Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean Region for USA and China

By Anwer Ali Bhurgri

With the onset of globalization, the frequency of maritime trade, communication and timely, but purposeful, interaction among states in the international system has become the common norm. Correspondingly, the significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has become more prominent for the international community.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) consists on the Indian Ocean, its forty-seven littoral states, and several strategically important islands. Geographically, it covers twenty per cent of earth’s surface that is about seventy-four million square kilometers in terms of area. One third of the world’s population lives in this region. The IOR is one of the most resource-rich regions of the world, as it possesses one thirds of gas reserves and more than half of world’s strategic resources. Huge deposits of gold, diamond, uranium, iron, coal, tea and jute etc. are also present there.

This maritime region is home to nine strategically and economically important choke points that include Strait of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda in the East, Red Sea Corridor, Suez Canal and Strait of Hormuz in the West, and Cape of Good Hope in the South. The access to IOR is controlled by these passages with five sea lines of communications (SLOCs). These sea lines of communications are used to transport energy. The Indian Ocean links the flourishing economies of Asia and developed economies of Europe with the Corban-rich fields of Middle East and the raw materials of Africa. According to one study, forty percent of the world’s energy supplies are either found in this region or pass through the Indian Ocean from Persian Gulf to Europe and Asia.

Many world powers tried to assert their influence in the Indian Ocean region through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements. Most prominent power of all is the United States of America, which is the largest importer of energy resources from Africa and West Asia and holds an important base -Diego Garcia- in the heart of Indian Ocean Region. Diego Garcia was used during the Cold War era against the Soviet expansion. Recently, this base was being used for the US led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States’ involvement in the world’s oceans began during the First World War, when Washington brought its troops, war materials and goods to Europe, but the Indian Ocean did not achieve the significant attention of the American policy makers and strategists until World War II. The US policymakers’ primary interest has been to protect the flow of Middle Eastern oil and to initially contain the advances of former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Now, Washington is considered to be the “de facto security provider” for Indian Ocean’s five sea lines of communications (SLOCs), which have been used to transport energy since the 1960s.

Ashley J. Tellis argues that the United States’ grand strategy has had three fundamental goals since the Second World War. These include preventing external hegemonic control over critical geopolitical areas of the world, expanding liberal political order internationally and sustaining an open economic regime. According to him, these three fundamental goals of the United States in the Indian Ocean Region are still unchanged and will likely remain unchanged in the future. The formerly ignored Indian Ocean is, in Robert Kaplan’s view, on the verge of becoming a new international strategic locus for the United States.

Besides United States the Indian Ocean Region is equally perhaps more important strategic region for rising China, as it provides the access to the massive manufacturing capabilities of Beijing with wealthy European markets.

Since China is gravely dependent on oil, the Middle Eastern region has emerged as Beijing’s largest source for its oil imports. According to one study, its dependence on Middle Eastern oil is predicted to increase to seventy-five per cent in 2035 and almost all of it will pass through the Indian Ocean.

The evolving contest for power between rising resources hungry China and world’s sole super power United States is a recent development in the Indian Ocean Region. This contest for power between United States and China can be rightly judged from former US president Barack Obama administration’s “rebalance strategy” with the idea of Indo-pacific and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s maritime Silk Road initiative. These strategies of both the states are different from traditional challenges such as piracy and natural disasters.

In short, the increasing dependence of two Great powers and several other regional powers on Indian Ocean has replaced it with the world’s second largest ocean, Atlantic Ocean, as a central artery of commerce. This immense economic and strategic significance of the Indian Ocean Region compels the policy makers of the established power (United States of America) and the rising power (China) not to ignore this region while formulating their foreign and defense policies. As IOR has great significance for the United States and China, any future conflict or cooperation among Washington, Beijing, and other Littoral States in Indian Ocean Region will have regional and International consequences.

* Anwer Ali Bhurgri is pursuing his M.Phil. Degree from Department of International Relations, National Defence University Islamabad. He can be contacted at

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