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Cambridge Review of International Affairs ISSN: 0955-7571 (Print) 1474-449X (Online) Journal homepage:
Cambridge Review of International Affairs ISSN: 0955-7571 (Print) 1474-449X (Online) Journal homepage:

Cambridge Review of International Affairs

ISSN: 0955-7571 (Print) 1474-449X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccam20

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean: China, India and the United States

Jan Hornat

To cite this article: Jan Hornat (2015): The power triangle in the Indian Ocean:

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Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2014

, 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2014.974507 The power triangle in the Indian Ocean: China, India and the

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean: China, India and the United States

Jan Hornat Institute of International Relations

Abstract The Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming the point of focus in assessing Asia’s future security challenges. As both India and China are building up their naval presence in the Indian Ocean and as China’s stakes in the region (protecting its maritime trade) interact with India’s aspirations (being the regional dominant power and security

provider), tensions are likely to rise. The United States has an established role in the Indian Ocean, and its approach to the contestation between Indian and Chinese interests may play

a key role in limiting frictions. These developments have led many analysts to foresee the

emergence of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region and East Asia which would be comparable to that of nineteenth-century Europe. In presenting the interplay between the three major stakeholders in the Indian Ocean, this paper aims to outline the

implications of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region and demonstrate that

it may not guarantee peace and stability, but, with regard to Organski’s ‘power transition’

theory, could lead to quite the contrary.


In recent years, a quote ascribed to the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan has been often cited by Chinese and Indian analysts: ‘Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters’ (quoted in van Rooyen 2011 , 5). Analysts and commentators have been seduced by this prophetic assessment of the Indian Ocean’s future role, and variations of the quote have even appeared in the Indian government’s official documents (Holmes and Yoshihara 2008 , 43). However, what is most interesting about this quote is that it is a fabrication ( The Economist 2009 ). Mahan’s words have been manipulated to fit the narrative of the evolving security dynamic in Asian waters—be they the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea or the East China Sea. In observing the evolution of the security environment in the Indian Ocean, many scholars have accepted the notion of an emerging balance of power system in the region which may one day resemble that of nineteenth-century Europe. 1 This assumption may be valid, given the number of regional actors, their varying interests and the anticipated great power interplay between China, India and the United States (US). Thus, it is important to understand the actual implications and

1 A number of analysts anticipate a balance of power system in Asia. See, for example, Malik ( 2012), Chellaney (2009 ), Niquet ( 2006) or Goldstein ( 1997).

q 2014 Centre of International Studies

2 Jan Hornat

consequences of a genuine balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region 2 — would it stabilize the security environment, would it preserve peace or would it have adverse effects? This paper aims to demonstrate that in the current context of the Indian Ocean a balance of power system would not foster a peaceful environment, but, to the contrary, would have negative repercussions for the stability of the wider Indian Ocean region and East Asia. In employing the classical realist balance of power concept and the so-called ‘power transition theory’, the paper seeks to create a theoretical framework for interpreting a topic that is mostly treated through heavily empirical analyses. It is important to note that the notion of ‘balance of power’ has various definitions, perspectives and interpretations, especially with regard to its historical evolution (for a list of these definitions see Sheehan [ 2000 ]). For the purpose of this analysis, a ‘balance of power system’ alludes to a system of state interaction that is based on the maintenance of the relative equality of power of individual states (or blocs). In this system, individual states (or blocs) exercise policies and strategies that deliberately aim to sustain mutual positions of power parity with all other states (or blocs) contained within the system.

Balance of power versus power transition

In nineteenth-century Europe, the balance of power became the paradigm of international relations theory and practice. Statesmen used balance of power as a prism through which they made sense of and gave order to the complex web of

relationships between states. Not only did they believe the balance of power to be a systemic, self-operating mechanism of international politics; they also adopted concrete policies that sought an alleged equilibrium amongst states. But, as Hans Morgenthau suggested, states ‘must actually aim not at a balance—that is,

equality—of power but at superiority of power in their own behalf

must ultimately seek the maximum of power obtainable under the [given] circumstances’ (Morgenthau 1960 , 210). A clear example of such manoeuvring was Napoleon’s France during the 1813 peace negotiations. The Sixth Coalition against France was in agreement that a state of equilibrium should be reinstated in Europe, but divisions remained in regard to the question of how that equilibrium should be achieved (Sheehan 2000 , 120). Napoleon, knowing that the balance of power in Europe was sacrosanct for the Allied powers, rejected

the first peace proposal. Indeed, he could easily play upon the balance of power concept to ensure that his country was not so excessively stripped of territory as to become too weak and that no European state acquired such territory as to tip the balance in its favour and hence become a security threat to France. In this sense, balance of power can serve as a justification (or even a ‘camouflage’) for expansionist policies or become a normative ideology that seeks to preserve a power equilibrium by using all means necessary—including war. The most adamant practitioners and theorists of balance of power, ‘the Metternichs and the Castlereaghs—all thought of war as an instrument to

It merely masqueraded as a formula for

preserve or restore a balance of power

all nations

2 For the purposes of this paper the Indian Ocean region is defined as including all Indian Ocean littoral states and regional actors—such as the US (due to its military presence in Diego Garcia) and China (due to its maritime interests).

