifications for regions security. 16

According to Koblentz the major challenge to strategic stability in South Asia can be stated in terms of technology. According to him India and Pakistan both possess sizeable stock piles with uncertain commend and control. 17 Blatant flexing of military muscle may boost a country’s power credentials, but to its neighbors it is indicative of a disruptive and disquieting mind set. Such acquisitions which are way beyond a country’s legitimate defensive needs can only lead to trust deficit and regional instability.18

Another disturbing factor that hinders the concept of strategic stability in the region is the active involvement of USA. The United states is now seeking to pursue a differential rather than universal proliferation policy. The argument that a differentiated policy would embolden other potential proliferators is a Kim to the now-discredited contention that a closed nuclear club would only encourage proliferation.19 India although opposes US involvement in the region but at tactical level co-operates with it as it gives India not only a chance to project itself as a responsible stakeholder in the region but also helps in the recognition of India’s role in maintaining security in the region.20

Some analyst has been mindful of the idea that although nuclear weapons exercise universal effects in relation to global politics such universality may erode or perhaps even breakdown entirely in specific regional contexts. As Hagerty pens down a rational thought that It is important to recognize that patterns of proliferation and modes of deterrence will vary across regions. For too long, consideration of these issues has stalled in a quicksand of irresolvable deductive debates that neglect the distinctive historical, political, cultural and geographic circumstances that shape nuclear behavior in specific regions. Even more troubling, many US analysts continue to view the rest of the world through outdated Cold War lenses, which raises the possibility that the dynamics of regional nuclear competitions may be profoundly misunderstood.21

Another criticism raised on the concept of strategic stability that fits well to the South Asian region is highlighted by Richard K. Betts. He is of the view that less attention is paid to the political dimension, it is more important since it governs incentives to change status-quo. It is evident from the past that the disruption in Pakistan-India strategic and political communication has become a constant factor that is believed to affect the policy attitude. Because of the existence of unresolved issues between India and Pakistan, both sides would try to counter each other and maintaining deterrence would remain a central theme of their security framework. To conclude in case of Pakistan-India military issues will likely to continue to dominate the strategic stability.

Therefore, it is the right time that states in the South Asian region realize the changing security dynamics of the 21st century. Instead of diverting all their material resources to strike balance of power in terms of conventional and nuclear buildup, they should focus more on developing economic deterrence, ensuing social and political stability and lastly look for means of strategic co-operation. This would not only contribute to their internal stability but to overall stability and prosperity of the region. The second approach that needs to be reviewed in context of ensuing regional stability is framing of a multilateral framework to address the matters of regional significance and prevent the region from falling prey to the power tactics of extra regional powers.

The Current Status of Power Play in the Indian Ocean:

The strategic framework being laid around the Indian Ocean by India and China is the central theme of power politics in the Indian Ocean. Jostling in the Indian Ocean is more about how China and India places themselves at a strategically advantageous position. The stability and security of the Indian Ocean depends on what type of strategic means and tools are used by both the countries to achieve supremacy 22.

Before we proceed to the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean, it is necessary to view the perspectives of the active powers in the Indian Ocean regarding the security of Sea-lines of communication.

Speaking in terms of India, the security of SLOC’’s is critical to its future economic prosperity. To ensure the security of SLOC’s the Indian Navy will ensure a measure of stability and tranquility in the waters. On the Other hand, the US adopts an approach of ‘Credible combat Power’ in the Indian Ocean to protect its vital interests.23 In comparison to US and India China is more concerned of securing its economic pace. Therefore, China has focused more on strengthening its maritime domain, its maritime policy is titled as ‘Far Sea Defense’. The two main strategic goals of China Far-Sea Defense policy can be termed as; to conserve China’s maritime security (including its territorial seas and EEZ); and second to enhance and secure its maritime economic interests, specifically in the IOR.24

The IOR security landscape can be deemed to be complex and uncertain. Another factor to determine the status of power play in the Indian Ocean and its consequences on the overall security of the region can be stated in terms of already existing conflicts along the important SLOC’s i.e. from the Bab el-Mandeb and the Straits of Hormuz along the coastline of South Asia to the Straits of Malacca and – by way of geographical extension – to the South China Sea.25

To cope with this structural challenge, countries in the region have either sided with multilateral institutions or have embarked on maritime- force capacity building measures. In case of Indian Ocean the maritime-force capacity seems more applicable.26 This put forth the need to address the causes of failure of multilateral institutions.

