Indian Ocean: The Centrality of Sea Power

The Indian Ocean Conference was attended by the President of Sri Lanka, Ministers from 16 countries including Maldives, officials from 16 countries and 6 multilateral organisations, and delegates from over 40 countries.

The centrality of sea power for trade and dominance, as reflected in the growing militarization of the Indian Ocean and conflict in critical sea lanes such as the Red Sea and the growing assertiveness of China, were highlighted at the 7th edition of the annual Indian Ocean Conference hosted by the India Foundation, New Delhi, in collaboration with the RSIS, Singapore.

Interestingly, Indian diplomat-scholar KM Panikkar noted that India began losing command of the sea in the 13th century and lost to European dominance in the early 16th century. The result was a commensurate loss of economic and political power.

In the late 19th century, American naval officer and historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, examined the role of sea power in previous centuries and mooted strategies to enhance US naval power. He presciently observed, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. This ocean is the key to the Seven Seas.” In the 20th century, British geographer and geopolitical expert, Halford John Mackinder, proffered a “Heartland Theory,” wherein the power that controls Central Asia (from the Carpathian range in the west, the Hindukush in the south and the Altai Mountains in the east) would become the most powerful nation in the world.

Currently, several countries, including India, the United States, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and China, are increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which is diminishing the space for manoeuvrability for littoral states. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe mused, “Balancing between the great power rivalry is becoming an increasingly more complex task” as rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region impacts decision-making on political, economic and security issues.

The Indian Ocean is not an artificial geo-political construct; it stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, an expanse of over 74 million square kilometres. India Foundation president Ram Madhav reminisced that the Ocean is “more a civilisation than a mere maritime geography. Over millennia, its waves touched the shores of countless countries carrying a cultural and civilisational message.”

The 21st century has shifted the global power axis to the Indian Ocean. Over 60 per cent of the world’s container trade and 70 per cent of the energy trade passes through the sea lanes of this region. A collateral development is the spurt in the movement of warships and submarines in these waters. Australia straddles the Pacific and Indian Oceans and has overcome its Pacific Ocean-centric identity to engage with the Indian Ocean.

External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, in his keynote address, observed that the Indian Ocean faces manifold challenges, from conflict and threats to maritime traffic, piracy and terrorism, to concerns about international law, especially upholding decisions under UNCLOS 1982, to freedom of navigation and overflights, and safeguarding the sovereignty and independence of littoral states and those navigating the waters.

Further, there are grey areas emanating from climate change and natural disasters that are occurring with greater frequency and deeper impact, making resilience a challenge. Indian Ocean states are vulnerable to dual-purpose agendas often combined with improved connectivity with strategic intent, which require deeper awareness of the issues at stake. Jaishankar warned that globalization with over-concentration of manufacturing and technology is creating supply-side risks. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic call for dispersed production across varied geographies, with reliable and resilient supply chains.

The Indian Ocean region needs lateral land-based connectivity across its expanse to supplement and complement the maritime flows. The IMEC Corridor to India’s West and the Trilateral Highway to India’s East can link the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) strengthens regional security by addressing maritime safety, piracy, and environmental sustainability.

The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), proposed by India in 2019, is an open, non-treaty-based global initiative to manage, conserve, sustain, and secure the maritime domain with special regard to maritime ecology, maritime security, maritime resources, and disaster risk reduction.

The Bay of Bengal regional forum, BIMSTEC, embraces India’s “Neighbourhood First” or “Act East” policy in the Indian Ocean. India is the lead country for the Security pillar of BIMSTEC, which covers counter-terrorism and transnational crime, disaster management and energy security.

The Quad grouping (US, Australia, Japan, India) addresses maritime security, safety, HADR, environment protection, connectivity, strategic technologies, supply chain resilience, health, education and cyber security, amongst others. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness are Quad endeavours that complement ASEAN initiatives.

India’s deepening ties with the Pacific Islands led to some ambitious goals at the May 2023 Summit in Port Moresby. In Fiji, India is building a hospital, an oceanic research centre, and a cyber security hub; and a space application centre in Papua New Guinea. India is engaging all other members on education, solarisation, desalination, dialysis facilities, artificial limbs, sea ambulances and SME development.


As much as 60 per cent of the Indian Ocean is not the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of any littoral State, but a Global Commons; it needs common solutions. As some Island nations have more EEZ than land area, rules regulating the Indian Ocean must address local concerns. Currently, Mauritius has disputes over EEZ with the Maldives and with the United States (Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands).

Major challenges that are common to all include illegal fishing and over-fishing that disrupt supply chains (for instance, excess fishing of squid impacts the supply of tuna that feeds on squid). The solution is to give equal attention to all fish species and stakeholders, who must unite to uphold all regional and international agreements. Bangladesh observes a 45-day moratorium on fishing in the Bay of Bengal to allow fish populations to breed and replenish stocks.

Other serious problems include climate change, rising ocean levels, natural disasters, and Deep-sea mining. The International Seabed Authority in Jamaica must be adequately funded.

The Antarctic Treaty protocols are due to be renewed in 2048. The region is rich in hydrocarbons (potential reserves are estimated at between 300 and 500 billion tonnes of natural gas on the continent and potentially 135 billion tonnes of oil in the Southern Ocean). China has four research stations within the Australian Antarctic Territory, and a fifth on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea. However, Washington may support keeping Antarctica’s hydrocarbons and minerals off limits for exploitation.

The Indian Ocean is one of the least governed oceans. It is plagued by space debris, as bits of nearly 7000 satellites in low orbit fall into the Ocean frequently. It is also the hottest ocean, with rising sea surface temperatures causing coral bleaching in the Maldives. Island nations face the danger of floods and submersions as the ocean is rising 3.7 mm annually.

The Gaza War and Yemen’s challenge to the freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and its threat to undersea cables, have triggered a quest for new ports and new routes.

Human smuggling and drugs are major crimes on the high seas and require international jurisdiction. Oil spills and plastic waste are littering the oceans and impacting marine species, habitats and biodiversity. As 50 per cent of the world’s fish production comes from the Indian Ocean, stakeholder consensus is vital to regulate over-fishing, illicit fishing and bottom trawling. The acidification of the oceans has created coastal dead zones and needs urgent redressal.

As the waters of the Himalayas eventually reach the Indian Ocean, Nepal and Bhutan suggested that the Himalayas and Indian Ocean be treated as a unity, with the ecology of the mountains receiving commensurate attention. In recent years, the monsoons have become erratic, there is less snow, summers are hotter, and the glaciers are melting.

The Indian Ocean Conference was attended by the President of Sri Lanka, Ministers from 16 countries including Maldives, officials from 16 countries and 6 multilateral organisations, and delegates from over 40 countries. It was supported by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, together with Perth US-Asia Centre.

India Foundation Chintan blog, 15 February 2024


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