The first quarter of the 21st century is seeing the impressive role of the sea power of vital Indo-Pacific democratic pivots, namely, Japan and India. This, buttressed by the leverage provided by the United States, is proving to become the foundation that seeks to challenge and balance out China's military and economic coercion across the region, including the Indian Ocean. More specifically, the rise of regional stakeholders is challenging China's revisionist strategy and objectives for the greater Indian Ocean region. This is due to an increasing need among stakeholders to secure energy sources and routes.
A Geopolitical Complex
In a 2009 Foreign Affairs' essay titled "Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean," Robert D Kaplan argued that the "center stage of the 21st century" will be the Indian Ocean. In all likelihood, this region will become one of the fulcrums of the global and regional power contest of this century.
However, in an edited 2021 Routledge volume titled, ASEAN as a Method: Re-centering Processes and Institutions in Contemporary Southeast Asian Regionalism, Shofwan Al Banna Choiruzzad submitted a modification to Kaplan's argument. The author explained that the Indian Ocean must increasingly be seen as a geopolitical complex. It is an integrated region with East Asia and/or the Pacific Ocean. That, at least, is what Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India seem to foresee in their strategic visions.
The future of the Indo-Pacific region collectively could remain uncertain. To counter this potential, the ability of all these key stakeholders to consolidate their individual and collective positions will be crucial. Also vital is the willingness of great powers to manage relations with their key competitors. These, together with the ability of those major powers to materialize their grand initiatives regionally, will define the future of this 21st-century center stage.
From the Gulf of Aden to the Sea of Japan
The map of the Indian Ocean Region visually stimulates forethought regarding key geoeconomic and strategic trends in regional politics. This is akin to how understanding the map of Europe was essential to realize 20th-century geopolitics. China is seizing every opportunity to expand its naval footprint across the entire Indian Ocean littoral. Its ultimate aim is to realize its blue-water naval ambitions.
Beijing, for that matter, launched an active quest to define its presence in the Indian Ocean in 2005. It commemorated Zheng He — the Ming dynasty explorer and admiral. He sailed the seas between China and Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of Africa in the early decades of the 15th century. Beijing then began pressing the importance of these waters. It has used the rather predictable pretext that these seas have always been part of its zone of influence.
In 1890, American military theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. He argued that the power to protect merchant fleets had been the determining factor in world history. In the present context, the Indian Ocean constitutes the nucleas of the stretch between the seas and the coasts from the Gulf of Aden to the Sea of Japan. Thus, maintaining a balance of power in this region will be a decider of how the geopolitics and strategic future of the entire Indo-Pacific shall shape up.
An Antidote to Beijing's Expansionism
Regional political geography is mirrored once again with China's latest territorial map. In it, Beijing outlines its new "ten-dash line." It is an extended version of the controversial previous "nine-dash line." The China's Ministry of Natural Resources released the map on August 28, 2023, in a ploy to stake its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The new "standard map" brazenly encroaches into the waters off the eastern coast of Taiwan. Via its new "ten-dash line," China is laying outrageous claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
The most prominent geopolitical challenge in Asia is the increasing military and economic stealth displayed by China to expand its territorial footprint and claims. Beijing views itself as the deciding factor in global politics. This is particularly true in reference to challenging the United States as its most capable competitor.
The rise and role of Japan and India is a much-needed antidote to set limits on Beijing's expansion and revisionist designs for Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Collectively, their influence is enhanced as they are leveraged by the sea power of their closest allies and partners in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific. These waters shall unquestionably be vital zones of great-power and regional rivalries of 21st-century geopolitics.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).