A significant maritime build-up is taking place across five strategic categories i.e. SLOC’s protection, maritime dominance, power projection, submarine launched nuclear second strike capability and space dominance.27 Naval and air forces modernization in the Indian ocean region have been in momentum since 2000, and it covers West Asia, Southern Asia, Southeast Asia and east Asia. it has been catalyzed by the military and strategic modernization of the regional powers, and influenced by extra regional naval forces.28

Another approach being applied in the Indian Ocean to strike balance of power can ne stated in terms of alliance formation. Both China and India have developed initiatives to bolster infrastructure and connections in the region, which the World Bank describes as amongst ‘least economically integrated’. China’s strategy of string of pearls is an attempt in the same direction.29 Whereas the counter approach of India can be stated in terms of its perceived role as a net security provider. The term net security describes the state of actual security available in an area upon balancing against the ability to monitor, contain and counter all of these.30 In contrast to India Pakistan is defending itself with the approach of Brown Water Navy. Brown-water navy is a term that originated in the United States Navy, referring to the small gunboats and patrol boats used in rivers, along with some of the larger ships that supported them as “mother ships,” from which they operated. Furthermore, a Brown Water navy focusses more on coastal operation and primarily takes defensive role. 31 It is in the context of buildup of naval capacities by Pakistan, India and China that the ocean has become entangled in the grand oceanic designs and strategic partnerships between the regional and extra-regional powers.32

Reviewing the strategic interest of China, India and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean, makes it easier for the analysts and researchers to evaluate the nature of power play in the Indian Ocean in the near future.

Three observations are worthy to highlight that are believed to dominate the Indian Ocean. The observations can be highlighted as follows:

  1. US will no longer be single dominant maritime player in the Indian Ocean due to emergence of China and India.
  2. The second notable observation is that the economic rise of China is expected to run parallel to its rise as a maritime power in the Indian Ocean.
  3. The third observation that keeps the security of IOR at stake are the unresolved disputes, military alliance, exchange of arms and the ongoing internal and border conflicts that would push the countries in the region towards ensuing and strengthening their security framework.

To conclude, the geo-political landscape of the Indian Ocean may unfold in different ways. The future of Indian Ocean as a zone of peace or arc of crisis depend upon the level and nature of the maritime build up, the level of co-operative and or confrontational between the powers and the polarity of the maritime system. The polarity of the maritime system and the nature of the relationships of the Indian Ocean’s maritime powers will invariably determine and depend on whether they invest in offensive or defensive capabilities.

Impact of Nuclearization on the stability and Security of the South Asian Region:

As mentioned previously that strategic stability is based on three core elements i.e. deterrence stability, crisis instability and arms race stability. Any unequivocal relationship in these can result in making deterrence unstable. In other words, no nuclear power can deter without the requisite weapons, which matter little without the resolve to use them, which matters even less if not properly perceived by one’s foes.

In such a scenario peace then becomes precarious and chances of nuclear employment appear high. In a scenario of strategic instability and anarchy states indulge in nuclear and conventional build-up to achieve stable deterrence. This concept of unequivocal relationship is very much applicable to the security environment in the Indian Ocean. This approach rationalizes the application of action-reaction model. As precisely described by some analyst that the ongoing nuclear race in the Indian Ocean as vicious cycle where an action by one results in an escalatory reaction by the other two.

The lesson from Cold War can help the strategic analyst and policy makers to understand the impact of naval nuclearization in a more precise manner. The Cold War debate revolve around two very different schools of thought i.e.

  1. Deterrence can be strengthened through the injection of ambiguity
  2. The deliberate blurring of conventional and nuclear platforms is far more likely to heighten the risk of vertical escalation.33

The attainment of sophisticated and modern weapons by China and India is seen with a suspicious eye that would push the region into an arms race. In the academic literature an arms race is defined as competitive, reciprocal, peacetime increase or improvement in armaments by two states perceiving themselves to be in an adversarial relationship. The increased rivalry often results in erosion of confidence, diminution of co-operation and poses a great danger of war between leading states.34

Whereas in case of existing asymmetry between the two nuclear powers of the region i.e. India and Pakistan is more threatening to the overall peace of the region. Unfortunately, in South Asia asymmetries exist both at conventional and nuclear level. Keeping in the view the asymmetry the top most concern of states is to ensure strategic stability. Strategic stability is interpreted by states on the basis of their threat perceptions formed by the adversary’s military capabilities, doctrines and postures.

It is this threat perception that keeps the chances of nuclear proliferation high in the region. For example, former U.S Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy contends that “India’s military modernization programme has led to a growing disparity between the Indian and Pakistani conventional military capabilities, “the result of which will be either a regional arms race /or the lowering of nuclear threshold.”35

The second point of argument regarding nuclearization of the Indian Ocean is that nuclear deterrence does not exist in vacuum. The deployment of nuclear weapons to sea by India and China will cause other powers in the region to follow suit.36 Moreover Pakistan shapes its defense strategy to rely on nuclear forces in order to offset India’s massive superiority in conventional weapons.37

The third set of arguments is of the view that that increasing number of submarines both in South China sea and the Indian Ocean is alarming. As it is believed that along with the development and deployment of less detectable submarines could potentially lead to an increased chance of collision between these vessels. A collision between submarines of potentially hostile nuclear powers could be flashpoint that could lead to escalation. As more countries deploy submarines and other conventional forces capable of tracking SSBN’S in the region, greater the potential for unplanned encounters and incidents between these forces.38 It is in the context of interaction of conventional arms with SSBN’s that we can put forth an argument that the growth of conventional naval arsenals could have potentially deleterious effect on crisis stability, particularly if they come into contact with strategic systems.39

