Some Aspects of Navigational Security in the Indian Ocean


The Problem

Looking at the amazingly multifaceted history, cultural diversity, changing constellation of powers, economic potential and a highly complex and volatile system of interests which characterizes the geographic given which we call IOR (Indian Ocean Region) we have to admit that there is hardly any other region in the world the development of which is equally difficult to prognosticate as that of IOR.

On the other hand, we stand on firm ground when we hold that the IOR - particularly against the background of globalization - is a true “key region” whose status and development will determine global history to an increasing degree in the foreseeable future.

Ensuing from the fact that the IOR constitutes a region with incomparable complexity in each possible regard it stands to reason that the IOR constitutes a multiverse of problems: It is namely a truism to hold that the probability of dysfunctionalities - which are commonly called “problems” - is in direct proportion to the complexity of a system.

The IOR has been, is and will be a region which is characterized by an incomparable degree of change and transition.

Today we find that in many rim-states of the IOR, the European “export” of the “nation state” is about to lose its cohesive power as a framework of identification - with no replacement in sight. In other words, due to its incapability and loss of problem-solving-capacity, the “nation state” is disappearing and is leaving behind a vacuum. The process of filling this vacuum has already started and is carried out by non-state-actors who are constituted by pre-state entities, e.g. clans or of extended family-systems/”warlordism” or transnational movements such as jihadist movements.

For some time to come the IOR is and will be the stage on which those developments can be observed in a particular showcase-way.

In addition to the fact that non-state actors attempt to fill the vacuum which is implied by an increasing socioeconomic-political impotence of so-called “nation states” in the IOR we find an increasing ambition on part of great powers to stake their interests in that volatile IOR.

This is not only due to the impotence of an increasing number of states in the IOR which whet the appetite of big powers to use the opportunity and make weak states of IOR their factual satellites but at the same time it has very much to do with the fact that prosperity and stability of some big powers to a great degree depend on the possibility to import and export goods and services through the IOR in an unimpeded way.

Although this applies to quite a few states I would like to narrow down my observations and reflections to the significance which trade through the IOR holds for India and China and to the significance that trans-IOR-trade of these nations will have to be handled through the SLOCs of the Indian Ocean.

Both India and China need sufficient growth in order to improve and maintain social stability. How much growth these two countries need is a very complex question and different schools of thought draw different conclusions. But one thing is not debatable: The prediction that for both countries the Indian Ocean will play an increasingly important role to enact that kind of trade which is the main precondition for sufficient economic growth. And against this background it is the import of energy which plays a crucial role in first place.

Again, there are different methodologies and calculations to estimate the  percentage of energy-requirements on part of India and China - with this I am referring to the import of oil and LNG - but we are safe to estimate that between 80% and 85% of respective energy requirements have to be handled through SLOCs which transit the Indian Ocean. In spite of all sorts of efforts to replace seaborne energy-transport through the Indian Ocean by means of land-based means of transport, the capacities of such alternative means of transport, in the first place that of pipelines, will never keep up with the growing demand of both countries for the next couple of decades. To expect that the volume of maritime energy-transports by India and China which has to be handled through the Indian Ocean will decrease instead of increase, actually signifies not taking cognisance of all relevant facts and figures which are at hand.

This is what drives me to my main thesis which I would like to discuss briefly:

The current and foreseeable future socioeconomic stability of India and China depends on the unimpeded use of SLOCs in the Indian Ocean. In other words, it depends on navigational security.

What are the main risks to unimpeded use of SLOCs in the Indian Ocean? When I am using the term “risk” I am referring to the definition by Andrej Felski a.o. whose definition of “risk” refers to the “probability of accident per losses per accident.”

The main risks:

1.: Disruption of seaborne transport through non state-actors, such as pirates, the activities of whom will inevitably lead - apart from material and human losses – to sensible increases in insurance rates, which has led to the suspicion that in some cases there is some kind of cooperation between pirates and criminal circles in the insurance industry. This is a relatively new type of transnational organised crime which if not fought efficiently will have a non-neglectable negative impact on economic growth. 

2.: Maritime terrorism, which would be particularly damaging if it joined forces with piracy or enacted attacks against loading devices in ports of departure or ports of destination.

3.: Military conflict: if one or more big players e.g. India, China, USA, maybe Japan entered into maritime military conflict it would obviously be the most devastating scenario and risk because after all their prosperity depends on unimpeded transport through Indian Ocean-SLOCs to a great degree.

At this stage I would like to introduce an abstract remark, namely, that science of communication assumes that risks will tend to attract more attention if the probability of their eventuation is remote irrespective of higher damage they would cause in case of their manifestation. On the other hand, risks with increased probability of manifestation but causing minor damages tend to attract minor attention.

This might be the explanation why there is so much talk about the PLAN’s advancement into the Indian Ocean in India and about the danger of India joining an US-led military alliance the aim of which is China-containment in China.

In my view this option is extremely unlikely, but it would become the next-to worst case for the development of both countries if it got out of hand and resulted in military conflict. Rumours about India/America anti-Chinese conspiration as well as conjuring up the “string of pearls”-scenario in India, is the outflow of that finding of science of communication I have just alluded to.

In reality neither side can have the slightest interest in increasing the likelihood of military conflict between India and China in the Indian Ocean.

There, navigational security is definitely not a zero sum-game, but a positive sum -game as far as the interplay between India and China is concerned.

At this point in time one can gain the impression as if this thought has taken roots in the strategic thinking of the leadership in both countries. For the far away European observer, whose perception might seem and result from worm’s-eye view due to the increasingly introvert and parochial character of the European world-view, it rather looks as if the two Asian giants would get close and closer to a tacit agreement on dividing oceanic spheres of interest. China seems to impose narrow boundaries on the advancement of PLAN into the Indian Ocean, whereas India is prepared to keep a militarily low profile in the waters East of Malacca, which would also imply a rather reserved attitude vis-a- vis the American wish of India joining a “Quad” which is more than a consultative body and would also feature a military component.

All in all, as long as India and China can basically be considered rational players there is no serious danger that navigational security in the Indian Ocean would be put into question in the wake of conflicting acts of military power projection.

It should also be mentioned that India has more pull as far as control of SLOCs in the Indian Ocean is concerned. The position of the ANC (Andaman/Nicobar Command) is a unique pressure point to motivate China not to transgress certain red lines such as for instance to deploy PLAN-units to a degree which cannot be justified any more with reference to fighting piracy or other reasons below the threshold of strategic power projection.

There is a very positive aspect of the extremely low probability that security of navigation in the Indian Ocean is threatened through military conflict between India and China. This is the strong possibility of cooperation in the fight against the challenges I have alluded to: Piracy, terrorism, transnational organised crime and all forms of possible symbiosis between those.

Some squabbling on this and that, with regard to perceived attempts by the other side to gain undue advantages in the Indian Ocean will definitely take place between India and China every now and then. But as long as the division of spheres of interest, which I have tried to allude to, is respected by both players, there is high probability that navigational security in the Indian Ocean will rather tend towards improvement than towards deterioration.

First published at „Securing the Indian Ocean Region: Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges” IOC, 2019 by India Foundation


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Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Lange