The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied the US claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported every day including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near the main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are the gateway to and from the Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are a critical part of global energy security. Hence, whoever controls these chokepoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power. 

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and the Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic, and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveals that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US-led world order in the past five years among small nation-states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic seaports China has been building on the rims of the Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.  

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers to as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

Image credit: Wikipedia Public Domain

References

Alphonsus, D. (2018, June 30). Cartopolitics and Sri Lanka: Rereading and Repainting Twenty-  First Century Asia. Retrieved from http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/cartopolitics-and-sri-lanka-rereading-and-repainting-twenty-first-century-asia

Chellaney, B. (2015, August 13). Sri Lanka election to decide whether to bow to China. Retrieved from https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/sri-lanka-election-to-decide-whether-to-bow-to-china/news-story/a8e92bc29d75fef549ad64c1cfc68bc8

Fisher, M., & Carlsen, A. (2018, March 09). How China Is Challenging American Dominance in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/09/world/asia/china-us-asia-rivalry.html?smid=tw-share#g-sources-target

Grare, F. (2008, July). Along the road: Gwadar and China’s power projection. Retrieved October 13, 2018, from https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief7Gwadar0.pdf

Kaplan, R. D. (2010, November 19). Monsoon – By Robert D. Kaplan. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/books/review/excerpt-monsoon.html

Kleveman, L. (2004). The new great game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia. London: Atlantic.

Press Information Bureau Government of India Ministry of Culture (2014, June 21). Project ‘Mausam’ Launched by Secretary, Ministry of Culture. Retrieved October 13, 2018, from http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=105777

Richardson, M. (2007). A Time bomb for global trade: Maritime-related terrorism in an age of weapons of mass destruction. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Sri Lanka rejects US claims, says no Chinese military base at port. (2018, October 11). Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/sri-lanka-rejects-us-   claims-says-no-chinese-military-base-at-port/articleshow/66163389.cms

U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=32292

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