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 3

peace’ (Blainey 1988 , 112). Thus, in a balance of power system, preventive war becomes a legitimate means to uphold and protect the existing system against a rising power that could disturb the equilibrium. In an ideal balance of power system, alliances should be flexible, temporary and ad hoc. States should be ready to form alliances with their former foes in order to balance an emerging challenger to the equilibrium. The greater the number of states involved in a balance of power system, the better, since a larger number of variations of coalitions and alliances can exist (Sheehan 2000 , 56). In practice such manoeuvring may be quite impossible, given the societal differences between the states involved. Forming a coalition with a friendly country (whose ‘friendliness’ may rest on shared cultural or religious affiliations) and then uniting with a historical foe to balance the friendly country could prove politically indefensible. An inherent characteristic of balance of power systems is their tendency to move towards an imbalance, since the systems are never strictly static (Sheehan 2000 , 14). This causes states to constantly jockey to preserve the coveted equilibrium, and, as history demonstrates, such jockeying can be a catalyst of war. One example of this from the maritime domain is the Battle of Sybota. In 433 BC, the largest navy fleet in Greece was that of Athens, followed by the Corcyraean (modern-day Corfu) and Corinthian fleets. When Corcyra went into dispute with Corinth, an ally of Sparta, it asked Athens for help and reinforcements. The Athenians knew that aiding Corcyra could lead to war with Sparta, but they were also very well aware that their status and prosperity depended on sea trade and the strength of their navy. If Corinth were to defeat Corcyra, its fleet would fall into the hands of a Spartan ally and Athens’s naval predominance would be put at risk. Eventually, Athens decided to send reinforcements to Corcyra, and, although the battle’s outcome was rather indecisive, the Battle of Sybota is considered to be one of the major catalysts of the Peloponnesian War (Kagan 1989 , 251). Studying the prospects of war between great powers, AFK Organski basically turned the balance of power theory on its head. For him the balance of power was ‘neither a logical abstraction nor an accurate description of empirical fact’ (Organski 1958 , 281). Contrary to balance of power theory, Organski envisaged a power transition theory, claiming that it is not an equilibrium of power that ensures peace, but rather the preponderance of power between great powers that leads to a peaceful environment. In essence, Organski claimed that ‘an even distribution of political, economic, and military capabilities between contending groups of nations is likely to increase the probability of war; peace is preserved best when there is an imbalance of national capabilities between disadvantaged and advantaged nations; the aggressor will come from a small group of dissatisfied strong countries; and it is the weaker, rather than the stronger, power that is most likely to be the aggressor’ (Organski and Kugler 1980 , 19). Power transition theory describes international politics as a hierarchy consisting of one ‘dominant’ state, ‘great and middle powers’, ‘small powers’ and the rest. 3 During the period of power parity (balance) between two states (that is, the challenger and the dominant power) the prospect of war increases, because

3 Power transition theory thus falls into the category of so-called ‘hegemonic stability theories’, which claim that the stability of the international system requires a single dominant power to formulate and enforce the rules of interaction among the members of the system. See Webb and Krasner ( 1989).

4 Jan Hornat

the challenger is ‘eager to redress its grievances and assume its “rightful” role in the world’ (Tammen 2008 , 326), and the dominant power is unwilling to give up its preponderance. The period of parity is identified as ‘starting when a challenger achieves 80% of the power of the defender—and lasting until the challenger passes into superiority at 120% of the power of its former rival’ (Tammen 2008 , 326). In the context of Organski’s theory, the roles of the challenger and the dominant power could be easily applied to contemporary China and the US and, depending on developments in Asia, in the future perhaps also to India and China. This reasoning can be equally applied to coalitions and alliances. Walter Lippmann saw that ‘when the alliance is inadequate because there is an opposing alliance of approximately equal strength, the stage is set for a world war. For then the balance of power is so nearly even that no state is secure’ (quoted in Claude 1989 , 78). This creates a security dilemma. In Organski’s world, states and coalitions pursuing balancing policies and struggling to maintain the power equilibrium to preserve peace are, in fact, constantly achieving power parity, thus raising the prospects for war. The current distribution of power in the Indian Ocean between India, China and the US can be identified, in the language of power transition theory, as a preponderance of power, the US being the dominant (naval) power. Relations between the three powers may often be tense, but they are arguably peaceful. It is the rise of China (and the potential power parity with the US) that raises concerns of future conflict. In a simplistic explanation of the mutual relations between the three powers, the US is a status quo power with respect to China, and China is a status quo power relative to India (Malik 2012 , 362). This implies that, in terms of its power position in the Indian Ocean, India is the least satisfied of the three powers and that it will be active in strengthening its position vis-a` -vis China. China, on the other hand, will aim to strengthen its position vis-a` -vis the US, while Washington will try to avoid any disturbances to the current state of affairs. China is not a status quo power in world politics, but with regard to India Beijing would be best served if New Delhi were not to strengthen India’s regional power position. Even though it is highly unlikely that all three powers will reach some level of power parity in the near future, the key question is whether a balance of power system is emerging in the Indian Ocean, in which each power will police the others to make sure no one is tipping the balance in their favour, or whether a power transition will occur and a new power will come to dominate the system. In light of the aforementioned, this paper will further assess the positions of each of the three powers in the Indian Ocean and identify the main points of friction that are increasing political tensions in the region. The current state of affairs in the Indian Ocean represents, in its most basic sense, a model that juxtaposes China’s stakes, India’s aspirations and the US’s established role in the region. The interaction of these three factors is likely going to shape the security challenges of the Indian Ocean and should therefore be examined more closely.

