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Cambridge Review of International Affairs

ISSN: 0955-7571 (Print) 1474-449X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccam20

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean: China,


India and the United States
Jan Hornat
To cite this article: Jan Hornat (2015): The power triangle in the Indian Ocean:
China, India and the United States, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, DOI:
10.1080/09557571.2014.974507
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2014.974507

Published online: 03 Jan 2015.

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Date: 06 September 2016, At: 01:50

Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2014


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2014.974507

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean: China, India and


the United States
Jan Hornat
Institute of International Relations
Abstract The Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming the point of focus in assessing
Asias future security challenges. As both India and China are building up their naval
presence in the Indian Ocean and as Chinas stakes in the region (protecting its maritime
trade) interact with Indias aspirations (being the regional dominant power and security
provider), tensions are likely to rise. The United States has an established role in the Indian
Ocean, and its approach to the contestation between Indian and Chinese interests may play
a key role in limiting frictions. These developments have led many analysts to foresee the
emergence of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region and East Asia which
would be comparable to that of nineteenth-century Europe. In presenting the interplay
between the three major stakeholders in the Indian Ocean, this paper aims to outline the
implications of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region and demonstrate that
it may not guarantee peace and stability, but, with regard to Organskis power transition
theory, could lead to quite the contrary.

Introduction
In recent years, a quote ascribed to the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan has
been often cited by Chinese and Indian analysts: Whoever controls the Indian
Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first
century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters (quoted in van
Rooyen 2011, 5). Analysts and commentators have been seduced by this prophetic
assessment of the Indian Oceans future role, and variations of the quote have
even appeared in the Indian governments official documents (Holmes and
Yoshihara 2008, 43). However, what is most interesting about this quote is that it is
a fabrication (The Economist 2009). Mahans words have been manipulated to fit
the narrative of the evolving security dynamic in Asian watersbe they the
Indian Ocean, the South China Sea or the East China Sea.
In observing the evolution of the security environment in the Indian Ocean,
many scholars have accepted the notion of an emerging balance of power system
in the region which may one day resemble that of nineteenth-century Europe.1
This assumption may be valid, given the number of regional actors, their varying
interests and the anticipated great power interplay between China, India and the
United States (US). Thus, it is important to understand the actual implications and
1

A number of analysts anticipate a balance of power system in Asia. See, for example,
Malik (2012), Chellaney (2009), Niquet (2006) or Goldstein (1997).
q 2014 Centre of International Studies

2 Jan Hornat
consequences of a genuine balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region2
would it stabilize the security environment, would it preserve peace or would it
have adverse effects? This paper aims to demonstrate that in the current context of
the Indian Ocean a balance of power system would not foster a peaceful
environment, but, to the contrary, would have negative repercussions for the
stability of the wider Indian Ocean region and East Asia.
In employing the classical realist balance of power concept and the so-called
power transition theory, the paper seeks to create a theoretical framework for
interpreting a topic that is mostly treated through heavily empirical analyses. It is
important to note that the notion of balance of power has various definitions,
perspectives and interpretations, especially with regard to its historical evolution
(for a list of these definitions see Sheehan [2000]). For the purpose of this analysis,
a balance of power system alludes to a system of state interaction that is based on
the maintenance of the relative equality of power of individual states (or blocs).
In this system, individual states (or blocs) exercise policies and strategies that
deliberately aim to sustain mutual positions of power parity with all other states
(or blocs) contained within the system.
Balance of power versus power transition
In nineteenth-century Europe, the balance of power became the paradigm of
international relations theory and practice. Statesmen used balance of power as a
prism through which they made sense of and gave order to the complex web of
relationships between states. Not only did they believe the balance of power to be
a systemic, self-operating mechanism of international politics; they also adopted
concrete policies that sought an alleged equilibrium amongst states. But, as Hans
Morgenthau suggested, states must actually aim not at a balancethat is,
equalityof power but at superiority of power in their own behalf . . . all nations
must ultimately seek the maximum of power obtainable under the [given]
circumstances (Morgenthau 1960, 210). A clear example of such manoeuvring
was Napoleons France during the 1813 peace negotiations.
The Sixth Coalition against France was in agreement that a state of equilibrium
should be reinstated in Europe, but divisions remained in regard to the question of
how that equilibrium should be achieved (Sheehan 2000, 120). Napoleon, knowing
that the balance of power in Europe was sacrosanct for the Allied powers, rejected
the first peace proposal. Indeed, he could easily play upon the balance of power
concept to ensure that his country was not so excessively stripped of territory as to
become too weak and that no European state acquired such territory as to tip the
balance in its favour and hence become a security threat to France.
In this sense, balance of power can serve as a justification (or even a
camouflage) for expansionist policies or become a normative ideology that seeks
to preserve a power equilibrium by using all means necessaryincluding war.
The most adamant practitioners and theorists of balance of power, the
Metternichs and the Castlereaghsall thought of war as an instrument to
preserve or restore a balance of power . . . It merely masqueraded as a formula for
2
For the purposes of this paper the Indian Ocean region is defined as including all
Indian Ocean littoral states and regional actorssuch as the US (due to its military presence
in Diego Garcia) and China (due to its maritime interests).

