The Great Game Moves to Sea: Tripolar Competition in the Indian Ocean Region


Editor’s Note: This is the 25th installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.


Three major powers — which together account for nearly half of the global economy — are vying for influence in the Indian Ocean arena. India, China, and the United States each view the region through their own geostrategic frameworks, ensuring intense jostling at best or conflict at worst. India has the “Security and Growth for all the Region” framework, a combination of its Act (or Look) East and the Think West policies. China has the Maritime Silk Road, which is half of the Belt and Road Initiative. The United States has the Indo-Pacific Strategy (also known as the Free and Open Indo Pacific), a natural successor to the Asia-Pacific rebalance.

As the Southern (Dis)Comfort series has established, the Indian Ocean region will continue to be buffeted by tripolar competition between New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington. This competition is distinct from the bipolar (United States and India versus China) vision implicit in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Each state’s approach to the increasingly crowded Indian Ocean environs is informed by history, economic interests, and simple geography. Three significant divergences in the three countries’ frameworks are their perspectives on the Middle East, Pakistan’s regional role, and the balance between military and non-military foreign policy tools. Friction resulting from any of these divergences – what I call geo-strategic seams – could undermine the success of any one of these national strategies for the Indian Ocean arena. Ultimately, China’s more integrated strategy may give it an edge over America’s more disjointed approach and India’s more inward focus.

India: Balancing In The Middle

India, sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, defines the region as extending from the African littoral to Southeast Asia. In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put forward “Security and Growth for All in the Region,” or SAGAR, as an early, high-level articulation of the Indian vision. In 2017, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj specifically defined the region as extending from the Gulf of Aden in the west, through Chabahar Port in southwest Iran, and over to Burma and Thailand in the east. Notably, India does not view Pakistan as a part of this regional cooperation strategy, instead seeing it as an enemy. Similarly, India tries to isolate its long history of land border disputes with China from its wider policy towards the Indian Ocean, even though countering Beijing is one of New Delhi’s goals.

India’s focus on the Indian Ocean area is relatively new, dating back only to the 1990s. For most of the period since it gained independence in 1947, India has been preoccupied with land border threats posed by Pakistan and China, and has apparently lacked the ambition and capacity to exert influence beyond its immediate neighbors.

However, starting in the early 1990s, India had to look further afield to address severe economic problems and cope with the loss of its closest strategic partner, the Soviet Union. New Delhi initiated the Look East policy to build trade and commercial ties to booming Southeast and East Asian states, which have been crucial in stimulating India’s economic growth and its economic and geopolitical rise more generally. New Delhi has also built closer trade and economic ties to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Iran to secure energy resources for its growing economy, to expand trade and commercial links (for example, by investing in Chabahar), and to support the Indian diaspora working in these countries, an important source of remittances. As a result, India’s more militarized continental approach has begun to shift over the past quarter-century toward an economically focused strategy for the region.

As such, New Delhi has emphasized commercial investment, infrastructure, and diplomatic engagement. These drivers will remain dominant because growing trade and commercial ties, including energy imports, are critical to India’s domestic economy and electoral politics. Military and security factors are gaining importance as China increases its military presence in the Indian Ocean — in particular, the Indian Navy is increasingly focused on countering its Chinese counterpart. However, absent a direct confrontation, it seems likely that military factors will remain secondary drivers. In addition, the dominance of the army in Indian military planning, together with persistent problems in acquiring advanced naval and air equipment to operate in the Indian Ocean, will continue to undermine India’s ability to be a strategic partner to the United States in the region. This is true despite enthusiastic advocacy by India’s navy and air forces, which is then amplified in the Indian press and think tank community.

The United States will continue to push new arms sales and rapid expansion of new partnerships, but we can expect continued Indian caution. The Indian government will only slowly implement decisions to expand ties to the United States and modernize its military — as illustrated by the tortured 15-year history of India’s efforts to purchase a new combat fighter. Fundamentally, the differences between the two partners’ visions of the region come down to an emphasis on security versus commercial factors. India is focused primarily on growing its economic presence in the Indian Ocean region while the United States continues to view the Indo-Pacific through a military lens.

China: One Half Of The Belt and Road Initiative

China takes a more sweeping approach. It geostrategically defines South Asia and the Indian Ocean as an extension of its Maritime Silk Road, the trade and infrastructure corridor linking coastal China to other Asian countries. The Maritime Silk Road is half of China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to expand China’s links throughout Eurasia. Thus, Beijing treats the region as extending from coastal China, through Southeast Asia, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the Saudi peninsula and African littoral. Unlike India’s more limited definition, the Chinese view of the region is an integral part of a broader geo-economic and geostrategic vision for China and the world. The land half of Belt and Road, the Silk Road Economic Belt, extends from western China through Central Asia to the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Russia. Both axes have endpoints in Europe and at its grandest ambition the Belt and Road Initiative appears to be a plan for China to dominate Eurasia. This broad geographic vision leads Beijing to pursue an integrated set of trade, commercial, diplomatic, and military initiatives from the South China Sea to the African littoral.