China’s stakes

In the years since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, China’s Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly derived its legitimacy of rule from the growing

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 5

prosperity of the country rather than from communist ideology. 4 This implies that China’s leadership must ensure the factors that have helped China’s rise remain intact. One part of China’s equation for increasing prosperity is sea trade— especially for the import of energy. Indeed, China’s reliance on the import of energy via the Indian Ocean is severe: 89 per cent of its hydrocarbons are transported through these waterways (Erickson et al 2010 , 216). Unlike in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean is restricted to a small number of choke points—namely the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Strait between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. China’s dependence on freedom of passage through these choke points led Chinese President Hu Jintao to declare that his country faces a ‘Malacca Dilemma’ (Lanteigne 2008 , 143). The dependence on the Malacca Strait seems analogous to a saying from the fifteenth century which alluded to Venice’s extensive commerce with Asia: ‘Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice’ (Kaplan 2010 , 180). Beijing’s anxiety about free passage through Malacca is further exacerbated by remarks of Indian ‘hawks’, such as Bharat Karnad, who is a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Karnad advocates that, in the event of a conflict with China, India would use sea- denial strategies such as naval blockades to sever China’s energy supply lines—by ‘squeez[ing] the Chinese oil and trade lanes in the Indian Ocean’ (Joshi 2011a , 159). The second point of anxiety in Chinese maritime thinking is the so-called ‘first island chain’, constituted by a closed arc that runs from South Korea through Japan and the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia. The ‘first island chain’, formed by the US and its partners and allies, is allegedly suffocating China’s nautical activities and obstructing the nation’s entry into the oceanic thoroughfare (Yoshihara 2012 , 491). According to Chinese analysts, the US and its allies are using this ‘chain’ to encircle and contain China (Li 2012 ). It is therefore only natural for China to seek ‘relief’ in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean, though, contains an alleged ‘iron chain’—India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The geostrategic location of the islands would permit India to ‘seal off Malacca’ and play the role of ‘guardian’ of the Malacca Strait to resist ‘Chinese infiltration of the Indian Ocean’ (Yoshihara 2012 , 496). In 2001, India created the Andaman and Nicobar Command based in Port Blair. The Command’s objective is to safeguard India’s interests in Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait by boosting its ability to rapidly deploy military assets in the region (Raghuvanshi 2013 ). This step raised further concerns in China about India’s intentions. To bypass its ‘Malacca problem’, China has been active in financing the construction of ports and infrastructure in various Indian Ocean littoral states. These projects include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Sittwe in Burma and Chittagong in Bangladesh, which serve as transport corridors for Chinese oil and trade. For example, from Gwadar, Middle Eastern oil could be

4 It must be noted that economic prosperity is not the sole source of CCP legitimacy. As Yanqi Tong claims, ‘the current regime legitimacy is maintained because of the historically rooted moral bond between the state and society and the societal expectation that the state would be responsible for the wellbeing of the population’ (Tong 2011, 141). Yet it is quite clear that the party’s current objectives and policies are more ‘prosperity oriented’ than ‘ideology oriented’, which is closely linked to being ‘responsible for the wellbeing of the population’.

6 Jan Hornat

transported by a proposed 2000-kilometre road and rail link directly to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province, thus bypassing the bulk of the Indian Ocean sea route (Business Monitor International 2010 , 39). A similar transport corridor from Myanmar’s Sittwe port has also been proposed. The Chinese government has even been exploring the possibility of financing the construction of a Panama- Canal-style passage through the Thai Kra Isthmus—an estimated investment of US$20 billion—which would save around 960 kilometres of the journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (Bouchard and Crumplin 2010 , 32). China’s policy of constructing port facilities in the Indian Ocean region has come to be labelled the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy and raises concerns in India that these facilities may one day serve as forward deployment bases for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Similarly to how Beijing perceives the ‘first island chain’, New Delhi views China’s String of Pearls as an attempt to encircle India

and, in the event of a conflict, limit its activities in the Indian Ocean. It is important

to note, however, that there is no hard evidence of China’s intentions to use these

ports as naval bases (Lou 2012 , 631). To the contrary, when in 2011 Pakistan offered

to upgrade the Gwadar port to a naval base, Beijing ‘immediately rejected the

offer, not wanting to antagonize the US and India with the formal establishment of

a base in Pakistan’ (Pant 2012 , 84). Moreover, China’s involvement in the

construction of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is connected to the fact that Colombo first invited India to cooperate in the construction but when New Delhi rejected this offer China stepped in (Mohan 2010 , 9). To a certain extent, China’s increasingly frequent incursions into the Indian Ocean are a sign of power projection. Beijing’s growing naval fleet, bolstered by the newly operational aircraft carrier (which is currently mainly utilized in posturing), has fostered China’s confidence and assertiveness in defending its territorial claims and interests in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. 5 The Chinese leadership has been adroit in employing the country’s usable past to form a narrative of its naval history. Veneration of the iconic admiral Zheng He, who allegedly discovered America before Columbus, and emphasis on China’s successes in naval explorations and trade in the Middle Ages, mixed with the current incidents over territory in the waters around China, have shored up national pride in the navy and domestically legitimized investments in the PLAN. In June 2013, China released the first ‘Annual Report on the Development of the Indian Ocean Region’, which came to be labelled the ‘Blue Book’ in the media. Although it was published by a think-tank—the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)—and not a government agency, the report can be considered a semi-official standpoint of the Chinese leadership, due to the prominence of CASS, whose policy prescriptions have often mirrored the government’s views (Singh 2013a ).

5 China’s assertiveness in protecting its territorial claims can be observed in the growing number of maritime incidents in the region—note the April 2012 standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, the May 2014 placement of China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam or the July 2012 administrative upgrade of Sansha to prefecture-level city to administer (actually or nominally) parts of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 7