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 3


peace (Blainey 1988, 112). Thus, in a balance of power system, preventive war
becomes a legitimate means to uphold and protect the existing system against a
rising power that could disturb the equilibrium.
In an ideal balance of power system, alliances should be flexible, temporary
and ad hoc. States should be ready to form alliances with their former foes in order
to balance an emerging challenger to the equilibrium. The greater the number of
states involved in a balance of power system, the better, since a larger number of
variations of coalitions and alliances can exist (Sheehan 2000, 56). In practice such
manoeuvring may be quite impossible, given the societal differences between the
states involved. Forming a coalition with a friendly country (whose friendliness
may rest on shared cultural or religious affiliations) and then uniting with a
historical foe to balance the friendly country could prove politically indefensible.
An inherent characteristic of balance of power systems is their tendency to
move towards an imbalance, since the systems are never strictly static (Sheehan
2000, 14). This causes states to constantly jockey to preserve the coveted
equilibrium, and, as history demonstrates, such jockeying can be a catalyst of war.
One example of this from the maritime domain is the Battle of Sybota. In 433 BC,
the largest navy fleet in Greece was that of Athens, followed by the Corcyraean
(modern-day Corfu) and Corinthian fleets. When Corcyra went into dispute with
Corinth, an ally of Sparta, it asked Athens for help and reinforcements. The
Athenians knew that aiding Corcyra could lead to war with Sparta, but they were
also very well aware that their status and prosperity depended on sea trade and
the strength of their navy. If Corinth were to defeat Corcyra, its fleet would fall
into the hands of a Spartan ally and Athenss naval predominance would be put at
risk. Eventually, Athens decided to send reinforcements to Corcyra, and, although
the battles outcome was rather indecisive, the Battle of Sybota is considered to be
one of the major catalysts of the Peloponnesian War (Kagan 1989, 251).
Studying the prospects of war between great powers, AFK Organski basically
turned the balance of power theory on its head. For him the balance of power was
neither a logical abstraction nor an accurate description of empirical fact
(Organski 1958, 281). Contrary to balance of power theory, Organski envisaged a
power transition theory, claiming that it is not an equilibrium of power that
ensures peace, but rather the preponderance of power between great powers that
leads to a peaceful environment. In essence, Organski claimed that an even
distribution of political, economic, and military capabilities between contending
groups of nations is likely to increase the probability of war; peace is preserved
best when there is an imbalance of national capabilities between disadvantaged
and advantaged nations; the aggressor will come from a small group of
dissatisfied strong countries; and it is the weaker, rather than the stronger, power
that is most likely to be the aggressor (Organski and Kugler 1980, 19).
Power transition theory describes international politics as a hierarchy
consisting of one dominant state, great and middle powers, small powers
and the rest.3 During the period of power parity (balance) between two states (that
is, the challenger and the dominant power) the prospect of war increases, because
3

Power transition theory thus falls into the category of so-called hegemonic stability
theories, which claim that the stability of the international system requires a single
dominant power to formulate and enforce the rules of interaction among the members of
the system. See Webb and Krasner (1989).

4 Jan Hornat
the challenger is eager to redress its grievances and assume its rightful role in
the world (Tammen 2008, 326), and the dominant power is unwilling to give up
its preponderance. The period of parity is identified as starting when a challenger
achieves 80% of the power of the defenderand lasting until the challenger
passes into superiority at 120% of the power of its former rival (Tammen 2008,
326). In the context of Organskis theory, the roles of the challenger and the
dominant power could be easily applied to contemporary China and the US and,
depending on developments in Asia, in the future perhaps also to India and
China.
This reasoning can be equally applied to coalitions and alliances. Walter
Lippmann saw that when the alliance is inadequate because there is an opposing
alliance of approximately equal strength, the stage is set for a world war. For then
the balance of power is so nearly even that no state is secure (quoted in Claude
1989, 78). This creates a security dilemma. In Organskis world, states and
coalitions pursuing balancing policies and struggling to maintain the power
equilibrium to preserve peace are, in fact, constantly achieving power parity, thus
raising the prospects for war. The current distribution of power in the Indian
Ocean between India, China and the US can be identified, in the language of
power transition theory, as a preponderance of power, the US being the dominant
(naval) power. Relations between the three powers may often be tense, but they
are arguably peaceful. It is the rise of China (and the potential power parity with
the US) that raises concerns of future conflict.
In a simplistic explanation of the mutual relations between the three powers,
the US is a status quo power with respect to China, and China is a status quo
power relative to India (Malik 2012, 362). This implies that, in terms of its power
position in the Indian Ocean, India is the least satisfied of the three powers and
that it will be active in strengthening its position vis-a`-vis China. China, on the
other hand, will aim to strengthen its position vis-a`-vis the US, while Washington
will try to avoid any disturbances to the current state of affairs. China is not a
status quo power in world politics, but with regard to India Beijing would be best
served if New Delhi were not to strengthen Indias regional power position. Even
though it is highly unlikely that all three powers will reach some level of power
parity in the near future, the key question is whether a balance of power system is
emerging in the Indian Ocean, in which each power will police the others to make
sure no one is tipping the balance in their favour, or whether a power transition
will occur and a new power will come to dominate the system.
In light of the aforementioned, this paper will further assess the positions of
each of the three powers in the Indian Ocean and identify the main points of
friction that are increasing political tensions in the region. The current state of
affairs in the Indian Ocean represents, in its most basic sense, a model that
juxtaposes Chinas stakes, Indias aspirations and the USs established role in
the region. The interaction of these three factors is likely going to shape the
security challenges of the Indian Ocean and should therefore be examined
more closely.
Chinas stakes
In the years since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Chinas Communist
Party (CCP) has increasingly derived its legitimacy of rule from the growing

