I’ve been reading Adm James Stavridis’ latest book Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (you can fine it on Amazon here) and he has an interesting chapter on the Indian ocean. One of the more obvious aspects of this large ocean deals with oil. Once a supertanker leaves the Strait of Hormuz, its in the Indian ocean. From here, the tanker can really only go in two directions: West, towards the coast of Africa, the Red Sea, the Med and Europe, or; East, heading towards India, Indonesia and SE Asia, China and Japan.
For those tankers heading East, there are more than a few strategic points the tanker needs to transit. The first point is the Maldives, a string of islands running north to south with the closest island roughly 430 kilometers south, southwest from the tip of India. The Maldives does not currently have a navy that would threaten the transit of any ocean going vessels but both India and China have expressed interest in establishing a naval base there of one sort or another.
The next point is the island of Sri Lanka, a large island located off the southeast tip of India. Relations between Sri Lanka and India have traditionally been quite good. However, China has recently tried to make inroads with the Sri Lankan government. Given Sri Lanka’s proximity to India, the Indian government can ill afford any encroachment of the Chinese.
The next strategic point, is indeed a true choke point – the Strait of Malacca. To transit this strait, tankers must sail through the narrow five hundred mile long passageway between the island of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, ending at Singapore. At its narrowest point, the strait is less than two miles wide! As for the commercial importance of this Strait: 25% of the oil from the Persian Gulf transits the strait every year; nearly 100,000 vessels transit the strait every year, which accounts for one quarter of the world’s traded goods! Once through the Strait of Malacca, the tankers would turn north and sail through the South China Sea, and right past the Spratly Islands, something which the Chinese have aggressively claimed as their own.
An additional strategic outpost for China lies in the southwestern part of the Indian ocean, the Seychelles. Here, once again, the Chinese are making inroads. In 2011, the Seychelles government offered China a key naval base in the region – something which India will need to address if they hope to keep China out of the region.
The ability of one country to exercise control over even a couple of these strategic points could pose a threat to a substantial part of the world. Two hundred years ago, the Indian ocean looked much like a British lake since the British Empire controlled virtually all of the then strategic points in the region – key points in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian sub-continent, and of course, Singapore; today, we need to make sure the Indian ocean doesn’t turn into a Chinese lake.