The Blue Book observes that the ‘changing dynamics of international relations necessitates that China play a more proactive role in affairs of the region’, but also acknowledges that China needs to dispel the notion that its activities pose a ‘threat’ to the region (Singh 2013a ). This is in line with the notion that the ‘basic aim of Chinese naval power building is to ensure a “harmonious sea” through self-capacity building and international cooperation’ (Lou 2012 , 631). In this sense, the report emphasizes that China’s essential interests in the region are purely commercial and it makes a strong case for deepening economic engagement with littoral states. The book also states that, while India has put forward its own ‘Look East’ policy, and the US has implemented its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ strategy towards Asia, China ‘has no Indian Ocean strategy’ (Krishan 2013 ). The Look East policy represents India’s effort to forge deeper economic and strategic ties with Southeast Asian nations in order to boost its standing as a regional power. This includes the strengthening of India’s relations with regional multilateral organizations, such as the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which culminated in the creation of a free trade area between India and the ASEAN member states in 2010. India thereby has certain interests in the South China Sea region, and, due to its growing relations with Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, for example, the Indian Navy (IN) regularly carries out operational cruises and exercises with other navies of the region (Kapila 2013 ). The policy may be a thorn in the eye of the Chinese, but acknowledging that India has stakes and interests in the waters around China may help New Delhi admit that China has similar stakes and interests in the waters around India. Given this wide range of strategic interests and potential partners in the area, Beijing is bound to conduct a nuanced policy towards the Indian Ocean region. Nevertheless, its primary stakes in the Indian Ocean seem to be quite clear: China needs to protect the maritime trade routes that are vital to its economy. The PLAN’s capabilities are still far exceeded by those of the US Navy, but as China’s navy very gradually shifts from its traditional ‘coastal defense’ role to a more ‘forward-deployed blue-water’ navy, it will increasingly gain the capacity to protect sea lines of communication (SLOCs) on its own and not need to entrust other powers (mainly the US) with this task (Erickson and Chase 2011 ; Holmes 2012 ). Nevertheless, the question remains of whether India’s aspirations in the Indian Ocean will permit China to play such a role and whether the US will be willing to give up its portion of the job.

India’s aspirations

From a geostrategic perspective, the triangular shape of India’s territory, protruding into the central waters of the Indian Ocean, gives the country a natural position to dominate the ocean’s trade routes. Yet the IN does not possess such a capacity, and, despite increasing investments into its fleet, it is unlikely to be up to the task in the next ten to fifteen years. In the Indian Ocean region, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), for example, is larger in size than the IN in terms of navy personnel (the IN has 58,000 active personnel next to the RTN’s 71,000). The dependence of India’s economy and energy security on Indian Ocean SLOCs is comparable to China’s reliance on these sea lanes; a fact that is aptly summarized by an IN 2009 maritime doctrine that claims that the Indian economy

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is ‘at the mercy of the power which controls the sea’ (Erickson et al 2010 , 230). However, unlike China, India does not face a ‘Malacca Dilemma’ in its energy imports; instead, its leaders picture an analogous ‘Hormuz dilemma’ (Winner 2011 , 105). Indian maritime doctrines and strategists thus appropriately identify ‘the arc from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca as a legitimate area of interest’ and the Red Sea, the South China Sea and the southern Indian Ocean as ‘secondary areas’ of maritime interest (Erickson et al 2010 , 230). Its geographic predisposition and the increasing weight of its economy are slowly pushing India’s mindset from ‘continental’ to ‘maritime’. Its maritime aspirations are exemplified by the acquisition of the Kiev -class aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya from Russia, which entered service in 2013, and the indigenous development and construction of four Arihant -class nuclear submarines (the first of which is undergoing sea trials, while others are expected to be commissioned in 2023) and two Vikrant -class aircraft carriers (expected to enter service in 2018 and 2025, respectively) ( Times of India 2013 ). India’s growing ambitions to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean, and to play the role of a regional maritime power and security provider, are explicitly stated in the IN’s 2007 strategic document Freedom to use the seas: India’s maritime military strategy. In its foreword, Admiral Sureesh Mehta asserts that his country’s

is to ensure a secure and stable environment, which

will enable continued economic development and social upliftment of [India’s] masses’. He deems that this ‘will allow India to take its rightful place in the comity of nations and attain its manifest destiny’. Mehta then emphasizes that India’s maritime military strategy is underpinned by ‘the freedom to use the seas for [India’s] national purposes, under all circumstances’ (Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence 2007 , iii). ‘Freedom to use the seas’ and ‘good order at sea’ are thus vital components of India’s maritime thinking. However, in an ideal scenario for Indians, ‘the freedom to use the seas’ in the Indian Ocean would apply exclusively to India. James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara propose that India’s perception of its future role in the Indian Ocean looks for insight not to the nineteenth-century European balance of power model, but to America’s Monroe Doctrine (Holmes and Yoshihara 2008 , 46). The Monroe Doctrine’s initial aim was to prevent European states acquiring new colonies or territory in the US’s vicinity, but by the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s so-called corollary to the doctrine the policy basically legitimized US intervention anywhere in the Americas when US interests were jeopardized. It is hard to fathom which part of the Monroe Doctrine is most appealing to Indian strategists, but the basic idea of inhibiting extra-regional states from meddling in Indian Ocean affairs is quite clear. Indeed, an Indian commentator interpreted New Delhi’s politico-military efforts as ‘a repetition of the Monroe Doctrine, a forcible statement that any external forces prejudicial to India’s interests cannot be allowed to swim in regional waters’ (cited in Holmes and Yoshihara 2008 , 48). This type of thinking about the maritime domain surrounding India raises the question of whether New Delhi aspires to possess maximum ‘sea control’ capabilities in regard to the entire Indian Ocean or rather ‘sea denial’ capabilities. While sea control ‘is a prerequisite in dictating the terms of a naval engagement’ in a particular maritime space, sea denial ‘has limited application and is meant to deny a stronger adversary the use of maritime space’ (Singh 2013b ).

‘primary national interest

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 9

The terminology from US history does not end with India’s ‘manifest destiny’

and its potential implementation of a ‘Monroe Doctrine’. Indian strategic thinking

is also influenced by India’s own sense of exceptionalism, ‘derived from India’s

ancient civilization and from its success in overcoming extraordinary diversity in

language and social divisions to form a united country’ (Schaffer 2009 , 7).

