Indo-Pacific Perspective 6
The Indian
Ocean’s Key
Role in the
Nilanthi Samaranayake
n September 2020, the US secre-
tary of defense gave a speech to
promote the “international rules-
based order, rooted in our shared
values, that has supported
stability and prosperity around the
world for more than seven dec-
The United States and its
allies and partners have played a
decisive role in establishing inter-
national rules and norms since the
end of World War II. This order,
however, is now being challenged
by a rising China and a resurgent
Russia. The defense secretary re-
ferred specifically to the Indo-Pa-
cific region and Washington’s work
“to focus attention on our priority
theater, the Indo-Pacific. Not only
is this region important because it
is a hub of global trade and com-
merce,” he elaborated, “it is also
the epicenter of great power com-
petition with China. And in the
face of destabilizing activities from
the PLA, particularly in the mari-
time domain, the United States
must be ready to deter conflict, and
if necessary, fight and win at sea.”
Yet, the Indian Ocean is not char-
acterized by rampant territorial
disputes and Chinese assertive-
ness, as the Pacific is. From such
characterizations, it seems clear
that US strategy is still focused on
the Pacific segment of the Indo-Pa-
cific and less so the Indian Ocean,
which remains a secondary theater
for US defense planners. The De-
partment of Defense’s Indo-Pacific
Strategy Report repeated a phrase
that is often stated by US officials:
“The United States is a Pacific
The Indian Ocean’s Key Role in the Indo-Pacific Rules-based International Order
Indo-Pacific Perspective 7
Whereas China has un-
questionably challenged estab-
lished rules and norms in the Pa-
cific, it has, for the most part, been
a lawful actor in the Indian Ocean.
In considering the rules-based in-
ternational order in the wider
Indo-Pacific region, therefore, it is
important to examine the Indian
Ocean on its own terms and con-
sider options for preserving the
rules and norms of this still rela-
tively peaceful maritime region.
Evolving US Policy toward the
Indian Ocean: From the Asia-
Pacific to the Indo-Pacific
The 2017 National Security Strat-
egy identified China and Russia as
the major threats to US interests,
and great-power competition has
since become the organizing princi-
ple behind the implementation of
Washington’s diplomatic
and de-
policies globally. Since 2017,
Washington has adopted the term
Indo-Pacific to describe the region
stretching from “the west coast of
India to the western shores of the
United States.”
This reflects the
evolution of US policy toward this
region over the past decade, espe-
cially the increased importance of
the Indian Ocean. At the beginning
of the decade, the region was re-
ferred to by the long-standing
“Asia-Pacific” term. By 2011-2012,
this geography was prioritized
under the pivot
(or “rebalance”)
strategy to offset the operational
focus of the United States in the
Middle East. Then, this regional
concept evolved as US diplomats
began to link Southeast Asia with
South Asia under an “Indo-Pacific
Economic Corridor.”
Among US
defense officials, in 2013 Admiral
Samuel Locklear, then the Com-
mander of U.S. Pacific Command
(PACOM), began to refer to the re-
gion as the “Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
The term was used in US military
service documents such as the US
Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast
Guard strategy in 2015. Finally, in
2017 and 2018, the concept of the
“Indo-Pacific” was adopted in
Washington’s highest-level na-
tional strategy documents. This
was in part due to recognition of
how allies such as Japan and Aus-
tralia had described the wider re-
gion. Even PACOM was renamed
“Indo-Pacific Command” in 2018 as
part of this alignment of terms.
Washington has expanded the ar-
ticulation of its interests in this
wider region over the past decade
through shifts in geographic terms.
Most recently, it has assigned a
normative dimension to the region
as well. By calling the region the
“Free and Open Indo-Pacific,”
US acknowledges the rules, values,
and norms that it seeks to defend
and promote through the concept.
Indo-Pacific Perspective 8
Washington applies this vision to
the Indian Ocean segment of the
Indo-Pacific. Yet, even as the In-
dian Ocean has assumed greater
importance in U.S. strategic plan-
ning through the Indo-Pacific con-
cept, the United States continues
to understand the region through a
Pacific lens and risks overlooking
the unique features of the Indian
A Rules-based International Or-
der in the Indian Ocean
As a laboratory for cooperation, the
Indian Ocean has seen many suc-
cesses. This is due largely to the
fact that the Indian Ocean’s strate-
gic importance derives from its eco-
nomics. The region effectively
serves as a highway, connecting
the bustling Pacific waters through
the Malacca Strait and across to
the Middle East and African
straits of the Hormuz and Bab Al-
Mandeb, respectively. The Indian
Ocean sees significant traffic of hy-
drocarbons and container shipping.
Due to the economic significance of
this region, countries increasingly
share a common interest in keep-
ing the sea lanes open and safe.
