US Should Wade Carefully Into The Indian Ocean


(MENAFN- Asia Times) The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region is considerable and growing.

Consisting of vast and diverse maritime geography of several subregions, including the Indian subcontinent, parts of Australia and Southeast Asia, West Asia, and Eastern and Southern Africa; it is home to 2.7 billion people - over a third of the global population - with an average age of 30 years old; it is resource-rich; and it is comprised of some of the fastest growing countries.

The region also connects peoples and economies worldwide via sealines and telecommunication fiber optic submarine cables; significantly, 80% of global maritime oil shipments traverse Indian Ocean waters.

The region, of course, faces major challenges, including actions by nefarious non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and terrorists. The ongoing attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red and Arabian Seas that are wreaking havoc on global maritime trade exemplify this problem.

Other challenges include the impact of climate change, which affects the region disproportionately, and growing naval competition, notably as China is increasingly flexing its muscles in the region.

How should the United States approach the Indian Ocean region?

Ambitions and realities

The United States recognizes the importance of maintaining a peaceful, secure and prosperous Indian Ocean region.

In recent years, Washington has embraced the terminology“Indo-Pacific,” as opposed to“Asia-Pacific,” and in 2018 it renamed the US Pacific Command the US
Indo-Pacific Command. Even if US strategy documents say little about the Indian Ocean region, several US officials have recently
stressed
that Washington is committed to elevating its engagement there, notably through new partnerships.

Admiral Eileen Laubacher, special assistant to US President Joe Biden and senior director for South Asia at the US National Security Council, reiterated this commitment at the recently concluded 2024 Indian Ocean Conference .




Admiral Eileen Laubacher. Photo: US Navy

The annual event is spearheaded by the India Foundation and this year was hosted by the Perth USAsia Center in Australia and supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

There are problems, however. The US bureaucracy is not structured to engage the Indian Ocean region.

The US Department of State approaches it through four different bureaus: African Affairs, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, and South and Central Asian Affairs. The US Department of Defense, for its part, separates it into three combatant commands: the Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and Africa Command.

These divisions make it difficult for the United States to appreciate and address dynamics of the region as a whole, especially maritime developments.

Another problem is that the United States – unlike India, Australia, Japan, and a few others – does not include the Western Indian Ocean or the eastern coast of Africa in its conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific.

The US framing of the Indo-Pacific coincides with the Indo-Pacific Command's area of responsibility, which ends with India. That further complicates the United States' ability to craft a unified strategy for the Indian Ocean region.

Perhaps partly due to these bureaucratic and conceptual issues, US engagement of the region has been limited.




US military planes parked at Diego Garcia military base, December 2017. Photo: Facebook

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