A significant part of India’s self-conception of being exceptional is its insistence on

‘strategic autonomy’, a concept created in the earliest days of Indian independence to distance New Delhi from the politics of other great powers, which led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. ‘Strategic autonomy’ or ‘non-alignment’ still resonates in Indian politics, and party officials often lose

political points if they are perceived to be associated too much with any other great power (Latif 2012 , 14). This policy doctrine is in its essence (and ‘on paper’) incompatible with a balance of power system, since it ‘forbids’ India to form alliances. Given the changing and dynamic geopolitical environment, Indian analysts are questioning whether the ‘non-alignment’ doctrine is still viable in the context

of twenty-first-century politics and whether it is not time for New Delhi to rethink

the concept. As India’s former chief of army staff General Deepak Kapoor asserts, ‘We may not favour entering into formal alliances and thus limiting our options, but the need for close relationships to secure a stable environment for sustained growth in view of a common threat can hardly be over-emphasised. The sooner we acknowledge it, the better’ (Kapoor 2012 , 676– 677). A few practical steps have been taken by the IN to demonstrate India’s aspirations to become a ‘security provider’, but they are more ad hoc than guided by a consistent policy. For example, India has helped smaller regional states like

Mauritius to operate a coastguard, strengthened Sri Lanka’s ability to control its waters, improved the capabilities of Mozambique, Madagascar and Maldives to monitor their maritime domain and transferred ships to Seychelles, Maldives and Mauritius (Mohan 2010 , 9). An important step towards strengthening India’s role

in the Indian Ocean was the establishment of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium

(IONS) in 2008. The IONS is officially an ‘initiative that seeks to increase maritime co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues’ (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium 2013 , 2). However, due to the fact that India strictly distinguishes between ‘regional’ and ‘extra-regional’ states, neither the US nor China has been invited to become members of the symposium, despite their (legitimate) stakes and interests in the region. 6

India’s aspirations in the Indian Ocean are undoubtedly driven in part by its concern over the increasing Chinese presence in the region. The String of Pearls raises fears about a potential Chinese ‘containment’ of India and the prospect that Beijing may seek to occupy the same role in the Indian Ocean as it does in the South and East China Seas. New Delhi has been responding to China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, for example, by launching a navy communication satellite capable of covering the entire Indian Ocean area (Gokhale 2013 ), setting up a monitoring station in Madagascar and financing the construction of the port

6 On the other hand, China and the US are ‘dialogue partners’ of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which was formed in 1995 in Mauritius.

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facility in Chabahar, Iran. Furthermore, apart from strengthening its ties with Southeast Asian nations as part of the Look East policy, India has been openly consolidating its ties with Japan—a move that China views with great discomfort. Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh called Japan a ‘natural and indispensable partner in our quest for peace and security’ (Menon 2014 ) and in a recent trip, closely monitored by Chinese media, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended India’s Republic Day Parade as the ‘Chief Guest’—an honour usually reserved for New Delhi’s closest friends (British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] 2014 ). Simply put, India’s primary aspiration in the Indian Ocean is to be the dominant power and security provider, yet its capabilities and real determination lag far behind this goal. The contest between these aspirations and China’s stakes is indisputably shaping the current and future security environment in the Indian Ocean, but the role of the US in the region is not negligible, and with a nuanced approach to the disputed issues and challenges Washington could ensure that the interaction of stakes and aspirations does not grow out of proportion.

The established role of the US

The US has been the dominant power in the Indian Ocean and the protector of SLOCs since the United Kingdom announced its withdrawal ‘east of Suez’ in the late 1960s. During the Cold War, Washington’s primary interest was to curtail Soviet influence in the region and protect oil transportation from the Middle East. In the early 1970s, the US commenced the construction of a naval facility at Diego Garcia—an atoll leased from the British which was strategically located in the centre of the Indian Ocean. With the end of the Cold War, the US became the uncontested guarantor of free passage and ‘good order at sea’ in the Indian Ocean, extensively using Diego Garcia as a naval support facility during its interventions in the Middle East. The US protection of vital SLOCs in the Indian Ocean comes with a significant price, though. It has been estimated that the US spends between US$47 billion and US$98 billion per year to secure the Persian Gulf (Delucchi and Murphy 2008 , 2257). Since both India and China benefit from US-protected SLOCs in the Indian Ocean, the two nations are basically free-riding on US naval forces. As the US faces budget cuts in almost all spheres of the federal government, including the military, Congress may be increasingly reluctant to appropriate the necessary funds for securing Persian Gulf maritime transport routes, knowing that providing these funds also serves China’s interests. In the event of such a decision being made, the US would have to accept the loss of its dominant position in the region, conceivably causing severe hikes of oil prices and instability in the entire Indian Ocean. When in 2005 Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick coined the phrase ‘responsible stakeholder’, the notion quickly became part of George W Bush’s rhetoric vis-a` -vis China. Simply put, Zoellick’s concept emphasized that China has a ‘stake’ in the current international system and should manage this ‘stake’ in a ‘responsible’ manner—that is, share the burden of upholding global peace and security. The phrase has not been used very often by the Obama administration, but it has nevertheless been extended to include other powers, such as India (Hachigian and Schorr 2012 ). Writing in Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 11

