Sea Power Rivalry in Western Indian Ocean: Argumentations and Rationalizations

Applying a thorough inspection of both argumentations and military activities of the United States and China as the main competitors in the recent rise of sea power rivalry and their impact in the western Indian Ocean security order, the author tries to answer how the argumentations and rationalizations of China and the US Sea Powers affect the Western Indian Ocean?
21 February 2023
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Abstract

Applying a thorough inspection of both argumentations and military activities of the United States and China as the main competitors in the recent rise of sea power rivalry and their impact in the western Indian Ocean security order, the author tries to answer how the argumentations and rationalizations of China and the US Sea Powers affect the Western Indian Ocean?

 Using Realism thinking framework and library and internet resources, the author argues that the situation in Western Indian Ocean is affected by both sea power rivalry as well as the region’s synergies. The present - day sea power rivalry while characterized by the factor of “sea power rise” brings apparent implications along. One major repercussion would be the transmission of international rivalries to maritime arena. Instead of political tensions and disputes as the root causes of maneuvers and military bases at seas, hence the maritime rivalries would be the root for region’s main tensions.

Based on these considerations and in order to save the western Indian Ocean for not being a theatre of sea power rivalry, the regions’ countries should take a leading role in security provision and argument building that would guarantee collective security for regional players. The indispensability of naval defense power and regional marine coalitions are also recommended.

 Keywords: Sea Power; Maritime Power Rise; China; US; Arabian Sea.

Introduction

A global rise of maritime power projection, maritime balance of power and maritime expansionism has become a great part of contemporary international relations and is changing the world’s security order. In today’s world politics a plethora of maritime security issues are occurring. A wide range of maritime disputes, maritime maneuvers, increase of maritime military bases, and development of marine weaponry and especially the very most recent developments in Persian Gulf are witnessed as the prominent type of developments in the world affairs.

The aforementioned developments highlights the magnitude of a “sea power” in the world order and the necessity of becoming one, before reaching the status of a major power. Being a sea power nation is not just about the coastlines and islands, but besides it refers to the “extension of military power onto the seas” (Encyclopedia Britannica, a), and the provision of blue water navy. According to the Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Sea Power concept implies that a country should enhance its comprehensive power in respect to the development, utilization, protection, management, and control of the ocean (Wu, 2014: 8). Centuries of global rivalry proves how a country’s power and its decline are directly related to the size and capability of its naval and maritime forces (Hendrix, 2021). In his paper entitled “Sea Power Makes Great Power”, Jerry Hendrix argues that “throughout history, large naval and merchant fleets represented not just a power multiplier but an exponential growth factor in terms of national influence. All historical sea powers recognized this, until they didn’t”.

Besides, since “the acquisition of the status of a great power depends primarily upon military potential and military achievement” (Wright, 1942: 268), and since the world is witnessing a new Great Game at sea (Gresh, 2020), the contemporary maritime power rise, proves that becoming a sea power is a necessity for being a major power in contemporary world politics.

A Recent observation in the maritime coalitions and power projections, as well as the global emphasis of sea power nations on strengthening their naval capacities, arouses new concerns and requires new delicacies for a better confrontation with the development. In this regard, recent observations in the Arabian Sea sphere are of great importance.

The present paper is based on idea that the situation in Western Indian Ocean is affected by both sea power rivalry as well as the region’s synergies. The contemporary sea power rivalry while characterized by the factor of “sea power rise” brings evident implications along. One major impact would be the transmission of international rivalries to maritime arena. Although political tensions and disputes used to lead to maneuvers and military bases at seas, hence the maritime rivalries would be the root for region’s main tensions. This study is aimed to shed light on the argumentations that advocate “maritime power project” and justifications for more sophisticated marine military capabilities in western Indian Ocean that menace the region’s security.

 

Why this study matters?