The original drivers of the Belt and Road Initiative are trade and commercial factors, not military ones. Beijing is seeking to use the project to sustain its economic growth through increased international trade, domestic interior development, and management of internal security concerns in Xinjiang and Tibet. It is only in the past few years that military drivers have come to play a greater role in the strategy; for example, the establishment of a military base in Djibouti. These factors still remain secondary given the importance China places on its economy and internal stability. In this regard, Beijing and New Delhi share the view that trade and commercial initiatives should play the dominant role in regional strategies.

Unlike with India’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, however, Pakistan is a central element of China’s approach, linking the maritime and continental components of the Belt and Road Initiative. India, and to a lesser degree the United States, views Pakistan as a declining power that should be internationally isolated for its support of terrorism. In contrast, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is one of the most important elements of the Belt and Road since it provides a direct land bridge from China to the Arabian Sea and allows trade access to support economic development in China’s restive west. Illustrating its priorities, China has promised some $60 billion to develop this corridor and has already made substantial investments in Pakistan focusing on energy and transport infrastructure, including the port of Gwadar in western Pakistan. While some doubt the viability of many of these projects, this investment clearly reflects Beijing’s view that Pakistan is essential to its regional strategy.

The United States: The Indo-Pacific Strategy

The U.S. strategy toward South Asia and the Indian Ocean arena is an extension of an Asia-Pacific perspective based on over seven decades of U.S. leadership and forward presence in East Asia. The current iteration of this view is the Indo-Pacific Strategy, a natural evolution of the “rebalance,” or “pivot,” toward Asia initiated in 2011. Importantly, the strategy ties the growing U.S.-India relationship to the wider Asia-Pacific region, reflecting the growing economic, trade, and diplomatic links between the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean and those in Southeast and East Asia.

However, the geographical reach of the Indo-Pacific Strategy essentially stops at the India-Pakistan border and heads south in a rough line to Antarctica. The United States largely excludes Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and the African littoral from its conception of the Indo-Pacific region. For 15 years, the United States has actively sought to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan as a part of an effort to build ties to New Delhi. Moreover, in contrast to China, the United States sees Pakistan as a part of its South Asia policy, which is focused on counter-terrorism.

Along the same lines, the U.S. approach treats Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and the African littoral as Middle Eastern or continental African issues. The resulting strategy in this area is totally shaped by concerns about energy, counter-terrorism, and other security matters. This conceptualization is appropriate given America’s strategic interests in the Middle East, its ongoing troop commitment to Afghanistan, and its global role, but nonetheless it is a notably different definition from India’s and China’s.



The U.S. definition is largely based on almost four decades of the military command boundaries between Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM), although part of the African littoral falls in Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) area of responsibility. In contrast, India’s and China’s visions have evolved more recently, allowing those two countries to better take into account contemporary geopolitical factors.

Indeed, in shaping the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the United States largely hewed to the military’s geographical definition — which contributes to the emphasis on military means. To be sure, perspectives differ between and within U.S. military and civilian agencies, but in general, the mismatch in resources and effort between military and non-military bureaucracies gives the edge to the former.

As Jean-Loup Samaan recently described in War on the Rocks, the Indo-Pacific Strategy is becoming increasingly dominated by military concerns. The United States appears to be shifting to a reliance on military tools, particularly in light of the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That agreement was intended to provide a trade, commercial, and economic foundation for a multilateral coalition of like-minded Asia-Pacific countries to counter China’s pressure on smaller Asian states. While the agreement did not extend into South Asia and the Indian Ocean, it would have served as the Asia-Pacific anchor for the entire Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The South Asian and Indian Ocean regions have not escaped the shortage of U.S. diplomatic personnel, high turnover in key positions, and international uncertainty about America’s global role. As a result, the United States increasingly has only one tool in its toolbox for these regions: the military. Despite policymakers’ intentions, the Indo-Pacific Strategy has largely evolved into a military-dominant strategy, shaped by the military’s longstanding role in defining the region’s geography and driven by the need to counter China militarily. This will limit America’s ability to counter Chinese infrastructure investment and economic cooperation, allowing China to make political inroads with regional governments looking for investment and aid. Compounding the friction resulting from this militarized strategy is the deepening U.S.-China trade war undermining bilateral relations.

