IISS Strategic Comments

US Indian Ocean Strategy

Elements of the US government, when referring to the Indian Ocean in policy or strategy documents, have lately taken to using the phrase ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’. This nomenclature represents the latest in a long line of variations that either ignore the region or combine it with something else. This reflects Washington’s inclination to regard the Indian Ocean region as a theatre in a larger geostrategic struggle, or as a route to somewhere more important. The US Navy strike forces that ply the Indian Ocean to reach the strategically vital Persian Gulf are the most visible symbol of the latter. A former US ambassador to a country in the region called the Indian Ocean ‘Interstate I-95’, referring to the crowded, drab highway that courses through the United States’ northeast corridor – that is, an uninteresting but useful avenue to other places vital to US interests. During the Cold War, the Indian Ocean was just one more theatre of confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies, and did not become important until the Soviet Navy began to sail there, or until the United States used it to channel arms through Pakistani ports to the Afghan mujahideen. More recently, the Indian Ocean has been a corridor and a launching point for tracking and attacking terrorist organisations. In sum, apprehending the Indian Ocean region as a distinct geostrategic whole and establishing an integrated strategy for it has been understandably difficult for the United States.

Current policy statements and priorities point to a continuation of this trend – namely, the absence of an Indian Ocean strategy per se, and the subsuming of strategy towards the region into one or more higher-priority frameworks. While Washington’s approach has gained some coherence in the past two decades, and the Trump administration has yet to release its National Security Strategy or its National Defense Strategy, a mix of structural and policy impediments will tend to keep the region fragmented in the US policy lens. The US will likely continue to see the Indian Ocean region (IOR) as part of something larger or as a series of sub-regions. More specifically, the United States will use the IOR to stage counter-terrorism efforts in and around the Persian Gulf, and as a secondary theatre in the deepening strategic competition with China. A third area of priority, Iran, may also enhance focus on the northwest corner of the region.

So near and yet so far

Even in a globalised, internet-connected world, the Indian Ocean is as far from the United States as one can get. The antipode to Washington lies in the southern Indian Ocean, far from population centres or major shipping lanes. Even the headquarters of US Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii, which its senior commanders consider as within the Indo-Asia-Pacific, is physically far removed from the region, and PACOM fixes its gaze more regularly on the western Pacific Ocean and the states bordering it. Even if PACOM wanted to spearhead the development and implementation of a coherent US strategy, it has bureaucratic responsibility for only a portion of the Indian Ocean and the states on its littoral. The US government has had, and continues to have, organisational ‘seams’ that make coherent policy and strategy formulation for the IOR difficult. Four different regional combatant commands – PACOM, Central Command (CENTCOM), European Command and Africa Command – have portions of the Indian Ocean in their areas of responsibility. One seam runs right along the border between the region’s two fiercest and most strategically critical rivals – India and Pakistan. The US State Department also divides up the IOR, but its organisational allocation does not correspond to that of the Department of Defense. Policy and strategy coherence has therefore suffered, and continues to do so.

Even if Washington were to reorganise its bureaucratic frameworks for the IOR, it might not succeed in developing a single, coherent strategy for the simple reason that the region itself does constitute a strategic whole. What binds the region together are maritime trade routes that hug the northern littorals. While the US interest in the unfettered flow of this trade is often cited in policy statements and strategy documents, the threats to that trade vary widely across the region. Other geopolitical and security issues, and US interests in them, vary just as widely along the littorals. Some states are plagued by poor governance, which spills over into the maritime realm. Other areas are sites of proxy wars backed by regional rivals. Still other parts of the IOR are host to long-standing rivalries in which the antagonists have recently taken nuclear weapons to sea.

Elements of a strategy

Despite these impediments to strategic coherence, it is possible to ascertain how the United States is approaching the region currently and how elements of its approach might ultimately be shaped into something like an integrated strategy. Perhaps the most comprehensive and best developed element of Washington’s approach to the region, and the one with the greatest potential to mature into a regional strategy, is its growing relationship with India. Washington’s strategic attitude towards New Delhi centrally involves promoting and supporting its rise as a net security provider in the IOR. The Obama administration coined this language, and it represents the most likely and fruitful path forward in framing the relationship. New Delhi wants to retain autonomy in its foreign and security policy, but desires a closer relationship with Washington. India also views the IOR as its strategic backyard, so it wishes to play the predominant security role there. The United States, for its part, would like a stronger and more active India to take up regional security burdens that strain or exceed limited US capacity. This can be seen most recently in the Trump administration’s call for India to play a more active role in Afghanistan’s economic development activities.

The US–India relationship may evolve more rapidly in the near future in response to China’s growing political, economic and military presence in the IOR. Washington will likely approach this as a new theatre of competition with China, albeit with very different characteristics from the one taking shape in the Western Pacific. In East Asia, Washington has treaty allies Japan and South Korea to defend and assure; in the Indian Ocean it merely has ‘strategic partners’, as well as a shared interest with China – a strategic rival – in keeping sea lanes open for commerce. Yet both New Delhi and Washington are concerned about China’s growing influence and its increasingly regular military presence in the region, in the form of continuous navy flotillas performing counter-piracy operations and, recently, the opening of a permanent Chinese military base in Djibouti. In addition, with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, China is seeking to connect China to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar port in Pakistan's Balochistan province.

