Neglected No Longer: Strategic Rivalry in the Indian Ocean. (Perspectives)

By Berlin, Donald L. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Neglected No Longer: Strategic Rivalry in the Indian Ocean. (Perspectives)


Berlin, Donald L., Harvard International Review


After roughly a decade in the strategic wilderness, the Indian Ocean region is again becoming an arena of geopolitical rivalry among world powers and local states. During the final decades of the Cold War, the region was a zone of fairly intense superpower competition. The United States and the Soviet Union vied for political advantage, while their navies competed for refueling facilities and bases in places such as Socotra Island in the former South Yemen, Gan in the Maldives, and Port Victoria in the Seychelles. The Indian Ocean was also significant in the nuclear arms race as both navies operated ballistic missile submarines in the region. Due to this clash of superpowers and Indian Ocean states' perception of these powers as interlopers in their region, the UN General Assembly declared the Indian Ocean a zone of peace in 1971. One year later, the United Nations created the Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean to find ways to implement this declaration.

To date, despite some 450 meetings of this committee, the contemplated Zone of Peace still does not exist. Moreover, key Western members of the Committee withdrew in 1989, arguing that superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean had diminished with the end of the Cold War, rendering a Zone of Peace purposeless. A 1997 statement by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even called the committee an example of UN financial wastefulness that should be disbanded. The observations by US and other Western delegates were on the mark to a certain degree immediately after the Cold War ended. It was during the early 1990s that observers hoped for the beginning of a "New World Order" characterized by less confrontation and competition among all states. However, from the vantage point of 2002, the international system does not appear to have evolved in this manner, and to an increasing degree it is confrontation and rivalry, not conciliation, that characterize interstate relations in the Indian Ocean region.

Why Rivalry?

A variety of factors have contributed to the intensifying strategic rivalry in the Indian Ocean. These are not the same explanatory factors that prevailed during the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, today's imperatives are more powerful and less transient than those of the past.

One of these is the continued and growing importance of oil, energy, and other vital resources. The key prize is the Persian Gulf, which is accessible only via Indian Ocean shipping routes. Currently about 25 percent of all oil used by the United States passes through Indian Ocean sea lanes and the Persian Gulf region, and the United States also depends on the Indian Ocean for the shipment of about 50 different strategic materials, including tin, nickel, iron, lead, and copper. Burma and Bangladesh, which are rich in minerals, are also seen by other key states as important future energy sources. Michael Klare has argued that the world is witnessing a growing competition over access to vital economic assets. In Foreign Affairs he writes that, "Because an interruption in the supply of natural resources would portend severe economic consequences, the major importing countries now consider the protection of this flow a significant national concern."

A second factor in the growing strategic salience of the Indian

Ocean is the so-called "rise" of India, the most important of the coastal states. As this power evolves, New Delhi's interest in the affairs of the ocean will increase, as will the interest shown by other states that will wish either to check India or to ally with it. Beijing will be particularly motivated to counter New Delhi. For China, a key consideration is the one-third of its Gross Domestic Product attributable to foreign trade and the importance of the Indian Ocean to that trade. All Chinese commerce with Europe and petroleum imports from the Middle East traverse the Indian Ocean.

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