June 06, 2011

Indian Ocean: The Focus Of New Rivalries

The US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says America will expand its military presense across Asia and the Pacific... and strengthen ties with its traditional allies. 

Addressing the Shangri-La Security conference in Singapore, Secretary Gates pointed to the record of growing U.S. engagement in Asia, combined with investments in preserving the region's security, sovereignty and freedom.

In short, he said, America is putting its "money where its mouth is." 

The US commitment comes as China continues to expand its regional strategic reach, including seeking permanent access to the Indian ocean.

So how is China likely to view this latest statement? 

Presenter: Sen Lam 
Speaker: Robert Kaplan, senior fellow, Centre for New American Security,Washington; guest speaker, 911 Decade Summit, US Studies Centre, Sydney

KAPLAN: China expects the United States to have a robust presence in the western Pacific, in the Indian Ocean. After all, China does want to see the disappearance of the US fleet and air force in the region, because that would only precipitate an intense arms race between China, Japan and South Korea, if there was no US hegemon in the area. You know, China knows that it will be some time, before it has its own blue water navy and has to "free-ride" off the protection of the sea lines of communication that the US navy and air force provide. But at the same time, China is rising as a great power economically and finally, militarily, so there will come a time when China will not challenge the US presence in the western Pacific, but seek to be equal to it, as it expands the number of its submarines and surface warships and other accoutrements of air and naval warfare. So I think we're gradually entering a multi-polar era in the military and maritime sphere in EurAsia. China has more and more of a presence in the contested South China Sea, it means that the US is going to show that it's equal to the challenge. 

LAM: You speak of a multi-polar era. China's navy is taking steps towards a permanent access to the Indian Ocean, via the use of Burmese ports in the Bay of Bengal. Is the Indian Ocean the new arena for regional rivalry now?

KAPLAN: The way I would put it, is that the new arena for regional rivalry is more accurately, the South China Sea, which is a sort of ante-chamber of the Indian Ocean. I think the Indian Ocean in the years and decades to come, will be the most interesting register of great power rivalry because it will see the appearance of the Chinese fleet, to go along with those of the Indian and American fleets, and it will also show us, whether China in the decades to come, will actually produce a two-ocean blue water navy and what China actually intends for ports that it has been building in Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka.

LAM: So what options are open to China's great rival, India? I mean, China has a historical sea-faring tradition, but India, not so. So do you think New Delhi will build up a blue water naval fleet to match China?

KAPLAN: New Delhi is going from the world's fifth largest navy, to perhaps, its third. It already has war ships as far away as the Mozambique channel to the south west of India and in the South China Sea to the southeast of India. India cannot dominate the Indian Ocean. It will be decades before it can possibly do that. I think what India's strategists hope, is that the Indian navy, with the unspoken confluence of the United States navy, will dominate the Indian Ocean and therefore, help to peacefully manage the rise of China, over the maritime sphere.

LAM: And China wanting to gain greater access to the Indian Ocean and certainly, to Burmese ports, to what extent is this driven by economic considerations?

KAPLAN: It's driven heavily by economic considerations. China's building a port where there're large deposits of natural gas, in the Bay of Bengal. It wants to bring that natural gas across Burma by pipeline and road, into southern China, so as to alleviate the reliance on the Strait of Malacca that China has, with so much of its energy imports. China is trying to find other ways, besides the Strait of Malacca, to get oil and natural gas into China, to fuel the expansion of the Chinese economy.

LAM: Taking a wider view, should the Asian region be concerned about a potential flashpoint here, if China expands its zone of influence?

KAPLAN: I would say that the benign uni-polar military environment of the past few decades, where the United States navy and air force dominated these waters, is slowly, slowly coming to a close, as we enter a complex, multi-polar environment, where you're going to have not just the rise of the Chinese navy, but expanding Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian and other navies. And with a more multi-polar climate, and more crowded with war ships and more crowded with merchant ships, the chance of mishaps is greater.