When piracy in the western Indian
Ocean threatened to disrupt the
stability of these waterways more
than a decade ago, we witnessed a
multinational response to secure
them. Counterpiracy operations
emerged, including from the US-
led coalition Combined Maritime
Forces Task Force 151 and the
NATO alliance’s Operation Ocean
Shield. Meanwhile, China began
its own counterpiracy operations as
an independent deployer, as did In-
dia and Japan. Despite tensions in
other domains, all three countries
coordinate on escort convoys.
In addition to counterpiracy,
search and rescue is another area
where countries have cooperated
for example, in the search for the
missing Malaysia Airlines 370
plane. Beyond military operations,
countries have pursued Indian
Ocean seabed mineral exploration
rights lawfully through the Inter-
national Seabed Authority. This in-
cludes China, South Korea, and In-
dia, among other countries. The
role of international law in the In-
dian Ocean has also been bolstered
by the use of the International Tri-
bunal for the Law of the Sea and
the Permanent Court of Arbitra-
tion (PCA) to resolve maritime dis-
putes between Bangladesh, India,
and Myanmar.
The respect for in-
ternational law in these cases
stands in contrast to China’s disre-
gard for the PCA decision over the
Philippines-China dispute in 2016.
In addition to working within legal
institutions, major extraregional
powers such as the US and China
have pursued membership roles in
The Indian Ocean’s Key Role in the Indo-Pacific Rules-based International Order
Indo-Pacific Perspective 9
existing venues for cooperation in
the Indian Ocean. This includes re-
gional institutions such as the In-
dian Ocean Rim Association
(IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval
Symposium (IONS). Without ob-
stacles such as major territorial
disputes and with converging eco-
nomic interests to protect the free
flow of commerce, the Indian
Ocean is not as contentious as the
Pacific Ocean.
Connecting US Strategic Goals
in the Indo-Pacific with the In-
dian Ocean Order
This examination of the coopera-
tive successes in the Indian Ocean
does not intend to minimize the
threat of major power rivalry in
this region. In fact, this is a histori-
cal concern among countries in the
Indian Ocean region. During the
late 1960s and early 1970s, smaller
countries promoted their vision for
an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace due
to the Cold War rivalry between
the Soviet Union and the United
States. Resident Indian Ocean
countries face a similar challenge
in a new era of great power compe-
The regional security envi-
ronment is even less stable when
considering the broad-based milita-
rization and increased acquisition
of naval platforms, including in the
undersea domain, by resident
countries themselves.
Yet, while many observers fear the
implications of China’s expanding
footprint through the Belt and
Road Initiative, deployment of sub-
marines to the Indian Ocean, es-
tablishment of a military base in
Djibouti, and even undersea sur-
veillance and exploration for sea-
bed minerals, the reality is that
China is mostly behaving accord-
ing to the laws and norms in the
Indian Ocean. In fact, even actions
that India sees as intrusive, such
as Chinese platforms operating in
its exclusive economic zone (EEZ),
are actually in line with the US in-
terpretation of the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea
(UNCLOS). As China becomes a
global deployer, ironically this sta-
tus helps underscore the order that
the US wantsthe freedom of nav-
igation where international law al-
lows. Many Indian Ocean countries
reject the US interpretation of UN-
CLOS that would permit military
activities in EEZs. They include
Bangladesh, Myanmar, India,
Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives,
Mauritius, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri
Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, and
United Arab Emirates.
Still, the United States should be
vigilant about threats by China to
disrupt the Indian Ocean order.
One disturbing demonstration of
this potential lies in the Chinese
military’s lasering of US Air Force
Indo-Pacific Perspective 10
personnel in Djibouti in 2018. Such
incidents suggest China’s asser-
tiveness in the Pacific could carry
over into the Indian Ocean re-
gionwhich is precisely the fear of
resident Indian Ocean countries
that call for an Indian Ocean Zone
of Peace.
As Washington considers its
broader Indo-Pacific strategy, it
should call out the areas where
China wants to benefit across the
board. This is clear when Beijing
seeks to limit international rules
and norms to its advantage in the
Pacific, yet free-ride off the lawful
order and the interpretation of
UNCLOS that the US seeks in the
Indian Ocean. At the same time,
Washington should also recognize
the current strengths that exist to
underpin the lawful order in the
Indian Ocean. More importantly, it
should not ignore the key differ-
ences between this region and the
Pacific while continuing to invoke
the Free and Open Indo-Pacific
concept as another decade begins
in this dynamic region. ■
Nilanthi Samaranayake
Ms. Samaranayake is the Director
of the Strategy and Policy Analysis
program at CNA, a nonprofit re-
search organization in Arlington,
VA. She is the author of numerous
publications on Indian Ocean secu-
rity issues. The views expressed
are solely those of the author and
not of any organization with which
she is affiliated.
The Indian Ocean’s Key Role in the Indo-Pacific Rules-based International Order
Indo-Pacific Perspective 11
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The views and opinions expressed or implied in
JIPA are those of the authors and should not be
construed as carrying the official sanction of the
Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education
and Training Command, Air University, or other
agencies or departments of the US government or
their international equivalents.