Clinton asserted that the ‘United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future—that India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security’ (Clinton 2011 ). In this sense, India is expected to play a more active role in upholding the stability of its regional security environment, which includes the Persian Gulf. This is a complex dilemma—assigning a larger role to the IN in protecting Indian Ocean SLOCs would foster a negative Chinese reaction. At this point, Beijing entrusts Washington with securing maritime trade routes that are vital for its economy—in part because it does not have a different option, but also because (so far) the US has demonstrated its commitment to the freedom of commercial navigation. India, on the other hand, is an unknown factor in this sense: when dealing with China its approach to such a role could be significantly different from that of the US. Arguably, China would not acquiesce to India’s role as security provider and would attempt to protect its maritime trade on its own account, thus heightening tensions. Although such a scenario is unlikely at present, since the IN does not possess the capacity to serve as a net security provider, it helps illustrate the crucial role of the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. In US strategic thinking, however, the Indian Ocean plays only a secondary role when compared with the Pacific Ocean. The main focus of the so-called ‘pivot’ of the Asia –Pacific 7 is the region of the Western Pacific. One of the arguments in formulating this policy was the protection of SLOCs that are vital to the US economy, but, as the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific are much interconnected, and most ships passing through the Pacific also have to make their way through the Indian Ocean, it would be myopic to leave the Indian Ocean out of the ‘pivot’ equation. If the protection of SLOCs is a vital US interest, it needs to be carried out along the entire maritime trade routes. A telling aspect of the US military’s approach to the Indian Ocean is its territorial division between three different COCOMs (Combatant Commands):

the Asia –Pacific plus the eastern half of the Indian Ocean are overseen by USPACOM (United States Pacific Command), the northwestern portion of the Indian Ocean is overseen by USCENTOM (United States Central Command) and the southwestern part is administered by USAFRICOM (United States African Command). The seams split the ocean into three parts, and some analysts have called for the establishment of a new ‘South Asia Command’, because in the event of need the US military response might be fairly inconsistent due to ‘haphazard coordination’ between the individual commands (Riedel and Cohen 2011 ; Winner 2011 , 116). Few question that democratic India is the US’s more natural ally when compared with communist China. The US – India Civil Nuclear Agreement signed in 2006 gave way to speculation that the ‘two oldest democracies’ in the world may be slowly approaching a formalized alliance. The words of American political leaders have further incited such speculations, former defence secretary Leon Panetta characterizing India as a ‘linchpin’ of America’s new defence strategy of ‘rebalancing’ towards the Asia–Pacific, and Barack Obama identifying the relationship as ‘one of the defining partnerships of the

7 In the context of this article (and the ‘pivot’ policy), the Asia –Pacific is defined as the territory encompassing East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

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twenty-first century’ (Frankel 2011 , 14). Yet, while New Delhi sought broader cooperation in nuclear technology, Washington’s underlying intent in signing the agreement seemed to reflect its desire to settle the issue of India possessing nuclear arms while not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (Schaffer 2009 , 113). Although the nuclear agreement cannot be perceived as a clear step towards a formalized relationship between India and the US, it does represent a rapprochement between the two states and demonstrates Washington’s attempt to secure New Delhi’s future cooperation. The Obama administration allegedly lobbied extensively for Australia to lift its ban on uranium exports to India, which the administration viewed as an impediment to closer ties between New Delhi and Canberra—a clear sign of Washington’s interest in seeing the emergence of closer ties between the two countries (Geraghty 2012 , 11). Nevertheless, it must be considered that in the future India may very well remain a ‘swing power’ that supports the US in some issue areas and China in others—this stance, in fact, would also fit with New Delhi’s traditional non-alignment paradigm. For example, India and China, along with other emerging powers, have shared interests on matters of global economic governance which may conflict with the positions of established powers like the US and European Union. In Washington’s interactions with India, another crucial factor comes into play:

Pakistan. Historical animosities and border disputes make India and Pakistan irreconcilable rivals, while the US needs to maintain a partnership with Islamabad to control the situation in Afghanistan and to monitor the (non-)proliferation of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Therefore, closer US ties with New Delhi are limited by the need to maintain good relations with Islamabad and vice versa. At the same time, Pakistan is being described as ‘the most stable and durable element of China’s foreign relations’ (Garver 2001 , 187). Deeper ties between China and Pakistan started in the 1950s, and they were characterized by both countries’ antagonism to India. China quickly became Pakistan’s largest defence supplier, a relationship that was underlined in the 1990s when Beijing essentially built Pakistan’s nuclear programme (Pant 2012 , 85). Pakistan thus finds itself in a curious position within the India –China –US triangle with significant leeway to influence the future of the trilateral relationship. ‘The US military is so active in the [Indian Ocean] region that it has become part of the region’s geopolitical fabric’ (Blumenthal 2012 , 170). The geopolitical fabric, however, is very complex, and every American step in the Indian Ocean region should be highly nuanced and balanced with respect to Washington’s ambiguous relations with regional stakeholders (for example, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even India). This situation is different from that of the Asia –Pacific region, where the US alliance structure is long established and thus has facilitated the recent ‘rebalancing’ policy.

The implications of a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region

Current developments in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific may prove wrong the Nixon –Kissinger proposition that ‘the road to peace still depends on a balance of power’ (cited in Niquet 2006 , 2). The contemporary political and security context of Asia may be less suited to the balance of power system that contributed to a peaceful era in European history.

