For those who live outside of the Indian Ocean Rim, it might be easy to disregard this vast area of the Earth’s surface, or to only sporadically take notice. Americans and Europeans tend to get rather fixated on the North Atlantic, and Americans to a lesser extent think about the Pacific Ocean. This distorted ethnocentric geographic lens creates a barrier for the vast majority of these populations as it relates to understanding the significant and complicated geopolitical milieu of the Indian Ocean. Certainly to many Americans, this area of the globe primarily evokes tales of modern-day piracy, tragic tsunamis, and the enduring mystery of a lost plane, Malaysia Airways Flight 370.
It might actually be quite eye-opening to those who are unfamiliar with the Indian Ocean to appreciate that it stretches from South Africa to Australia, Australia to Indonesia, and from Malaysia via India to Somalia. In all, more than 45 countries are in the Indian Ocean Rim, accounting for somewhere on the order of 30% of the world’s population and potentially as much as half of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves. Moreover, the Indian Ocean ultimately serves to connect vitally important shipping lanes, including the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Straits of Malacca. And, one might feel inclined to think of the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, as relegated to shipping history. However, the recent COVID-induced drop in oil demand and oil prices has incentivized a resurgence in tanker traffic seeking to avoid the steep transit fees of the Suez Canal.
On top of all of that exists the added intrigue of longstanding feuds and unrest in the region, massive economic disparities, jockeying for access to strategically important ports, and far reaching geopolitical tensions. Again, while “Westerners” might be able to regurgitate something they’ve heard about Chinese hegemonic aspirations in the South China Sea, it’s unlikely they have much understanding of historic clashes along the Indo-Chinese border. The recent flare-up in the Galwan Valley was the most significant between the two nations in 50 years, sending ripples around the globe which generally resulted in a backlash against the Chinese. Multiple countries expressed support for the Indians as the pattern of Chinese aggression continues, with kinetic clashes closer to home and ‘soft power’ flexing well away from their shores, including but not limited to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
Those of us with geospatial backgrounds fully appreciate how ‘where matters,’ and understand the often ponderous discontinuities between and among physical geography, political geography, and human geography. From these discontinuities have germinated no small amount of the modern armed conflict. The location and size of the Indian Ocean, and the land masses and peoples and cultures it connects are combining to increasingly take a leading role on the geopolitical stage. Of course, geographically, India is uniquely placed in terms of opportunities and threats and must strategically deal with land border issues with Pakistan and China, concerns with China’s dalliances in Sri Lanka, and managing along its littoral areas and beyond. US and Chinese posturing further put India in a tough spot. It was not lost on anyone when the US renamed its Hawaii-based Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, sending an unambiguous message to the Chinese about the Americans’ regional resolve.
Noted scholars and authors Michael Auslin and Parag Khanna have chronicled the historical context of the region and used that context as a springboard to offer analysis about what lies ahead. To be sure, Western ethnocentric myopia – if it leads to ongoing naivete about the breadth and depth of the geopolitical construct of the Indian Ocean – is a grave error. We must take collective responsibility for maintaining relative stability around the Indian Ocean Rim, including preservation of its critically important shipping lanes. Pay attention to this area of our globe and endeavor to develop a deeper understanding that extends beyond pirates, tsunamis, and missing planes. We fail to stay abreast of the Indian Ocean geopolitical very much at our own peril.