The Indian Ocean as Strategic Focus

Following up on the discussion of regional strategic balance in Asia, this article on Indian-Chinese maritime rivalry in the Indian Defense Review is essential reading. The IDR is often an outlet for the Indian military’s extreme nationalist wing, but this particular article takes an objective analytic approach to the subject that’s well worth a close read.

Significantly, the U.S. is trying to wrap up wars in the Middle East andSouth Asia that have increasingly transformed our operational capacityinto a ground-based force of occupation, at the very moment when theemerging strategic focus of just about all of the world’s majormilitary braintrusts has begun to shift towards naval assets in the IndianOcean region. (The exception being the Russians, who are preoccupied by Central Asian energy fields and the possibilities afforded by easier access to Arctic Circle maritime routes.)

What does this mean for U.S. defense policy? My sense is that we’ll be entering a protracted era of deglobalization in terms of frontline U.S. strategic presence. To fill in the gap, the emphasis will be on freeing up “dead” military assets in the form of restricted-mission alliances and increased support of friendly regional powers, while maintaining “last resort” security guarantees.

The very influential policy think tank, CNAS, justreleased a report on the U.S.-South Korea military alliance that I suspect offers a hint of what that will look like. The report, as reflected in Nirav Patel’s WPR Briefing, essentially calls for the alliance to go global. The ongoing U.S. efforts to maintain a global mission for NATOfall into the same category, and the newfound U.S. support for EUdefense reflects the same concern.

For now, the Indian Ocean region is one of rivalry, not conflict. And the shifts I’m talking about will be gradual, over years and decades, not immediate. But taking a long view of things, I suspect the strategic division of labor for U.S. national security will break down along geographic lines, where:

– Africa is the R&D laboratory. U.S. Africom and French-led EU missions will be used to perfect indirect stability ops, as well as for trial implementations such as the anti-pirate naval mission off the coast of Somalia that is increasingly spreading into the Western Indian Ocean.
– The Middle East and Central Asia are the principle theaters of ground-based security interests, and the most likely locations of major power conflict.
– The Indian Ocean and Asia is a naval chessboard involving regional partners like Australia and South Korea, and potential partners like India, to maintain leverage over the inevitable expansion of Chinese influence. That expansion can not be contained, but maintaining the ability to render it vulnerable in the event of conflict will provide a deterrent to any potential Chinese shift away from a peaceful rise.

That’s the view from my crystal ball, anyway. Thoughts and pushback via e-mail are welcome.

More World Politics Review