Dr Huma Baqai

14th Aug, 2022. 10:15 am

Changing realities of IOR

Pakistan Navy’s mega event AMAN 2023 is yet to be announced. AMAN exercises are held biennially, with the objective of making the seas safer for positive human activities by inviting regional and extra-regional navies for joint exercises. AMAN-21 was held in the same spirit, titled ‘Together for Peace’, and was a huge success, providing the perfect solution oriented response to the conflict matrix of the Indian Ocean. It is indeed the face of Pakistan’s Indian Ocean and Naval Policy. The Aman series is an ideal forum for the exchange of information, mutual understanding, and identification of areas of common interests. The response to the initiative, where 45 countries participated in the exercise and continue to engage despite some differences, highlights Pakistan’s ability to build bridges where there are none and provide patterns of cooperation as an option.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has long been considered a backwater to major power rivalry and global geopolitics. It is a vast theatre, stretching from the Strait of Malacca and western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. It encompasses the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the North, all the way down to the southern Indian Ocean. IOR has gained significant geostrategic importance because of rising Chinese naval power and a refocus on sea lanes as an arena of both competition and cooperation. It facilitates maritime trade in the region, transports more than half of the world’s sea-borne oil and hosts twenty-three of the world’s top 100 container ports. However, it is often seen through a highly securitized lens.

IOR is a key geostrategic space linking the energy-rich nations of the Middle East with economically vibrant Asia and is the site of intensifying rivalry between China and India. This rivalry has significant strategic implications for the United States. The country which holds the dominant position in the Indian Ocean is likely to control the flow of energy not only to East Asia, the future centre of the world economic power, but also to other regions.

The IOR is a vital sea lane with choke points such the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb, and so forth. To gain maintain a strong foothold in this resource rich region, regional and external powers flex their muscles. Three major powers which account for nearly half of global economy in the Indian Ocean arena, India, China, and United States, are vying for influence. In 1897 a US Navy Admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan, said: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. This ocean will be the key to the seven seas in the 21st Century. The destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”.

Unlike the Pacific, which remains a fundamentally bipolar strategic environment, the Indian Ocean theatre is becoming more multipolar. This includes the major powers such as the United States, India, and China and a clutch of Western-aligned middle powers such as Australia, France, and Japan. But “new” middle powers, including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and, over time, Iran, and Indonesia, will increasingly make themselves felt.


The strategic rivalry between China, the US, and India represents another layer in the IOR’s already unstable regional and maritime environment. This is likely to exacerbate existing lines of conflict and have repercussions on maritime trade. Two hostile nuclear powers are also at the centre of this region – India and Pakistan. The China-India and U.S.-China rivalries are likely to have the biggest effect on the region, both in terms of risks and opportunities. Other major powers, which have strategic or economic equities in the region or their own concerns about China’s rising influence, will also play a role. China’s growing economic investment is reshaping the region, forcing both US and India to adapt. United States reacted to it with the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pivot strategy, and India through its Look-East policy.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be viewed as an attempt to minimize its strategic vulnerabilities by diversifying its trade and energy routes while also enhancing its political influence through expanded trade and infrastructure investments.

Chinese investments under BRI have heightened the IOR’s strategic value. China’s BRI in South and Central Asia and the IOR, when set in context with China’s assertive behaviour in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and border tensions with India, is contributing to a growing rivalry between India and China. The Chinese BRI projects once completed are expected to involve 75% of global energy reserves, more than 65% of world’s population, and over half of global GDP. More than 100 countries and international organizations have pledged support to BRI.

Consequently, US strategy is focused on curtailing China which is myopic and unsustainable. Smaller Southeast Asian nations live under the shadow of Sino-US competition and do not want to make   pick sides. Middle powers like Australia and Japan also do not want the Indo-pacific to be defined by the US-China rivalry.

IOR is also the primary site of a major power competition between China and India. This has motivated India to cooperate with the US and its allies. India has been creating a ‘Necklace of Diamonds’ to counter the String of Pearls. It has also shaped Chinese involvement in other South Asian countries, particularly driving the close China-Pakistan partnership.

Pakistan shares a 990km long coastline with the Arabian Sea and is among the major littoral states of IOR. Being one of the major trade corridors in IOR, Pakistan can play a positive role in the complex geostrategic conflict matrix. Gwadar not only provides direct access to the Indian Ocean, but the land and maritime networks of One Belt One Road converge here. Due to China’s BRI and CPEC, the Indian Ocean assumes even greater significance for Pakistan.


Pakistan needs to focus on its naval diplomacy to secure its interest in the Indian Ocean. It must craft a strategic response to the challenges, which should include a continuous development of its naval capability. Pakistan should also strive to become a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Apart from getting its point of view factored in, this will also contribute towards a more positive image. The country is on the crossroads to becoming a regional economic hub and a major maritime power, if CPEC projects deliver.

The strategic environment in the Indian Ocean is changing which is signalling the beginning of a new Indian Ocean strategic order where several major and middle powers jostle for influence. Although the United States remains the biggest military power in the region, it will increasingly need to deal with a much more complex environment.

With the US preoccupied with its commitments in the Pacific, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, China and India took on the role of key security providers in the IOR region. It is unlikely that China will be able to challenge U.S. dominance in the Indian Ocean Region yet. But it will be poised to take advantage of strategic opportunities.

Indian Ocean has not witnessed conflict between states for more than thirty years. The increasing competition between China and the US, which earlier was limited to the Pacific, has now extended to the Indian Ocean, complicating the power dynamics of the region. Pakistan has the potential to act as a bridge to defuse tensions in the exceedingly polarized Indian Ocean; AMAN initiative is testament to that.


The writer is Rector MiTE