Every day, one-quarter of world oil production flows from the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean toward makers of computers, sneakers, and more. Finished goods make their way back to world markets by the same body of water - the key reason that Somali piracy is a top concern. But lost in that focus on trade is a bigger issue: the strategic realities that will reshape the balance of power in the Indian Ocean in this century.
China and India, the world's two most populous nations as well as economic rivals with a tetchy relationship, are expanding their navies as their economies grow. Though the United States has ruled the Indian Ocean since World War II, US ships will have to negotiate more crowded waters as the emerging economic superpowers jostle for influence.
Are China's military interests in the Indian Ocean a threat to the US?
US Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Pehrson called China's military strategy in the area the "String of Pearls," defining it as a "manifestation of China's rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces."
He wrote in 2006 that "a question posed by the 'String of Pearls' is the uncertainty of whether China's growing influence is in accordance with Beijing's stated policy of 'peaceful development,' or if China one day will make a bid for regional primacy."
That question is being weighed by strategic thinkers in the US and elsewhere. In 2008, China boosted defense spending to $60 billion - nearly 20 percent.
The United States Joint Forces Command, in its 2008 assessment of the global strategic environment, carries a graphic detailing China's "pearls," which stretch from its deepwater port at Hainan Island, past a string of port facilities on the Burmese coast and in Bangladesh, on to a deepwater port in Pakistan that China finished overhauling last year.
China is also building a $1 billion port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka that will be used by its Navy for logistical support, a concession won in return for extensive military aid to Sri Lanka in its fight to defeat the Tamil Tigers.
As China's economy grows, so will its ability to project force in the Indian Ocean. The US military assessment says that it is "easily possible" that China's military strength will be about one-quarter of America's by 2030. Will China then continue to play second fiddle to the US in the region, or will it use its growing clout to shift the landscape in its favor?
What about India?
While China has the second-largest navy in the world (still far behind the US) and is expected to be the world's largest economy in the next 20 years, India is not far behind. Its Navy ranks third, and the country is expected to be among the five largest economies within 20 years. India's defense budget is about $27 billion, a 10 percent increase over its last budget year.
India is as aware as China that the Indian Ocean is key to its economic interests and stability. The Indians were chagrined when Sri Lanka, a longtime ally, began taking arms from China in 2007 (India had stopped supplies due to domestic pressure). India's security minister, M.K. Narayan, said: "We are a big power in the region. We don't want [Sri Lanka] to go to Pakistan or China...."