The rise of China, changing power dynamics, territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, and the U.S. rebalance to Asia have all led to the re-emergence of the Indian Ocean as the center stage for power politics in the Indo-Pacific.
Much has been written about China’s assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas and it remains a cause of concern for all key actors in the region. However, looking beyond these islands in Southeast Asia to the ones in the Indian Ocean, one realizes that Beijing has been working incessantly to secure its strategic interests and strengthen its role as a major player in the Indo-Pacific — alarming other regional powers such as India and the U.S.
The conflict in the South China Sea can be describe as a frozen situation with no dispute resolution in sight. While a number of mechanisms exist, none has been successful in solving the territorial claims. Apart from the occasional confrontation and verbal protests, Beijing seems to be in good control over the South China Sea. Having fairly secured its interests in the Western Pacific, China is now looking to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean.
While Beijing has the capabilities to venture out into the Indian Ocean, alarming a host of other nations in the region, it does not have the means to sustain its presence, especially in the event of a conflict. What China now seeks to do is court and improve relations with the small island nations in the India Ocean to facilitate its increasing presence in those waters. Beijing is thus using commercial initiatives to achieve its security and strategic aims in the region. In turn, New Delhi and Washington too are scrambling to strengthen relationships with their friends and allies and re-assert their influence over the small island nations. This essay looks at the geo-strategic competition unfolding between China, the U.S., India, and their friends in the Indian Ocean.