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 5


prosperity of the country rather than from communist ideology.4 This implies that
Chinas leadership must ensure the factors that have helped Chinas rise remain
intact. One part of Chinas equation for increasing prosperity is sea trade
especially for the import of energy. Indeed, Chinas reliance on the import of
energy via the Indian Ocean is severe: 89 per cent of its hydrocarbons are
transported through these waterways (Erickson et al 2010, 216).
Unlike in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, maritime traffic in the Indian
Ocean is restricted to a small number of choke pointsnamely the Strait of
Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Strait between the Malay Peninsula
and Sumatra. Chinas dependence on freedom of passage through these choke
points led Chinese President Hu Jintao to declare that his country faces a Malacca
Dilemma (Lanteigne 2008, 143). The dependence on the Malacca Strait seems
analogous to a saying from the fifteenth century which alluded to Venices
extensive commerce with Asia: Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the
throat of Venice (Kaplan 2010, 180). Beijings anxiety about free passage through
Malacca is further exacerbated by remarks of Indian hawks, such as Bharat
Karnad, who is a former member of Indias National Security Advisory Board.
Karnad advocates that, in the event of a conflict with China, India would use seadenial strategies such as naval blockades to sever Chinas energy supply linesby
squeez[ing] the Chinese oil and trade lanes in the Indian Ocean (Joshi 2011a, 159).
The second point of anxiety in Chinese maritime thinking is the so-called first
island chain, constituted by a closed arc that runs from South Korea through
Japan and the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia. The first island chain,
formed by the US and its partners and allies, is allegedly suffocating Chinas
nautical activities and obstructing the nations entry into the oceanic thoroughfare
(Yoshihara 2012, 491). According to Chinese analysts, the US and its allies are
using this chain to encircle and contain China (Li 2012). It is therefore only
natural for China to seek relief in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean, though,
contains an alleged iron chainIndias Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The
geostrategic location of the islands would permit India to seal off Malacca and
play the role of guardian of the Malacca Strait to resist Chinese infiltration of the
Indian Ocean (Yoshihara 2012, 496). In 2001, India created the Andaman and
Nicobar Command based in Port Blair. The Commands objective is to safeguard
Indias interests in Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait by boosting its ability to
rapidly deploy military assets in the region (Raghuvanshi 2013). This step raised
further concerns in China about Indias intentions.
To bypass its Malacca problem, China has been active in financing the
construction of ports and infrastructure in various Indian Ocean littoral states.
These projects include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Sittwe in
Burma and Chittagong in Bangladesh, which serve as transport corridors for
Chinese oil and trade. For example, from Gwadar, Middle Eastern oil could be

4
It must be noted that economic prosperity is not the sole source of CCP legitimacy.
As Yanqi Tong claims, the current regime legitimacy is maintained because of the
historically rooted moral bond between the state and society and the societal expectation
that the state would be responsible for the wellbeing of the population (Tong 2011, 141). Yet
it is quite clear that the partys current objectives and policies are more prosperity oriented
than ideology oriented, which is closely linked to being responsible for the wellbeing of
the population.

6 Jan Hornat
transported by a proposed 2000-kilometre road and rail link directly to Kashgar in
Chinas Xinjiang province, thus bypassing the bulk of the Indian Ocean sea route
(Business Monitor International 2010, 39). A similar transport corridor from
Myanmars Sittwe port has also been proposed. The Chinese government has
even been exploring the possibility of financing the construction of a PanamaCanal-style passage through the Thai Kra Isthmusan estimated investment of
US$20 billionwhich would save around 960 kilometres of the journey from the
Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (Bouchard and Crumplin 2010, 32).
Chinas policy of constructing port facilities in the Indian Ocean region has
come to be labelled the String of Pearls strategy and raises concerns in India that
these facilities may one day serve as forward deployment bases for the Peoples
Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Similarly to how Beijing perceives the first island
chain, New Delhi views Chinas String of Pearls as an attempt to encircle India
and, in the event of a conflict, limit its activities in the Indian Ocean. It is important
to note, however, that there is no hard evidence of Chinas intentions to use these
ports as naval bases (Lou 2012, 631). To the contrary, when in 2011 Pakistan offered
to upgrade the Gwadar port to a naval base, Beijing immediately rejected the
offer, not wanting to antagonize the US and India with the formal establishment of
a base in Pakistan (Pant 2012, 84). Moreover, Chinas involvement in the
construction of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is connected to the fact that
Colombo first invited India to cooperate in the construction but when New Delhi
rejected this offer China stepped in (Mohan 2010, 9).
To a certain extent, Chinas increasingly frequent incursions into the Indian
Ocean are a sign of power projection. Beijings growing naval fleet, bolstered by
the newly operational aircraft carrier (which is currently mainly utilized in
posturing), has fostered Chinas confidence and assertiveness in defending its
territorial claims and interests in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.5 The
Chinese leadership has been adroit in employing the countrys usable past to form
a narrative of its naval history. Veneration of the iconic admiral Zheng He, who
allegedly discovered America before Columbus, and emphasis on Chinas
successes in naval explorations and trade in the Middle Ages, mixed with the
current incidents over territory in the waters around China, have shored up
national pride in the navy and domestically legitimized investments in the PLAN.
In June 2013, China released the first Annual Report on the Development of
the Indian Ocean Region, which came to be labelled the Blue Book in the media.
Although it was published by a think-tankthe Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences (CASS)and not a government agency, the report can be considered a
semi-official standpoint of the Chinese leadership, due to the prominence of
CASS, whose policy prescriptions have often mirrored the governments views
(Singh 2013a).

5
Chinas assertiveness in protecting its territorial claims can be observed in the growing
number of maritime incidents in the regionnote the April 2012 standoff with the
Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, the May 2014 placement of China National Offshore
Oil Corporations oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam or the July 2012 administrative
upgrade of Sansha to prefecture-level city to administer (actually or nominally) parts of the
Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and the
Philippines.