A plethora of recent literatures about regional and international maritime affairs are advocates of “maritime power project” and justifications for more sophisticated marine military capabilities. Since these advocative argumentations are orientating the world maritime order and the western Indian Ocean’s security order, awareness is needed about these rationalizations.

Recent developments in maritime areas have fortified the role of water strategies in contemporary international relations. Accordingly maritime policies have a greater share in states’ foreign policies and a sea power position is inevitable in the way of being a major power in the world politics.

Surrounded with the Arabian Sea, the Middle East countries are affected by the maritime security developments. The study of the region would not be a thorough and comprehensive one unless a deep knowledge about the maritime affairs is gained.

Against this backdrop a thorough inspection of both argumentations and military activities of the United States and China as the main competitors in the recent rise of sea power rivalry and their impact in the western Indian Ocean security order is considered as lost in the present studies.

 

Argumentation for US power project in Indian Ocean

In his article entitled “Great Responsibility Demands a Great Navy”, James Holmes argues that “With great responsibility, must come great power” and furtherly discusses that since leaders are not superhuman they must develop great power through conscious and diligent labor. The history of the US sea power desire indicates that the great responsibility concept has made the United States not remain confined to guarding home waters and protecting overseas trade and commerce, but provide for hemispheric defense and beyond[1] in the 19th century (Holmes, 2021). The great responsibility concept in today’s world of China – US rivalries bears a broader scope including defiance of liberal international order, human rights and freedom of navigation (Cropsey, 2021).

With the extended scope of the sea power rivalries and fundamental changes in major power competition, the sea power project has become a vital issue for major powers and therefore different justifications are delivered. Commander Paul S. Giarra and Captain Gerard D. Roncolato argue that since the end of the cold war the United States has been somehow absent in naval strategies, and China having recognized this absence, is capitalizing on it (Giarra & Roncolato, 2021). Considering the explained circumstances the American scholars and authors tend to alarm the United States not to allow China to surpass America’s armed forces (Cropsey, 2021).

The mentioned power project in today’s major power competition is mainly casted on the Indian Ocean. U.S. and its key allies have mentioned the Indian Ocean in their official documents such as The Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper and Japan’s 2011 National Defense Policy Guidelines. This is a proof of Indian Ocean’s magnitude in the strategic calculus of contemporary world affairs (Green and Shearer, 2012: 175).

According to the US argumentation the security environment in Indian Ocean has changed and therefore the United States needs a revision in its maritime security strategy. Due to the aforementioned reason “the Defense Department is investing in new cutting – edge capabilities, deploying finest maritime capabilities forward and distributing these capabilities more widely across the region” (Shear, 2015). These observations and measures, have led to the enhancement of US capabilities to power project from the sea, in the air and under the water, deploying some of its more advanced surface ships to the region. “A global competition for influence” is one of the justifications for which the US Naval Service should be prepared anywhere and anytime (US Marine Corps, US Department of Navy and US Coast Guard, 2020: 21). This “anywhere” is the justification for Washington to argue that it is part of the region, not an outsider (Scott, 2018: 22), and will always be one (US Department of State, 2019: 5) Trump’s Free and Open Indo – Pacific concept and the US Indo – Pacific Command are other indications for a growth of maritime rivalries. What completes these argumentations is the belief piece that what happens at sea will determine what happens on land across the region (Friedberg, 2021).

The US assumption that the littoral states are looking to Washington to organize them (Green and Shearer, 2012: 176), and also describing US presence in the Indian Ocean as a counter strategy for China (Amin, 2020), are among the other justifications for the United States. These argumentations and over - rationalizations have led to the emergence of military coalitions such as the newfound Quad in the Indian Ocean.

The trends that try to contain China’s sea power rise are not confined to the United States and its Indo – Pacific allies. There is some literature that alert about China’s central role in Indo – Pacific security affairs and its impact in Europe’s periphery and therefore encourage NATO to counter China’s sea power rise in the Indian Ocean (Nouwens and Legarda, 2020: 4).

