CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES IN THE INDIAN OCEAN: An Emerging Strategic Triangle?

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The Asian seas today are witnessing an intriguing historical anomaly - the simultaneous rises of two homegrown maritime powers against the backdrop of U.S. dominion over the global commons. The drivers behind this apparent irregularity in the Asian regional order are, of course, China and India. Their aspirations for great-power status and, above all, their quests for energy security have compelled both Beijing and New Delhi to redirect their gazes from land to the seas. While Chinese and Indian maritime interests are a natural outgrowth of impressive economic growth and the attendant appetite for energy resources, their simultaneous entries into the nautical realm also portend worrisome trends.

PROSPECTS FOR A STRATEGIC TRIANGLE

At present, some strategists in both capitals speak and write in terms that anticipate rivalry with each other. Given that commercial shipping must traverse the same oceanic routes to reach Indian and Chinese ports, mutual fears persist that the bodies of water stretching from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea could be held hostage in the event of crisis or conflict.1 Such insecurities similarly animated naval competition in the past when major powers depended on a common nautical space. Moreover, lingering questions over the sustainability of American primacy on the high seas have heightened concerns about the U.S. Navy's ability to guarantee maritime stability, a state of affairs that has long been taken for granted.

It is within this more fluid context that the Indian Ocean has assumed greater prominence. Unfortunately, much of the recent discourse has focused on future Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean and on potential U.S. responses to such a new presence. In other words, the novelty, as it currently stands, of the Indian Ocean stems from expected encounters between extraregional powers. But such a narrow analytical approach assumes that the region will remain an inanimate object perpetually vulnerable to outside manipulation. Also, more importantly, it overlooks the possible interactions arising from the intervention of India, the dominant regional power. Indeed, omitting the potential role that India might play in any capacity would risk misreading the future of the Indian Ocean region.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to bring India more completely into the picture as a full participant, if not a major arbiter, in the region's maritime future. In order to add depth to the existing literature, this article assesses the longerterm maritime trajectory of the Indian Ocean region by examining the triangular dynamics among the United States, China, and India. To be sure, the aspirational nature of Chinese and Indian nautical ambitions and capabilities at the moment precludes attempts at discerning potential outcomes or supplying concrete policy prescriptions. Nevertheless, exploring the basic foundations for cooperation or competition among the three powers could provide hints at how Beijing, Washington, and New Delhi can actively preclude rivalry and promote collaboration in the Indian Ocean.

As a first step in this endeavor, this article examines a key ingredient in the expected emergence of a "strategic triangle" - the prospects of Indian sea power. While no one has rigorously defined this international-relations metaphor, scholars typically use it to convey a strategic interplay of interests among three nationstates. In this initial foray, we employ the term fairly loosely, using it to describe a pattern of cooperation and competition among the United States, China, and India. It is our contention that Indian Ocean stability will hinge largely on how India manages its maritime rise. On the one hand, if a robust Indian maritime presence were to fail to materialize, New Delhi would essentially be forced to surrender its interests in regional waters, leaving a strategic vacuum to the United States and China. …