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 7


The Blue Book observes that the changing dynamics of international relations
necessitates that China play a more proactive role in affairs of the region, but also
acknowledges that China needs to dispel the notion that its activities pose a
threat to the region (Singh 2013a). This is in line with the notion that the basic
aim of Chinese naval power building is to ensure a harmonious sea through
self-capacity building and international cooperation (Lou 2012, 631). In this sense,
the report emphasizes that Chinas essential interests in the region are purely
commercial and it makes a strong case for deepening economic engagement with
littoral states. The book also states that, while India has put forward its own Look
East policy, and the US has implemented its pivot or rebalancing strategy
towards Asia, China has no Indian Ocean strategy (Krishan 2013).
The Look East policy represents Indias effort to forge deeper economic and
strategic ties with Southeast Asian nations in order to boost its standing as a
regional power. This includes the strengthening of Indias relations with regional
multilateral organizations, such as the East Asia Summit and the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which culminated in the creation of a free
trade area between India and the ASEAN member states in 2010. India thereby has
certain interests in the South China Sea region, and, due to its growing relations
with Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, for example, the Indian Navy (IN)
regularly carries out operational cruises and exercises with other navies of the
region (Kapila 2013). The policy may be a thorn in the eye of the Chinese, but
acknowledging that India has stakes and interests in the waters around China
may help New Delhi admit that China has similar stakes and interests in the
waters around India.
Given this wide range of strategic interests and potential partners in the area,
Beijing is bound to conduct a nuanced policy towards the Indian Ocean region.
Nevertheless, its primary stakes in the Indian Ocean seem to be quite clear: China
needs to protect the maritime trade routes that are vital to its economy. The
PLANs capabilities are still far exceeded by those of the US Navy, but as Chinas
navy very gradually shifts from its traditional coastal defense role to a more
forward-deployed blue-water navy, it will increasingly gain the capacity to
protect sea lines of communication (SLOCs) on its own and not need to entrust
other powers (mainly the US) with this task (Erickson and Chase 2011; Holmes
2012). Nevertheless, the question remains of whether Indias aspirations in the
Indian Ocean will permit China to play such a role and whether the US will be
willing to give up its portion of the job.
Indias aspirations
From a geostrategic perspective, the triangular shape of Indias territory,
protruding into the central waters of the Indian Ocean, gives the country a natural
position to dominate the oceans trade routes. Yet the IN does not possess such a
capacity, and, despite increasing investments into its fleet, it is unlikely to be up to
the task in the next ten to fifteen years. In the Indian Ocean region, the Royal Thai
Navy (RTN), for example, is larger in size than the IN in terms of navy personnel
(the IN has 58,000 active personnel next to the RTNs 71,000).
The dependence of Indias economy and energy security on Indian Ocean
SLOCs is comparable to Chinas reliance on these sea lanes; a fact that is aptly
summarized by an IN 2009 maritime doctrine that claims that the Indian economy

8 Jan Hornat
is at the mercy of the power which controls the sea (Erickson et al 2010, 230).
However, unlike China, India does not face a Malacca Dilemma in its energy
imports; instead, its leaders picture an analogous Hormuz dilemma (Winner
2011, 105). Indian maritime doctrines and strategists thus appropriately identify
the arc from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca as a legitimate area of
interest and the Red Sea, the South China Sea and the southern Indian Ocean as
secondary areas of maritime interest (Erickson et al 2010, 230).
Its geographic predisposition and the increasing weight of its economy are
slowly pushing Indias mindset from continental to maritime. Its maritime
aspirations are exemplified by the acquisition of the Kiev-class aircraft carrier INS
Vikramaditya from Russia, which entered service in 2013, and the indigenous
development and construction of four Arihant-class nuclear submarines (the first
of which is undergoing sea trials, while others are expected to be commissioned in
2023) and two Vikrant-class aircraft carriers (expected to enter service in 2018 and
2025, respectively) (Times of India 2013).
Indias growing ambitions to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean, and to
play the role of a regional maritime power and security provider, are explicitly
stated in the INs 2007 strategic document Freedom to use the seas: Indias maritime
military strategy. In its foreword, Admiral Sureesh Mehta asserts that his countrys
primary national interest . . . is to ensure a secure and stable environment, which
will enable continued economic development and social upliftment of [Indias]
masses. He deems that this will allow India to take its rightful place in the comity
of nations and attain its manifest destiny. Mehta then emphasizes that Indias
maritime military strategy is underpinned by the freedom to use the seas for
[Indias] national purposes, under all circumstances (Integrated Headquarters
Ministry of Defence 2007, iii).
Freedom to use the seas and good order at sea are thus vital components
of Indias maritime thinking. However, in an ideal scenario for Indians, the
freedom to use the seas in the Indian Ocean would apply exclusively to India.
James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara propose that Indias perception of its future
role in the Indian Ocean looks for insight not to the nineteenth-century European
balance of power model, but to Americas Monroe Doctrine (Holmes and
Yoshihara 2008, 46).
The Monroe Doctrines initial aim was to prevent European states acquiring
new colonies or territory in the USs vicinity, but by the time of Theodore
Roosevelts so-called corollary to the doctrine the policy basically legitimized US
intervention anywhere in the Americas when US interests were jeopardized. It is
hard to fathom which part of the Monroe Doctrine is most appealing to Indian
strategists, but the basic idea of inhibiting extra-regional states from meddling in
Indian Ocean affairs is quite clear. Indeed, an Indian commentator interpreted
New Delhis politico-military efforts as a repetition of the Monroe Doctrine, a
forcible statement that any external forces prejudicial to Indias interests cannot be
allowed to swim in regional waters (cited in Holmes and Yoshihara 2008, 48). This
type of thinking about the maritime domain surrounding India raises the question
of whether New Delhi aspires to possess maximum sea control capabilities in
regard to the entire Indian Ocean or rather sea denial capabilities. While sea
control is a prerequisite in dictating the terms of a naval engagement in a
particular maritime space, sea denial has limited application and is meant to deny
a stronger adversary the use of maritime space (Singh 2013b).