All the aforementioned argumentations have a China factor inside. In other words, China’s actorness in the Indian Ocean is translated either as a threat for the regional states or a game changer in the world politics. Accordingly, in the following section, the author tries to have a thorough inspection on China’s argumentations about its sea power rise and power project in the Indian Ocean.

 

Argumentations for China’s power project in Indian Ocean

China especially in Xi’s era has been a concept-builder state. In other words, the internal and foreign policies in China are based upon great ideas. Since his presidency in 2013, Xi has designed numerous governmental, foreign policy (see in “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” Series) and multilateral (Jones, 2021) discourses, ideas and initiatives. Through the concepts, discourses and ideas, Xi has built the foundations and structures of China’s policies. The argumentations that form China’s discourse regarding to its naval and maritime power are under scrutiny in this chapter of the article.

A thorough scrutiny in both Xi Jinping’s remarks and doctrines and China’s progression trend on the ground reveals that she is pursuing a multidimensional rise, incorporated by soft power and hard power. China’s emergence as an alternative economic partner (Breslin, 2011: 2), and strengthening its role and influence in international institutions (Okano – Heijmans, et. al, 2019) are some samples of China’s attempt for an image management (d’Hooghe, 2010: 1) and its try to “get other countries to want what it wants” (Nye, 1990).  China’s hard power rise is underpinned by a wide range of military and strategic capabilities counting outer space access and counter space capabilities (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2019: 13 - 21), cyber power (Xi, 2014: 228), nuclear weapons (Union of Concerned Scientists), (NTI: 2015), sea power, etc.

As a part of its multidimensional power rise, becoming a sea power has long been in China’s strategies. It firstly traces back to 1980s when Liu Huaqing the Commander of People’s Liberation Army Navy proposed the construction of a strong sea power so that the navy could break through the constraint of the first island chain (Yue Chan, 2020: 2). Hence China has started the trend for becoming a sea power nation. In November 2012, the Chinese Communist Party while emphasizing that China should attach great importance to maritime, space and cyberspace security, adopted a new strategic objective that “should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a strong maritime power” (Hu, 2012). Afterwards The 2012 Defense White Paper (released in 2013) highlights the magnitude of Chinses maritime domain to the pursuit of its core interests and dwells on the need of a modern navy (Hsu and Murray, 2013: 3), and the White Paper of 2015 further reinforced this goal (Suri, 2017 :32).

President Xi Jinping has embraced maritime power as an essential element of “China Dream” and also “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. The sea power rise like other dimensions of Chinese power rise, long has been in a low profile mode before the Chinese recent maritime concepts. In other words, China followed a multidimensional rise in a low profile mode until reaching an acceptable degree of power in all areas. The entrance into high profile mode for China was not only before reaching to an adequate level of sophisticated marine capabilities, but was also followed by an even rise of power in other areas such as economic, space, cyber, etc.

China’s contemporary theme of military political work is a focus on realizing the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation (Xi, 2014: 435). A strong military dream as a part of Chinese Dream (Xi, 2015: 441) is crucial for Communist Party of China’s goals and has a great portion in China’s foreign policies, and the sea power rise is a great share of that. Among the concepts and made by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the “Two-Ocean” Strategy (双海战略) began to appear in the literature around 2005 representing a strategic objective to achieve in order to gain back control of the waters surrounding (Sun and Payette, 2017: 2).

It is noteworthy that the concept of a “sea power” for China is not confined to a naval power, but it also appreciates the importance of having a world – class navy (McDevitt, 2016: iii). Secondly the concept of “sea power” for China is synonymous with the power of controlling the two island chains which enables her to be the dominant power in Asia as well as controlling the western Pacific (Espena and Bomping, 2020). The third to the fifth island chains are also suspected by the analysts to be in China’s maritime vision (Stavridis, 2019).

Besides some other argumentations are also nurturing China’s maritime activities. The Outline of 13th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China promulgated in 2016 elaborated on the issue regarding “actively assuming international responsibilities and obligations”. China has sent to the outside world the clear message that it will more proactively play a constructive role in the international community (Jiechi, 2015).