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 13

Common interests to build on

Discussions concerning the security situation in the Indian Ocean region often centre on Sino-Indian rivalry, but there is room between Beijing’s stakes and New Delhi’s aspirations in the region for a significant amount of cooperation. There seems to exist a dichotomy in Sino-Indian relations—while the two converge on a wide range of international issues, bilateral aspects of the relationship are characterized by rivalry. India and China share a desire for a multipolar world system, and both strictly stress the concept of sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs of other nations (Shaffer 2009 , 144). Needless to say, however, the concepts of multipolarity, sovereignty and non-interventionism become relative and proble- matic when one observes New Delhi’s and Beijing’s positions vis-a` -vis weaker regional states, such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives or Bangladesh. In the maritime domain, both states claim to adhere to the regime set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 8 As Washington remains faithful to the older ‘Grotian tradition of mare liberum’, which defends ‘unfettered access to the open ocean and denie[s] the legitimacy of national claims to broad oceanic expanses’, China and India are prone to pursue the conception of mare nostrum, as symbolized by India’s interest in the Monroe Doctrine, and China’s claim on the so-called ‘Nine-Dotted Line’ in the South China Sea and its emphasis on acquiring anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities (Tellis and Mirski 2013 , 24). 9 In a sense, the latter two countries’ adherence to the mare nostrum conception of the seas reflects the region’s colonial history and hence also a reluctance to grant innocent passage to warships (Sakhuja 2013 , 160). As already discussed, open and secure SLOCs in the Indian Ocean represent another vital interest for both India and China (although they diverge on how the security and openness should be ensured). Given the number of common issues that face China and India in the India Ocean, the two states are slowly adopting measures to further their cooperation in the maritime domain. In 2012, an arrangement for maritime cooperation was put in place, which included joint efforts against piracy and scientific cooperation on seabed research (Dikshit 2012 ). The two countries’ membership in the BRICS (Brazil –Russia – India –China –South Africa) grouping gives New Delhi and Beijing a platform for cooperation as their economic interdependence grows—a 2015 bilateral trade target was set at US$100 billion (in 2010, their bilateral trade reached US$60 billion) (BBC 2010 ). Furthermore, both governments stress the

8 While China stresses its adherence to UNCLOS on paper, its stance vis-a` -vis the pending arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, for example, does not reflect this commitment to international law in practice. Pursuant to Annex VII of the Convention, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in January 2013. However, Beijing refuses to participate in the arbitration and stresses the need to settle the dispute bilaterally. 9 The notion mare liberum , translated from Latin as ‘free sea’, is taken from the title of a book written by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius published in 1609. The book focuses on international law and Grotius formulated the principle that the seas and oceans are international territory and that all states are free to use them for trade and seafaring. The mare nostrum notion, translated as “our sea”, was used by the ancient Romans in the Roman Empire (and later by Italian fascists) in reference to the Mediterranean Sea and in essence reflects the opposite of Grotius’s conception.

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necessity of a stable external environment to facilitate domestic economic

development. In an effort to soothe tensions in the disputed Himalayan border region, Beijing and New Delhi signed an agreement in 2013 that lays down a resolution mechanism to avoid using force (Subramanian 2013 ).

A balance of power system in the Indian Ocean region could lead to a

suppression of the common interests described and instead accentuate the differences in Sino-Indian relations.

Balancing policies

One of the most contested questions regarding the balance of power concept is whether the general tendency of actors in an international system to achieve the state of relative power equilibrium is systemic, that is, operates ‘naturally’ in a self-perpetuating manner, or whether it is the consequence of specific balancing policies of individual actors (see Sheehan 2000 , 53, 77). If the former applies, a balance of power system in the Indian Ocean is essentially an inevitable prospect, unless the actors adopt ‘anti-balancing’ measures. If the latter is correct, a balance of power system will emerge only when the actors in the system agree to its operation by pursuing balancing policies. A plausible answer is that balancing is an inherent, self-operating characteristic of the international system whilst the balancing policies of actors further reinforce the process and give it different dimensions. The balancing in the Indian Ocean region is still not as explicit and formalized as that in nineteenth-century Europe. Nonetheless, certain steps of the regional stakeholders can be perceived as concrete measures seeking a balance of power (the growth of the IN, China’s engagement in port construction, India’s Look East policy and its rapprochement with Japan, and US lobbying for closer ties between Australia and India). Another important aspect of the balance of power concept is the role of ‘balancers’. The function of the balancer is to implement measures that mitigate disequilibrium and prevent the hegemony of any one state or alliance. Some pundits claim that a balance of power system cannot operate efficiently without a balancer while others argue that a balancer, by virtue of its very existence, would subvert a genuine balance of power system (Sheehan 2000 , 66).

In the context of the Indian Ocean, the US is the most probable adept to play

such a role in the future and has perhaps assumed this role already. As noted, Washington is keen on bringing India and Australia closer together, and the

current strengthening of India’s ties with Japan is welcomed and quietly supported. Interestingly, Indian analysts identify ‘the weight of the United States influence on Japan’s policies’ as a primary factor that prevented India and Japan from drawing closer to each other in the past (Sibal 2014 ). Despite India’s reluctance to formalize its partnership with the US and its continuing loyalty to ‘strategic autonomy’, Evan Braden Montgomery has argued that, given the prospect ‘that China will pose a greater challenge to American

interests as it confronts fewer threats on land

Washington should consider

India as a prospective continental ally rather than a potential maritime partner’ (Montgomery 2013 , 76). Montgomery opines that, instead of strengthening India’s navy, a build-up of Indian forces along the disputed border with China would divert Beijing’s attention from the sea, and thereby India’s balancing of China

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 15

would move from sea to land. However, China’s stakes in the Indian Ocean are so high that it would not turn away from its maritime interests—this would lead only to the build-up of China’s continental forces and create further tensions along the disputed border without easing pressures in the maritime domain. Once states begin adopting overt balancing policies and start forming blocs or alliances, the mechanics of the balance of power system are immediately put in motion and there is little chance of returning to the status quo ante.

