A combination of structural and policy impediments will tend to keep the Indian Ocean region fragmented in the US policy lens. The United States is likely to use the region as a staging area for counter-terrorism efforts in and around the Persian Gulf, and as a secondary theatre in the deepening strategic competition with China. Increasing tension with Iran could also sharpen US focus on the northwest corner of the region.

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.

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