Even so, increased momentum towards closer American-Indian security ties is largely a function of New Delhi’s policy preferences, rather than those of Washington. In the past, India has shied away from activities that could be seen as signalling a US-led bilateral effort to contain China. This reluctance may well fade if India judges that it can keep pace with Chinese capabilities in the region only by upgrading its security relationship with the United States. In this connection, Australia and Japan could be important US and Indian partners. Although New Delhi turned down Canberra’s request to participate this year, the United States, India and Japan last July expanded their annual Malabar exercise in the Indian Ocean, amid growing concerns about Chinese activity there. Some Indian observers surmised that Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in a trilateral meeting with her American and Japanese counterparts Rex Tillerson and Taro Kono on the sidelines of last month’s UN General Assembly session, would support increased security cooperation among the US, India, Japan and Australia – the so-called ‘Security Diamond’. Public statements also indicated that the three officials agreed to develop strategically important ports and other infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region, presumably to balance China’s efforts to increase its regional influence.

While Washington waits for New Delhi to decide on the pace and scope of their growing security cooperation, the United States will continue to utilise the IOR as a platform for its global counter-terrorism operations, in particular against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and al-Qaeda. In recent policy statements and speeches, Trump has focused on striking terrorist groups worldwide and denying those groups safe havens in less-governed spaces. For the United States, then, the Indian Ocean region looms as both a location where terrorist groups operate – ranging from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan – and as a place where the United States has bases and operational access from which to monitor and attack them. The US priority will be to keep that access intact, even in cases in which there is some dissonance in its policy. One example is the United States’ determined effort to maintain its vital air base in Qatar, despite the Trump administration’s disenchantment with the policies of the Qatari government, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood and has established a closer relationship with Iran. Similarly, Washington criticises Pakistan for its role in harbouring terrorist groups, but is also cultivating ties strong enough to allow use of ground lines of communication through Pakistan to bring supplies to a growing US force presence in Afghanistan.

Finally, increased US antipathy towards Iran could reinforce American reliance on bases in the IOR to enable forces transiting the region to reach locations near the Persian Gulf. The United States has long utilised bases and forces in the region to deter Iran and to monitor its military and intelligence activities. The US military is now also directly supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their operations against the Iranian-backed Houthi coalition in Yemen. The Trump administration has signalled that it is going to confront Iran more directly with respect to a range of Iranian activities in the Middle East, necessitating continuing access to bases and use of the seas, as well as sustained support for partners in the region. Although a more robust anti-Iran policy is not an Indian Ocean strategy per se, it relies on access to and through the region to make it viable.


The disparate elements of the United States’ largely instrumental approach to the region are difficult to make into a coherent whole and are likely to remain that way. Some distinct aspects of US strategy are mutually supportive – for instance, combatting terrorist groups, and deterring Iran and countering its influence in places like Yemen and Syria – in that both require military access and basing in the northwest corner of the IOR. But advancing these objectives calls for focus mainly on a sub-region of the IOR, with the remainder of the ocean acting largely as a thoroughfare for the movement of forces. Furthermore, from a narrowly logistical standpoint, the distance of the Indian Ocean from US ports on either the East Coast or the West Coast, and even from forward-deployed US forces, makes getting on station in the greater Middle East a long sail or flight. Since the US is looking to maintain or possibly augment its presence in the northwest portion of the Indian Ocean, availability for other missions elsewhere in the region will remain spotty at best. Carrier strike groups and amphibious groups often make port calls and conduct exercises on the way to or from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, with little time for extended stays or other operations. The two recent collisions involving US forward-deployed surface ships in the Western Pacific are harbingers of relative ship scarcity as the US Navy seeks to improve safety and readiness by increasing training, crew rest and maintenance.

Resource limitations are the main constraints to the US focusing its Indian Ocean strategy on countering China’s growing role and presence in the region. But other factors are also important. First, India’s growing wariness of China’s hovering presence has yet to overcome New Delhi’s longstanding reluctance to move more quickly on enhancing its military-defence relationship with Washington. In the decade it took New Delhi to negotiate and sign what the US considers a basic foundational agreement on mutual logistics support, China went from possessing neither permanent access to the Indian Ocean, nor regular naval experience in it, to running a sustained series of surface operations by counter-piracy units in far-seas waters while also opening a permanent military base in Djibouti. If the United States is relying on India’s cooperation for an Indian Ocean counter-China strategy, differing views of the threat China poses and how best to respond to it will be a severe limitation.

Finally, the United States’ interests in the region are competing and difficult to harmonise. Even the slow but steadily improving pace of defence cooperation between the United States and India potentially threatens Washington’s relation with Pakistan. A more rapid or enhanced level of cooperation to constrain China would strain US–Pakistan ties. Yet Pakistan is critical to Washington’s goals, both in Afghanistan and in countering transnational terrorist organisations. The tension between these policy priorities – on the one hand, constraining China, and on the other, stabilising Afghanistan and countering terrorism – is compounded by the fact that India is in PACOM’s area of responsibility, while Pakistan is in that of CENTCOM. This raises significant coordination challenges within the US government. Theoretically, Washington could ease the strategic dilemma by adopting a more coercive approach to Pakistan in advancing its goals in Afghanistan and vis-à-vis terrorist groups. Recent US pronouncements indicate that Washington is leaning that way. But practically speaking, Pakistan’s indispensability to the overall effort limits Washington’s leverage. Furthermore, a closer US–India strategic relationship could induce China to ramp up its support for Pakistan and its presence in the region, stretching US resources and forcing India to divert time and attention to an emboldened Pakistan.


Pulling the various threads of US interests in the region together, overcoming dilemmas, solving resource scarcity issues, and working through competing bureaucratic approaches and imperatives would be required to develop a coherent, holistic US strategy for the IOR. The fact that the US administration – which has been slow to form a fully staffed and cohesive foreign and defence policy team – faces a raft of urgent policy issues in other parts of the world makes this unlikely in the near-to-medium term. As a result, US strategy toward the Indian Ocean will remain one that treats the IOR as a fragmented regional theatre subordinate to more global priorities.

Volume 23, Comment 35 – October 2017


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