Jockeying for partners

As Rajan Menon put it, ‘Nor, despite huge strides in modernizing its armed forces can [India] balance China militarily without powerful coalition partners—a reality that will remain unchanged during the next few decades’ (Menon 2013 , 27). This implies that in its balancing strategy India would need to practise not only ‘internal balancing’ (increasing economic and military strength), but also ‘external balancing’ (establishing partnerships and reinforcing alliances) (Malik 2012 , 347). The Indian military maintains a ‘two-front’ war strategy, which assumes that in the case of a conflict with Pakistan or China, one of the two partners would always help the other (Frankel 2011 , 5). Therefore, India may view its growing partnership with Japan as a counterbalance to China’s partnership with Pakistan. However, a formalized New-Delhi–Tokyo alliance could put in motion a series of Chinese countermeasures that would spiral into a tense balancing contest in East Asia and the Indian Ocean region. In the case of a contingency between China and Japan, Tokyo’s potential partnership with New Delhi would prompt Beijing to deploy patrols in the Indian Ocean to protect its maritime trade due to its concerns that India could selectively squeeze SLOCs in the Indian Ocean to damage the Chinese economy. Beijing would interpret India’s relationship with Japan as an extension of the US – Japan alliance and be reminded of the ‘Quad’ concept, which emerged as a platform for cooperation between India, the US, Japan and Australia after the 2004 –2005 Asia tsunami (Green and Shearer 2012 , 184– 185). This would further raise China’s anxiety over the prospect of being contained within a tight ‘island chain’, and Beijing would undoubtedly accuse Washington of orchestrating such a strategy. In that case, Beijing could easily envision an emerging coalition aimed at balancing its economic and political power in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. The potential coalition would comprise the US, India, Japan, the Philippines and Australia, with a high probability of being joined by Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand or Vietnam. China could react to the formal establishment of a balancing coalition by adopting its own ‘external balancing strategy’, giving rise to a genuine balance of power system. For example, Beijing could use its partnership with Islamabad more extensively—to influence developments in Afghanistan, to strengthen its position in the disputed border area or even to covertly fund radical Islamist groups in Pakistan to target India. Using its economic leverage, Beijing could press countries where it has financed the construction of port facilities (Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh) for their permission to deploy warships. Nepal and Bhutan, having significantly deepened their ties with China in recent years (Joshi 2011b , 565), would find themselves placed on a very frictional border—and it is needless to speak of China’s use of North Korea as a buffer state. Smaller states in the Indian

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Ocean, such as Mauritius or the Maldives, would bandwagon with an alliance that they perceived to have the upper hand. Certain states of Central Asia could also play a role in the emerging balance of power system. While India maintains an air base in Tajikistan, China is engaged in constructing gas pipelines leading from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China’s Xinjiang province. India’s growing presence in Afghanistan to balance Pakistan’s influence would interfere with China’s interests in the country, and, despite the fact that stability in Afghanistan is in the interest of the US, India, Pakistan and China, the country could become a bargaining chip in a balance of power system. All these movements could be observed by the US in either an active or passive manner. Washington could play the potentially neutral role of a ‘constructive and overarching balancer’, thus maintaining its distance from any of the forming coalitions, or it could actively seek to be part of the coalition balancing China. However, Washington’s established role in the region and its web of friends and alliances would give it little chance of becoming a true balancer in the system. A balance of power system would thus make it impossible for the US to maintain its twin relationship with Pakistan and India. At this point, reason leads to the conclusion that an overt balancing coalition against Beijing would not be in any regional state’s interest given the varying levels of economic dependence on China. But as China’s maritime assertiveness grows and the pursuit of its interests is carried out at the expense of damaging the interests of regional stakeholders, China itself may be the catalyst that inadvertently pushes India, Japan, the US and other regional actors closer together.


The geopolitical fabric of the Indian Ocean region may be set for the formation of a genuine balance of power system, but it would be myopic to conclude that a ‘balanced’ system of power relations would bring stability to the region. In weighing the mutual power positions of China, India and the US, this article has argued otherwise. As noted, the balance of power paradigm could be used as an argument to legitimize the acquisition of territory, which could be a particular issue in regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Furthermore, since war is considered a legitimate means to maintain the equilibrium, a balanced system—like any other ‘system’—is no guarantee of peace and stability. In fact, the current state of power distribution in the Indian Ocean and East Asia carries a resemblance to Organski’s ‘power transition’ scenario, in which an ‘equilibrium of power’ is more likely to lead to war than is a ‘preponderance of power’. As I have argued, in a balance of power system mutual differences between competing states and blocs are accentuated, rivalries may intensify and the prospect of war can increase. Due to the extensive interconnectedness of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, a balance of power system designed in one region would quickly translate to the other, hence engaging states from the western Indian Ocean littorals to the Korean Peninsula. China’s rise is already subtly bringing India and Japan closer together, although this potential partnership may prove to be ephemeral. Considering the possible implications of such a partnership for security developments in the region is a necessary component of any political and security analysis of the region. However

The power triangle in the Indian Ocean 17

implausible one might consider the partnership to be, it would arguably be the first step towards the initiation of a regional balance of power system. Yet, if India maintains its ‘strategic autonomy’, and China remains reluctant to build coalitions and continues to prefer to resolve issues on the bilateral level, a genuine balance of power in the Indian Ocean region will be less likely to emerge. Spheres of influence in the Indian Ocean region are undoubtedly emerging, though they do not (yet) resemble the formal coalitions or blocs of a balance of power system—‘internal balancing’ still prevails over ‘external balancing’. Great disparities still lie between the military, political and economic powers of the three countries discussed here. While China is steadily approaching (superficial) economic parity with the US, India will arguably not allow itself to lag behind Beijing in its power projection in the Indian Ocean region and thus New Delhi will devote much attention to increasing India’s naval power. In an ideal scenario, the contestation between China’s stakes, India’s aspirations and the US’s established role in the Indian Ocean will be settled inside the ‘power triangle’ with respect to the common interests of all three actors and not by forming alliances to advance one’s interests over those of the others.

Notes on contributor Jan Hornat is a PhD candidate in international relations at Charles Univeristy and an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Prague. Email: hornatj@gmail.com


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