November 11, 2013
The foreign ministers of Russia, China and India met Nov. 10 on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting. The ministers talked about terrorism, Afghanistan and the Middle East, and they discussed coordinating their positions for the upcoming WTO meeting in Bali. The media has offered scant coverage of the summit. News of a meeting between Sergei Lavrov, Salman Khurshid and Wang Yi certainly doesn’t jump off the page, especially since the three countries’ prime ministers have held recent bilateral meetings.
However, the meeting in New Delhi reminds me of the importance of the Indian Ocean in the global politics of the 21st century. Even further, it speaks to the strategic importance of India, the natural pivot state of our century.
Most of the world’s trade happens along its coastline — about 90 percent of total intercontinental trade and 60 percent of all petroleum supplies travel by sea. Robert D. Kaplan argues in his book “Monsoon” that “the Indian Ocean will be the true nexus of world power and conflict in the coming years”, the ocean being the place where the “tense dialogue” between the Western and the Islamic cultures will continue to take place. The Indian Ocean geography, stretching from the East African coast to the Indonesian archipelago, holds the main navigational lanes for world commerce, bearing one half of the world’s container traffic. It also serves as the networking map for terrorist, piracy and contraband organizations.
The military activity follows the economic activity. Felix Seidler wrote recently on his blog that “the German Navy needs to contribute to stability and security in the Indian Ocean, because the world’s fourth largest economy is heavily dependent on exports and global trade.” This is the logic that India and China follow when they compete in the Indian Ocean for ports and access to routes. While the China-India rivalry is broad, and even if it is likely that their own cold war, for lack of a better term, will be fought less on land and more in the naval realm, they depend on the same sea lanes in the Bay of Bengal, and in particular on the strait of Malacca. This shared dependence could lead to an alliance that might be hostile to the United States in some circumstances.
The increasing importance of the Indian Ocean is supported by the rise in consumption — particularly energy consumption — in India and China, as millions of their citizens will join the global middle class. This links the countries to the economies of the Middle East and the African coast. More, it speeds the development of a multipolar world, an evolution that has both economic and military dimensions.
China’s interest in deepwater ports in friendly countries along the Indian Ocean coastline is notable and worthy of monitoring, as Beijing seeking to consolidate a presence it can use for civilian and military purposes. This aligns with the strategy China is pursuing in the South China Sea — a phenomenon described as “Finlandization” by Kaplan, who notes: “China, through the combination of its economic and military power, will undermine the sovereignty of countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, all of which are de facto or de jure U.S. allies.”
This is ultimately why Washington’s so-called pivot to Asia is more than just a diplomatic stance. “Were the United States not now to turn to the Indo-Pacific, it would risk a multipolar military order arising up alongside an already existent multipolar economic and political order. Multipolar military systems are more unstable than unipolar and bipolar ones because there are more points of interactions and thus more opportunities for miscalculations, as each country seeks to readjust the balance of power in its own favor.” writes Kaplan.
In this new era, trade and security arrangements connect India and China with the Middle East and the rest of South Asia, within a unitary map of Asia that includes landlocked Central Asia, a region with increasing strategic significance. The Central Asia area expert from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, S. Frederick Starr, says that access to the Indian Ocean will help define the future of Central Asia. Following this logic, the deepwater port in Gwadar, in Pakistani Baluchistan, developed by the Chinese, and the port of Chah Bahar, in Iranian Baluchistan and developed jointly by Russia, India and Iran, both of which sit on major maritime routes, may one day be linked by roads and pipelines to the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. In the shorter term, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose a new security threat to the region, one that combined with the internal political and security uncertainties in Central Asia is likely to increase volatility. This is of immediate concern for the three bordering countries: India, China and Russia.
There is a certain fluidity of borders between Afghanistan and Central Asia that continued even after the Great Game of the 19thcentury established Afghanistan as the buffer zone between Russia’s Central Asian domains and British-controlled India. In many ways, this is what the idea of the “New Silk Road” is founded on – an idea that Washington and Europe are trying to promote, considering not only commercial advantages, but also the security improvements that could follow.
That prospect of improved security draws China’s attention. Beijing worries about its buffer regions. George Friedman notes: “Two of China’s buffer regions are in flux. Elements within Tibet and Xinjiang adamantly resist Han Chinese occupation. China understands that the loss of these regions could pose severe threats to China’s security, particularly if such losses would draw India north of the Himalayas or create a radical Islamic regime in Xinjiang.” While simplistic models show that India and China are natural rivals, the geography makes everything more subtle. The two are walled off from each other, as their land frontier runs through the highest elevations of the Himalayas. This defuses the chance for open conflict — no army could fight its way through the few passes that exist and then maintain control.
This geography is also what essentially makes India the natural pivot in Asia. With its inverted triangular shape separating the Indian Ocean between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, India is the peninsula that stands between the Middle Eastern and South Asian civilizations. India’s foreign policy has interests in the Middle East and in East Asia, backed by the presence of its warships in the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. India’s relations with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War and with the Russia of today, and the subtlety of its rivalry with China, point to the fact that, as Kaplan says, “the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia rim in the 21st century.” More, considering the new age of information, where hard power requires the support of soft power, the intellectual force of India, with writers and thinkers of global renown such as Amitav Gosh, Pankaj Mishra, Amartya Sen and C. Raja Mohan, plays an important role in advancing India’s influence worldwide. For the United States, the rise of India — however uneven and admittedly exaggerated — has played a natural strategic role in balancing China after the Cold War. India is therefore the ultimate pivot state, one that Washington cannot completely rely on, due to New Dehli’s imperative of maintaining its unity and independent geostrategic policy.
This is why a meeting between Russian, Indian and Chinese representatives is evocative of the new era we enter: an era of subtlety and one where the seas — and particularly the Indian Ocean — become once again, the “heart of the world”.