News Analysis |
American geopolitical strategist Alfred Thane Mahan in his masterpiece The Influence of Sea-Power Upon History 1660-1783 said ‘the history of sea power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war.’ He also said that ‘the profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected.’
These words are as true as they were a couple of centuries ago when Mahan’s book was first published. According to the International Maritime Organization, 90% of all trade occurs though the seas. It is by far the most cost effective way of shipping goods and raw materials to and from countries. Landlocked countries don’t have direct access to ports and have to bear the expenditure of transporting goods and raw materials by land, losing their competitive edge during the process. On the other hand, the richest countries in the world usually have coastal lines and ports to boot. Mahan was right in stating the ‘profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth’ of countries.
India aims at having a 200-strong naval fleet by 2027. According to the official maritime strategy document by the Indian Naval Strategic Publications, India’s ‘quintessential maritime character and geo-strategic location’ necessitate a strong naval force for its maritime security.
According to Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, it is economic power that translates into military power. Great powers, thus, are great because their economy is greater than other countries. And as Alfred Thane Mahan would put it, economic power depends to a considerable extent on sea commerce. It is no surprise that virtually all the superpowers of the past five hundred years had great navies to secure sea lanes of communication. Secure sea lanes of communication guaranteed maritime security to their trade vessels. Trade via sea would make the superpowers richer, thereby allowing them to secure even more sea lanes. This is how the great powers kept accumulating power.
Britain, a group of relatively tiny islands at the edge of Europe, managed to establish an empire comprising one-fourth of the globe because it had the strongest navy of the time that protected British trading ships. ‘The sun never set on Great Britain’ because there was some corner of the globe where it was daytime on a British territory. Ensuring maritime security allowed this to happen. Similarly, the US has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Direct access to coasts naturally lead to the development of ports and a strong navy was necessary to safeguard those ports. If we take a look at the world map today, all the major sea lanes of communication are directly or indirectly under the control of the US and that is the reason why the US is so powerful.
In the 21st century, the quest for maritime security has intensified in the Indo-Pacific region, not least because of the phenomenal rise of China. The term Indo-Pacific region can be defined as an Asiatic strategic system that encompasses both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. It expands the conceptual region of Asia-Pacific to include India and the Indian Ocean as well. The region is geopolitically significant for a number of reasons. The British maintained control of this region, especially the Indian Ocean because it gave them access to control of the Red Sea, a narrow inlet of the Indian Ocean lying between Africa and Asia. On the other side of the Red sea is the Mediterranean which was also under British control to a considerable extent. Britain was able to control most of the trade between Asia and Europe. These days, China is at the forefront of increasing its naval presence in the Indo-pacific region.
No discussion of the indo-pacific region can be complete without discussing the significance of the South-China Sea. Nearly $3.37 trillion worth of goods passes through this sea each year. For China, no other region is more important than the South China Sea. Chinese exports through this region amount to $874 billion annually. A lot of this trade goes through the strait of Malacca, which presents China with an entirely new set of challenges.
Pakistan is also set to acquire nuclear attack capable submarines from China, in addition to 8 stealth attack submarines. Pakistan is also looking to develop its Gwadar port and turn it into a hub of regional connectivity.
China seeks to be as independent as possible of the choke point in the Strait of Malacca. The Strait of Malacca is a narrow stretch of water between Peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. At its narrowest, it is 40 kilometers wide. According to the world economic forum, it may be the world’s most important trade route, with more than 15 million barrels of oil getting transported through the strait per day. According to a 2011 Review of Maritime Transport by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, almost half of the world’s total annual seaborne trade tonnage passed through the Strait of Malacca and the nearby Straits of Sunda and Lombok in 2010. Most of China’s trade with the rest of Asia and the middle-east passes through this strait.
The problem for China is that the strait has been a vital sea lane for the US navy and, consequently, the US can choke China’s trade at any moment. This is why this strait is described as a ‘choke point’. Many analysts have termed this problem the ‘Malacca dilemna’ for China. One way of solving this dilemna is to ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean.
China already has a military base in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa. China officially inaugurated the military base in August of last year. The base provides strategic oversight as it is located at the North-Western edge of the Indian Ocean. It’s a small part of the ‘String of pearls’ initiative by China. Western and Indian critics of China argue that the euphemistically phrased initiative is merely an attempt to establish a series of naval bases across the India Ocean. One such base has already been established when Sri Lanka agreed to sign a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port to a Chinese state-owned company. Between 2005 and 2017, China invested nearly $15 billion in Sri Lanka.
No discussion of the indo-pacific region can be complete without discussing the significance of the South-China Sea. Nearly $3.37 trillion worth of goods passes through this sea each year. For China, no other region is more important than the South China Sea.
This brings China much too close to India’s shores than New Delhi would like. For its part, India is also trying to expand its military muscle in the Indian Ocean. India aims at having a 200-strong naval fleet by 2027. According to the official maritime strategy document by the Indian Naval Strategic Publications, India’s ‘quintessential maritime character and geo-strategic location’ necessitate a strong naval force for its maritime security. India also takes part in the trilateral Malabara naval exercises along with Japan and the US. There have also been several other milestones in India-US defense relationship, including LEMOA or the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding which allows the US and India to use each other’s military bases.
The other major players in the region are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and Japan. Each country understands the implications of not having an adequate force for ensuring maritime security. Pakistan participated in the 2018 Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference with two state-of-the-art naval vessels.
Pakistan is also set to acquire nuclear attack capable submarines from China, in addition to 8 stealth attack submarines. Pakistan is also looking to develop its Gwadar port and turn it into a hub of regional connectivity. This will add to Pakistan’s GDP. Thus, maritime security for the port of Gwadar is of paramount importance to Pakistan. These are the dynamics which are shaping maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region in the 21st century. There is little doubt that Alfred Thane Mahan’s words proved to be prophetic.