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 9


The terminology from US history does not end with Indias manifest destiny
and its potential implementation of a Monroe Doctrine. Indian strategic thinking
is also influenced by Indias own sense of exceptionalism, derived from Indias
ancient civilization and from its success in overcoming extraordinary diversity in
language and social divisions to form a united country (Schaffer 2009, 7).
A significant part of Indias self-conception of being exceptional is its insistence on
strategic autonomy, a concept created in the earliest days of Indian
independence to distance New Delhi from the politics of other great powers,
which led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Strategic autonomy
or non-alignment still resonates in Indian politics, and party officials often lose
political points if they are perceived to be associated too much with any other
great power (Latif 2012, 14). This policy doctrine is in its essence (and on paper)
incompatible with a balance of power system, since it forbids India to form
alliances.
Given the changing and dynamic geopolitical environment, Indian analysts
are questioning whether the non-alignment doctrine is still viable in the context
of twenty-first-century politics and whether it is not time for New Delhi to rethink
the concept. As Indias former chief of army staff General Deepak Kapoor asserts,
We may not favour entering into formal alliances and thus limiting our options,
but the need for close relationships to secure a stable environment for sustained
growth in view of a common threat can hardly be over-emphasised. The sooner
we acknowledge it, the better (Kapoor 2012, 676 677).
A few practical steps have been taken by the IN to demonstrate Indias
aspirations to become a security provider, but they are more ad hoc than guided
by a consistent policy. For example, India has helped smaller regional states like
Mauritius to operate a coastguard, strengthened Sri Lankas ability to control its
waters, improved the capabilities of Mozambique, Madagascar and Maldives to
monitor their maritime domain and transferred ships to Seychelles, Maldives and
Mauritius (Mohan 2010, 9). An important step towards strengthening Indias role
in the Indian Ocean was the establishment of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium
(IONS) in 2008. The IONS is officially an initiative that seeks to increase maritime
co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region by
providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant
maritime issues (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium 2013, 2). However, due to the
fact that India strictly distinguishes between regional and extra-regional states,
neither the US nor China has been invited to become members of the symposium,
despite their (legitimate) stakes and interests in the region.6
Indias aspirations in the Indian Ocean are undoubtedly driven in part by its
concern over the increasing Chinese presence in the region. The String of Pearls
raises fears about a potential Chinese containment of India and the prospect that
Beijing may seek to occupy the same role in the Indian Ocean as it does in the
South and East China Seas. New Delhi has been responding to Chinas presence in
the Indian Ocean, for example, by launching a navy communication satellite
capable of covering the entire Indian Ocean area (Gokhale 2013), setting up a
monitoring station in Madagascar and financing the construction of the port

On the other hand, China and the US are dialogue partners of the Indian Ocean Rim
Association (IORA), which was formed in 1995 in Mauritius.

10 Jan Hornat
facility in Chabahar, Iran. Furthermore, apart from strengthening its ties with
Southeast Asian nations as part of the Look East policy, India has been openly
consolidating its ties with Japana move that China views with great discomfort.
Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh called Japan a natural and
indispensable partner in our quest for peace and security (Menon 2014) and in a
recent trip, closely monitored by Chinese media, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe attended Indias Republic Day Parade as the Chief Guestan honour
usually reserved for New Delhis closest friends (British Broadcasting
Corporation [BBC] 2014).
Simply put, Indias primary aspiration in the Indian Ocean is to be the
dominant power and security provider, yet its capabilities and real determination
lag far behind this goal. The contest between these aspirations and Chinas stakes
is indisputably shaping the current and future security environment in the Indian
Ocean, but the role of the US in the region is not negligible, and with a nuanced
approach to the disputed issues and challenges Washington could ensure that the
interaction of stakes and aspirations does not grow out of proportion.
The established role of the US
The US has been the dominant power in the Indian Ocean and the protector of
SLOCs since the United Kingdom announced its withdrawal east of Suez in the
late 1960s. During the Cold War, Washingtons primary interest was to curtail
Soviet influence in the region and protect oil transportation from the Middle East.
In the early 1970s, the US commenced the construction of a naval facility at Diego
Garciaan atoll leased from the British which was strategically located in the
centre of the Indian Ocean. With the end of the Cold War, the US became the
uncontested guarantor of free passage and good order at sea in the Indian Ocean,
extensively using Diego Garcia as a naval support facility during its interventions
in the Middle East.
The US protection of vital SLOCs in the Indian Ocean comes with a significant
price, though. It has been estimated that the US spends between US$47 billion and
US$98 billion per year to secure the Persian Gulf (Delucchi and Murphy 2008,
2257). Since both India and China benefit from US-protected SLOCs in the Indian
Ocean, the two nations are basically free-riding on US naval forces. As the US
faces budget cuts in almost all spheres of the federal government, including the
military, Congress may be increasingly reluctant to appropriate the necessary
funds for securing Persian Gulf maritime transport routes, knowing that
providing these funds also serves Chinas interests. In the event of such a decision
being made, the US would have to accept the loss of its dominant position in the
region, conceivably causing severe hikes of oil prices and instability in the entire
Indian Ocean.
When in 2005 Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick coined the phrase
responsible stakeholder, the notion quickly became part of George W Bushs
rhetoric vis-a`-vis China. Simply put, Zoellicks concept emphasized that China
has a stake in the current international system and should manage this stake in
a responsible mannerthat is, share the burden of upholding global peace and
security. The phrase has not been used very often by the Obama administration,
but it has nevertheless been extended to include other powers, such as India
(Hachigian and Schorr 2012). Writing in Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 11