The other school of thought that justifies our research hypothesis argues that opting to conflate conventional and nuclear assets at sea could have serious ramifications in terms of crisis. This scenario has been precisely put into words by a trio of U.S Naval War College Professors who have warned naval power players in the following words. “If one navy stations nuclear weapons aboard conventionally armed war ships, its antagonist could end up inadvertently destroying nuclear forces in the process of targeting conventionally armed forces.”40

Both India and Pakistan are shifting their deterrent from land to sea and both are doing so in a dangerously haphazard manner, relying increasingly on dual use delivery vehicles. Such a voluntary blurring of platform and mission categories, would in conflict add to the fog of war by rendering it impossible to discriminate between nuclear and conventional attacks.

Another evidence of regional insecurity emanating from the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean or nuclearization in general can be stated in terms of the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as ballistic and cruise missiles are indicative of the persistence of the traditional state centric conflict and the continuing relevance of the primacy of deterrence.41 Both nuclear deterrence and conventional undersea warfare depend on perpetuating the sea’s status as a hideaway and exposing subs to view could upset the deterrent calculus in the unforeseen ways.42

The other two scenarios that sets the stage for unbalanced competition in the Indian Ocean can be stated in terms of political and economic asymmetry, the technological innovation. In such a scenario competition could undulate asymmetrically, distorting mutual vulnerability and thus the resilience of deterrence. To state an illustration if one nuclear power could peer into the depths and target submarines effectively while its opponents remained relatively backward, it could nullify the undersea component of another’s nuclear deterrent while maintaining confidence in its own second strike force. If such confidence grew into over confidence, however, it could frighten competitors who might resort to use it or lose it strategies to preserve their deterrents, boosting the chances of an atomic clash in the process. 43

It is argued in the domain of international relations that power is the currency of international politics. Great powers pay careful attention to how much economic and military power they have relative to each other. To conclude it would not be wrong to say that international politics is synonymous with power politics.44

Policy Recommendations to ensure Strategic Stability in the Indian Ocean:

Keeping in view the above security trilemma in South Asia and the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean, here are some recommendations that can serve as a policy guide for framing a broader co-operative security framework for the Indian Ocean. The recommendations can be enlisted as follows:

  1. If we recall Sun Tzu’s ideas of asymmetric response to threats, we will see that he taught that it was necessary to act not as the adversary wanted you to act and not as the adversary acted itself, but rather that it was necessary to find options that would maximize your strengths and minimize the adversary’s capabilities.
  2. There should be greater emphasis on formation of multilateral security relations rather than opting for bilateral partnerships.
  3. As we are operating in the age of globalization so the security framework should be framed in a way that address the broader and more independent concept of security than the traditional military concept in order to maximize long-term regional security.
  4. The reconciliation of naval and nuclear strategies and doctrines. Unfortunately the nuclear doctrines has not played an effective role in the South Asian context which in result has complicated the situation. This is again the responsibility of the state and the int’l governing bodies to ensure principle of equality among the states of the region.
  5. Promote transparency among nuclear armed states on their nuclear doctrine, posture and modernization plans. Such transparency is necessary for a substantive dialogue to build mutual understanding and pave the way for future reductions.
  6. The other recommendation can be stated in terms of regional framework governance approach. Unfortunately, the South Asian region has been under colonial rule and still colonial policies dominate the mindset. The need of the time is to frame a regional approach by taking on board all the state parties. This approach would also help to minimize the extra- regional influence and create a win-win situation for all the member states.
  7. The policy makers should focus more on framing a holistic security paradigm that takes into consideration the notion that security is a multi-dimensional concept comprising military, economic, environmental, human and political factor.
  8. The littoral states of the region who are either developing or in the phase of developing should focus more on building a strong political and economic deterrent.


To conclude the Indian Ocean is a major testing ground for great power relations between the US and the potential emerging contenders like China and India. Even as China and India harbor ambitions to expand their forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean, historically embedded mistrust is encouraging suspicion concerning each party’s intention. Profound mutual mistrust and miscommunication is the ultimate reason of chaos and conflicting situation in the South Asian region and now Indian Ocean.

As China, India and Pakistan utilize atomic weapons a drift, the Indian Ocean is slipping from a zone of peace to a hot bed of atomic governmental issues. To help lessen pressures, India and United States have occupied with agreeable discourses about India opening up its army installations to the US in return for access to weapons innovation to enable it to limit the gap with China. The two sides likewise hold dialogues on anti-submarine warfare, a territory of sensitive military innovation and strategies.

The procedure of India-US security load partaking in the IOR should fill in as a building hinder for a preserving naval to naval relationship that ought to develop into a common ASW ability. Lastly the concept of proliferations needs to be revised keeping in view the context of asymmetry in South Asia.

*About the authors:
Amna Tauhidi
, Research Assistant at Centre for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

Abbas Hassan, Research Associate at Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

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