 

The Western Indian Ocean

The Western Indian Ocean faces not only the aforementioned argumentations and rationalizations about the sea power rise and maritime power projection, but also confronts with some literature concretely focused on it.

Arabian Sea in the northwest of the Indian Ocean and its surrounding bodies of water are among the world’s key sea lines of communication. To the north the Gulf of Oman connects the Arabian Sea with the Persian Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz, and to the west the Gulf of Aden connects it with the Red Sea via the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (Encyclopedia Britannica, b).

Sea lines of communication are essential geopolitical considerations when developing strategy (Peele, 1997:21), and Arabian Sea as well as its surrounding bodies of water are among the key ones (Peele, 1997:9), while the strait of Hormuz is also referred to as the “world’s most important chokepoint”(US Energy Information Administration, 2017). 

The recent developments in this area, has suggested a wider strategy by both the United States and China today. Yemen war, the growing regional presence of the PLAN notably the opening and expansion of the military base in Djibouti and Chinese involvement in the Doraleh commercial port (Neil, 2019: 19) and the US military exercises in Persian Gulf are among the most recent developments in the region.   

The Western Indian Ocean faces not only the aforementioned argumentation about the sea power rise and maritime power projection, but also confronts with some rationalizations concretely focused on the region, for an instance leading to the construction of US and Chinese military bases in Djibouti (Sola – Martin, 2020).

Immediate challenges posed by the vicinage of China’s military base to U.S. Camp Lemonnier and long-term challenges posed by China’s presence in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and its growing ability to exert control over strategic waterways (USIP China-Red Sea Arena Senior Study Group, 2020), US – Iran tensions and the provisions for action against Iranian key facilities such as its navy facilities in the Persian Gulf (CRS Report, 2020:15), and arguing that the longstanding US role as the dominant external power in the Horn of Africa is being contested by China and the regional powers (Knopf, 2018), are among the US contemporary over-rationalizations for its military presence in the region. From the other side, US naval influence in Western Pacific is a menace to China and makes it expand its own in form of naval and anti – naval capabilities (Gompert, 2013: 4 – 7).

China’s string of pearls strategy has been the pioneering conceptualization for its military bases in the western Indian Ocean. The construction of naval infrastructures in the region under its formidable strategy of Belt and Road Initiative is also another rationalization for China’s presence in this maritime region.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The situation in Western Indian Ocean is affected by both sea power rivalry as well as the region’s synergies. The current sea power rivalry while characterized by the factor of “sea power rise” brings distinct implications along. One major impact would be the transference of international rivalries to maritime arena and the maritime rivalries would be the root for region’s main tensions.

Assuming that a thorough inspection of both argumentations and military activities of the United States and China as the main competitors in the recent rise of sea power rivalry and their impact in the western Indian Ocean security order is considered as lost in the present studies, this study aimed to shed light on the argumentations that advocate “maritime power project”. Since the mentioned argumentations aim to justify for more sophisticated marine military capabilities in western Indian Ocean and menace the region’s security, the paper calls for the region’s security through a better acknowledgement of the current trends.

Based on these considerations and in order to save the western Indian Ocean for not being a theatre of sea power rivalry, the regions’ countries should take a leading role in security provision and argument building that would guarantee collective security for regional players. The indispensability of naval defense power and regional marine coalitions are also recommended.

Bibliography:

 

  1. The October 1873 establishment of the U.S. Naval Institute and the 1884 founding of the Naval War College were the result of thinking on the new Navy. A new national role in the world, rapidly evolving technology, and a growing sense of professionalism within the Navy launched an explosion of deliberation and innovation. Most notably, these changes spurred Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan to compose his many works on naval power and amplified the effects of those works on U.S. and global maritime thinking (Giarra & Roncolato, 2021).

Parisa Shahmohammadi, IPIS Researcher

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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