Clinton asserted that the United States is making a strategic bet on Indias
futurethat Indias greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and
security (Clinton 2011). In this sense, India is expected to play a more active role
in upholding the stability of its regional security environment, which includes the
Persian Gulf.
This is a complex dilemmaassigning a larger role to the IN in protecting
Indian Ocean SLOCs would foster a negative Chinese reaction. At this point,
Beijing entrusts Washington with securing maritime trade routes that are vital for
its economyin part because it does not have a different option, but also because
(so far) the US has demonstrated its commitment to the freedom of commercial
navigation. India, on the other hand, is an unknown factor in this sense: when
dealing with China its approach to such a role could be significantly different from
that of the US. Arguably, China would not acquiesce to Indias role as security
provider and would attempt to protect its maritime trade on its own account, thus
heightening tensions. Although such a scenario is unlikely at present, since the IN
does not possess the capacity to serve as a net security provider, it helps illustrate
the crucial role of the US Navy in the Indian Ocean.
In US strategic thinking, however, the Indian Ocean plays only a secondary
role when compared with the Pacific Ocean. The main focus of the so-called
pivot of the Asia Pacific7 is the region of the Western Pacific. One of the
arguments in formulating this policy was the protection of SLOCs that are vital to
the US economy, but, as the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific are much
interconnected, and most ships passing through the Pacific also have to make their
way through the Indian Ocean, it would be myopic to leave the Indian Ocean out
of the pivot equation. If the protection of SLOCs is a vital US interest, it needs to
be carried out along the entire maritime trade routes.
A telling aspect of the US militarys approach to the Indian Ocean is its
territorial division between three different COCOMs (Combatant Commands):
the Asia Pacific plus the eastern half of the Indian Ocean are overseen by
USPACOM (United States Pacific Command), the northwestern portion of the
Indian Ocean is overseen by USCENTOM (United States Central Command) and
the southwestern part is administered by USAFRICOM (United States African
Command). The seams split the ocean into three parts, and some analysts
have called for the establishment of a new South Asia Command, because in the
event of need the US military response might be fairly inconsistent due to
haphazard coordination between the individual commands (Riedel and Cohen
2011; Winner 2011, 116).
Few question that democratic India is the USs more natural ally when
compared with communist China. The US India Civil Nuclear Agreement
signed in 2006 gave way to speculation that the two oldest democracies in the
world may be slowly approaching a formalized alliance. The words of
American political leaders have further incited such speculations, former defence
secretary Leon Panetta characterizing India as a linchpin of Americas
new defence strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific, and Barack
Obama identifying the relationship as one of the defining partnerships of the

In the context of this article (and the pivot policy), the Asia Pacific is defined as the
territory encompassing East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

12 Jan Hornat
twenty-first century (Frankel 2011, 14). Yet, while New Delhi sought broader
cooperation in nuclear technology, Washingtons underlying intent in signing the
agreement seemed to reflect its desire to settle the issue of India possessing
nuclear arms while not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) (Schaffer 2009, 113).
Although the nuclear agreement cannot be perceived as a clear step towards a
formalized relationship between India and the US, it does represent a
rapprochement between the two states and demonstrates Washingtons attempt
to secure New Delhis future cooperation. The Obama administration allegedly
lobbied extensively for Australia to lift its ban on uranium exports to India, which
the administration viewed as an impediment to closer ties between New Delhi
and Canberraa clear sign of Washingtons interest in seeing the emergence of
closer ties between the two countries (Geraghty 2012, 11). Nevertheless, it must be
considered that in the future India may very well remain a swing power that
supports the US in some issue areas and China in othersthis stance, in fact,
would also fit with New Delhis traditional non-alignment paradigm. For
example, India and China, along with other emerging powers, have shared
interests on matters of global economic governance which may conflict with the
positions of established powers like the US and European Union.
In Washingtons interactions with India, another crucial factor comes into play:
Pakistan. Historical animosities and border disputes make India and Pakistan
irreconcilable rivals, while the US needs to maintain a partnership with Islamabad
to control the situation in Afghanistan and to monitor the (non-)proliferation of
Pakistans nuclear weapons. Therefore, closer US ties with New Delhi are limited
by the need to maintain good relations with Islamabad and vice versa. At the same
time, Pakistan is being described as the most stable and durable element of
Chinas foreign relations (Garver 2001, 187). Deeper ties between China and
Pakistan started in the 1950s, and they were characterized by both countries
antagonism to India. China quickly became Pakistans largest defence supplier, a
relationship that was underlined in the 1990s when Beijing essentially built
Pakistans nuclear programme (Pant 2012, 85). Pakistan thus finds itself in a
curious position within the India China US triangle with significant leeway to
influence the future of the trilateral relationship.
The US military is so active in the [Indian Ocean] region that it has become
part of the regions geopolitical fabric (Blumenthal 2012, 170). The geopolitical
fabric, however, is very complex, and every American step in the Indian Ocean
region should be highly nuanced and balanced with respect to Washingtons
ambiguous relations with regional stakeholders (for example, Iran, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Myanmar and even India). This situation is different from that of the
Asia Pacific region, where the US alliance structure is long established and thus
has facilitated the recent rebalancing policy.
The implications of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region
Current developments in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific may prove
wrong the Nixon Kissinger proposition that the road to peace still depends on a
balance of power (cited in Niquet 2006, 2). The contemporary political and
security context of Asia may be less suited to the balance of power system that
contributed to a peaceful era in European history.

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 13


Common interests to build on
Discussions concerning the security situation in the Indian Ocean region often
centre on Sino-Indian rivalry, but there is room between Beijings stakes and New
Delhis aspirations in the region for a significant amount of cooperation. There
seems to exist a dichotomy in Sino-Indian relationswhile the two converge on a
wide range of international issues, bilateral aspects of the relationship are
characterized by rivalry.
India and China share a desire for a multipolar world system, and both strictly
stress the concept of sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs of other
nations (Shaffer 2009, 144). Needless to say, however, the concepts of
multipolarity, sovereignty and non-interventionism become relative and problematic when one observes New Delhis and Beijings positions vis-a`-vis weaker
regional states, such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives or Bangladesh.
In the maritime domain, both states claim to adhere to the regime set by the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).8 As Washington
remains faithful to the older Grotian tradition of mare liberum, which defends
unfettered access to the open ocean and denie[s] the legitimacy of national claims
to broad oceanic expanses, China and India are prone to pursue the conception of
mare nostrum, as symbolized by Indias interest in the Monroe Doctrine, and
Chinas claim on the so-called Nine-Dotted Line in the South China Sea and its
emphasis on acquiring anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities (Tellis and
Mirski 2013, 24).9 In a sense, the latter two countries adherence to the mare
nostrum conception of the seas reflects the regions colonial history and hence also
a reluctance to grant innocent passage to warships (Sakhuja 2013, 160). As already
discussed, open and secure SLOCs in the Indian Ocean represent another vital
interest for both India and China (although they diverge on how the security and
openness should be ensured).
Given the number of common issues that face China and India in the India
Ocean, the two states are slowly adopting measures to further their cooperation in
the maritime domain. In 2012, an arrangement for maritime cooperation was put
in place, which included joint efforts against piracy and scientific cooperation on
seabed research (Dikshit 2012). The two countries membership in the BRICS
(Brazil Russia India China South Africa) grouping gives New Delhi and
Beijing a platform for cooperation as their economic interdependence growsa
2015 bilateral trade target was set at US$100 billion (in 2010, their bilateral trade
reached US$60 billion) (BBC 2010). Furthermore, both governments stress the
8
While China stresses its adherence to UNCLOS on paper, its stance vis-a`-vis the
pending arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, for example, does not reflect this
commitment to international law in practice. Pursuant to Annex VII of the Convention, the
Philippines filed an arbitration case against Chinas territorial claims in the South China Sea
in January 2013. However, Beijing refuses to participate in the arbitration and stresses the
need to settle the dispute bilaterally.
9
The notion mare liberum, translated from Latin as free sea, is taken from the title of a
book written by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius published in 1609. The book focuses on
international law and Grotius formulated the principle that the seas and oceans are
international territory and that all states are free to use them for trade and seafaring. The
mare nostrum notion, translated as our sea, was used by the ancient Romans in the Roman
Empire (and later by Italian fascists) in reference to the Mediterranean Sea and in essence
reflects the opposite of Grotiuss conception.

14 Jan Hornat
necessity of a stable external environment to facilitate domestic economic
development. In an effort to soothe tensions in the disputed Himalayan border
region, Beijing and New Delhi signed an agreement in 2013 that lays down a
resolution mechanism to avoid using force (Subramanian 2013).
A balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region could lead to a
suppression of the common interests described and instead accentuate the
differences in Sino-Indian relations.
Balancing policies
One of the most contested questions regarding the balance of power concept is
whether the general tendency of actors in an international system to achieve the
state of relative power equilibrium is systemic, that is, operates naturally in a
self-perpetuating manner, or whether it is the consequence of specific balancing
policies of individual actors (see Sheehan 2000, 53, 77). If the former applies, a
balance of power system in the Indian Ocean is essentially an inevitable prospect,
unless the actors adopt anti-balancing measures. If the latter is correct, a balance
of power system will emerge only when the actors in the system agree to its
operation by pursuing balancing policies. A plausible answer is that balancing is
an inherent, self-operating characteristic of the international system whilst the
balancing policies of actors further reinforce the process and give it different
dimensions.
The balancing in the Indian Ocean region is still not as explicit and formalized
as that in nineteenth-century Europe. Nonetheless, certain steps of the regional
stakeholders can be perceived as concrete measures seeking a balance of power
(the growth of the IN, Chinas engagement in port construction, Indias Look East
policy and its rapprochement with Japan, and US lobbying for closer ties between
Australia and India).
Another important aspect of the balance of power concept is the role of
balancers. The function of the balancer is to implement measures that mitigate
disequilibrium and prevent the hegemony of any one state or alliance. Some
pundits claim that a balance of power system cannot operate efficiently without a
balancer while others argue that a balancer, by virtue of its very existence, would
subvert a genuine balance of power system (Sheehan 2000, 66).
In the context of the Indian Ocean, the US is the most probable adept to play
such a role in the future and has perhaps assumed this role already. As noted,
Washington is keen on bringing India and Australia closer together, and the
current strengthening of Indias ties with Japan is welcomed and quietly
supported. Interestingly, Indian analysts identify the weight of the United States
influence on Japans policies as a primary factor that prevented India and Japan
from drawing closer to each other in the past (Sibal 2014).
Despite Indias reluctance to formalize its partnership with the US and its
continuing loyalty to strategic autonomy, Evan Braden Montgomery has argued
that, given the prospect that China will pose a greater challenge to American
interests as it confronts fewer threats on land . . . Washington should consider
India as a prospective continental ally rather than a potential maritime partner
(Montgomery 2013, 76). Montgomery opines that, instead of strengthening Indias
navy, a build-up of Indian forces along the disputed border with China would
divert Beijings attention from the sea, and thereby Indias balancing of China

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 15


would move from sea to land. However, Chinas stakes in the Indian Ocean are so
high that it would not turn away from its maritime intereststhis would lead only
to the build-up of Chinas continental forces and create further tensions along the
disputed border without easing pressures in the maritime domain.
Once states begin adopting overt balancing policies and start forming blocs or
alliances, the mechanics of the balance of power system are immediately put in
motion and there is little chance of returning to the status quo ante.
Jockeying for partners
As Rajan Menon put it, Nor, despite huge strides in modernizing its armed forces
can [India] balance China militarily without powerful coalition partnersa reality
that will remain unchanged during the next few decades (Menon 2013, 27). This
implies that in its balancing strategy India would need to practise not only
internal balancing (increasing economic and military strength), but also external
balancing (establishing partnerships and reinforcing alliances) (Malik 2012, 347).
The Indian military maintains a two-front war strategy, which assumes that
in the case of a conflict with Pakistan or China, one of the two partners would
always help the other (Frankel 2011, 5). Therefore, India may view its growing
partnership with Japan as a counterbalance to Chinas partnership with Pakistan.
However, a formalized New-Delhi Tokyo alliance could put in motion a series of
Chinese countermeasures that would spiral into a tense balancing contest in East
Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
In the case of a contingency between China and Japan, Tokyos potential
partnership with New Delhi would prompt Beijing to deploy patrols in the Indian
Ocean to protect its maritime trade due to its concerns that India could selectively
squeeze SLOCs in the Indian Ocean to damage the Chinese economy. Beijing
would interpret Indias relationship with Japan as an extension of the US Japan
alliance and be reminded of the Quad concept, which emerged as a platform for
cooperation between India, the US, Japan and Australia after the 2004 2005 Asia
tsunami (Green and Shearer 2012, 184 185). This would further raise Chinas
anxiety over the prospect of being contained within a tight island chain, and
Beijing would undoubtedly accuse Washington of orchestrating such a strategy.
In that case, Beijing could easily envision an emerging coalition aimed at
balancing its economic and political power in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. The
potential coalition would comprise the US, India, Japan, the Philippines and
Australia, with a high probability of being joined by Indonesia, Singapore,
Thailand or Vietnam. China could react to the formal establishment of a balancing
coalition by adopting its own external balancing strategy, giving rise to a genuine
balance of power system.
For example, Beijing could use its partnership with Islamabad more
extensivelyto influence developments in Afghanistan, to strengthen its position
in the disputed border area or even to covertly fund radical Islamist groups in
Pakistan to target India. Using its economic leverage, Beijing could press countries
where it has financed the construction of port facilities (Sri Lanka, Myanmar and
Bangladesh) for their permission to deploy warships. Nepal and Bhutan, having
significantly deepened their ties with China in recent years (Joshi 2011b, 565),
would find themselves placed on a very frictional borderand it is needless to
speak of Chinas use of North Korea as a buffer state. Smaller states in the Indian

16 Jan Hornat
Ocean, such as Mauritius or the Maldives, would bandwagon with an alliance that
they perceived to have the upper hand. Certain states of Central Asia could also
play a role in the emerging balance of power system. While India maintains an air
base in Tajikistan, China is engaged in constructing gas pipelines leading from
Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Chinas Xinjiang province.
Indias growing presence in Afghanistan to balance Pakistans influence would
interfere with Chinas interests in the country, and, despite the fact that stability in
Afghanistan is in the interest of the US, India, Pakistan and China, the country
could become a bargaining chip in a balance of power system.
All these movements could be observed by the US in either an active or passive
manner. Washington could play the potentially neutral role of a constructive and
overarching balancer, thus maintaining its distance from any of the forming
coalitions, or it could actively seek to be part of the coalition balancing China.
However, Washingtons established role in the region and its web of friends and
alliances would give it little chance of becoming a true balancer in the system.
A balance of power system would thus make it impossible for the US to maintain
its twin relationship with Pakistan and India.
At this point, reason leads to the conclusion that an overt balancing coalition
against Beijing would not be in any regional states interest given the varying levels
of economic dependence on China. But as Chinas maritime assertiveness grows
and the pursuit of its interests is carried out at the expense of damaging the
interests of regional stakeholders, China itself may be the catalyst that
inadvertently pushes India, Japan, the US and other regional actors closer together.
Conclusion
The geopolitical fabric of the Indian Ocean region may be set for the formation of a
genuine balance of power system, but it would be myopic to conclude that a
balanced system of power relations would bring stability to the region.
In weighing the mutual power positions of China, India and the US, this article
has argued otherwise. As noted, the balance of power paradigm could be used as
an argument to legitimize the acquisition of territory, which could be a particular
issue in regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China
Sea. Furthermore, since war is considered a legitimate means to maintain the
equilibrium, a balanced systemlike any other systemis no guarantee of
peace and stability. In fact, the current state of power distribution in the Indian
Ocean and East Asia carries a resemblance to Organskis power transition
scenario, in which an equilibrium of power is more likely to lead to war than is a
preponderance of power.
As I have argued, in a balance of power system mutual differences between
competing states and blocs are accentuated, rivalries may intensify and the
prospect of war can increase. Due to the extensive interconnectedness of the
Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, a balance of power system designed in one
region would quickly translate to the other, hence engaging states from the
western Indian Ocean littorals to the Korean Peninsula. Chinas rise is already
subtly bringing India and Japan closer together, although this potential
partnership may prove to be ephemeral. Considering the possible implications
of such a partnership for security developments in the region is a necessary
component of any political and security analysis of the region. However

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 17


implausible one might consider the partnership to be, it would arguably be the
first step towards the initiation of a regional balance of power system. Yet, if India
maintains its strategic autonomy, and China remains reluctant to build coalitions
and continues to prefer to resolve issues on the bilateral level, a genuine balance of
power in the Indian Ocean region will be less likely to emerge.
Spheres of influence in the Indian Ocean region are undoubtedly emerging,
though they do not (yet) resemble the formal coalitions or blocs of a balance of
power systeminternal balancing still prevails over external balancing. Great
disparities still lie between the military, political and economic powers of the three
countries discussed here. While China is steadily approaching (superficial)
economic parity with the US, India will arguably not allow itself to lag behind
Beijing in its power projection in the Indian Ocean region and thus New Delhi will
devote much attention to increasing Indias naval power. In an ideal scenario, the
contestation between Chinas stakes, Indias aspirations and the USs established
role in the Indian Ocean will be settled inside the power triangle with respect to
the common interests of all three actors and not by forming alliances to advance
ones interests over those of the others.
Notes on contributor
Jan Hornat is a PhD candidate in international relations at Charles Univeristy and
an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.
Email: hornatj@gmail.com
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