Geostrategic Seams

Two geographic differences among the three strategies will shape future regional competition and define potential crisis areas. First, India and China view the Indo-Pacific as extending from the African littoral to Southeast Asia and including parts of the Arabian peninsula and Iran, while America’s view excludes areas considered Middle Eastern or African. Second, India and the United States exclude Pakistan from their strategies, while China’s view places Pakistan at the center.

On the positive side, these geostrategic seams may be stabilizing if India, China, and the United States counter-balance each other and none is able to build a long-lasting, strong coalition to seriously threaten each other or dominate the region. However, more realistically, all three countries will find this constant triangular balancing frustrating. The region is likely to emerge as a one of shifting coalitions as New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington jockey among themselves, with smaller regional countries, and, to a lesser degree, with outside powers like Japan and Russia.

India in particular may be able to exploit the differing perspectives to position itself between the United States and China to maximize its strategic autonomy. New Delhi may seek to triangulate between the two competing hegemons, actively courting them to extract maximum benefit, and bolster its global influence in the process. Indeed, in some ways this strategy is already being employed. This reflects continuity with long-established Indian “non-alignment” preferences, but it will likely slow the burgeoning U.S.-India strategic relationship and frustrate any emerging détente between New Delhi and Beijing.

For the United States, excluding Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and the African littoral from the Indo-Pacific Strategy could become troublesome if India and China, who have more of a shared geographic view, start to resist U.S. policies. For example, the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran is causing tension with India, as the United States seems to have prioritized its alliance with the Saudi royal family and punishing Iran over countering China in the Indian Ocean. By isolating Iran and pressuring India to support it, the United States hampers India’s efforts to use Chabahar to build infrastructure and trade links to Central Asia. This, in turn, weakens India’s ability to compete with China. China, for its part, will take advantage of U.S. pressure on Iran to expand its ties to Tehran.

Pakistan could also emerge as a particular challenge because of its exclusion from the U.S. and Indian strategies. This could prompt Beijing to look to cooperate further with Islamabad to thwart New Delhi and Washington’s regional objectives. China has historically been cautious about cooperating with Pakistan to confront India or the United States directly. However, if U.S.-China relations worsen and India actively aligns itself with the United States, China may be tempted to significantly increase military cooperation with Pakistan. For instance, it may one day build on existing efforts at Gwadar Port to establish a permanent military presence in Pakistan.

Risks and Prospects of a Tripolar Great Game

More than any other current factor, India and Chinas’ relative emphasis on non-military foreign policy tools, in contrast to America’s use of the armed forces to achieve foreign policy objectives, will determine the fate of the three competing strategies. However, adjustments in U.S. strategy, especially increasing non-military investments and diplomatic engagement and focusing more on collaborative economic ties in the region, can help address the tensions resulting from this disconnect.

China’s large and growing economic investment is reshaping the region, forcing regional governments and the United States to adapt. Smaller states, largely focused on economic development and internal security, seek to avoid direct military confrontations and are averse to choosing an exclusive large power patron. Assuming Beijing continues collaborative trade and commercial initiatives, investing vast sums of money, its influence is likely to continue growing. However, despite its wealth, China faces two major risks. First, if Beijing’s actions come to light or come to be perceived as neo-colonialism, Beijing will face costly regional reversals — as it recently did in the Maldives, for example. Rhetoric about “win-win” notwithstanding, China’s Belt and Road policies increasingly mirror those of European colonial powers seeking concessions in Imperial China. Second, China’s growing military presence in the region could end up being an expensive foray that yields minimal comparative advantage relative to India or the United States in the event of a war.

India, as the largest country in the Indian Ocean region and the one that controls the air and sea lines of communication, has the potential to dominate geographically. Although India has steadily increased its engagement with the region in the past two decades, it faces several challenges to its further expansion. It lacks the resources to compete head-to-head with China in trade and commercial investments. Its naval and air modernization is plagued by inefficiencies, corruption, and competing requirements. It still has major domestic economic challenges and competing social priorities. These factors compel New Delhi to carefully calibrate its resistance to Beijing. India’s new strategic partner, the United States, is proving to be bilaterally confrontational, regionally destabilizing, and globally unpredictable. The resulting destabilization and increased chances of a U.S.-China war that India wants to avoid further incentivize Indian calibration.

Smaller countries will be caught between the lure of Chinese largesse and a broad preference for a U.S.-led security architecture and rules-based system. Despite the formation of the International Development Finance Corporation and ongoing Millennium Challenge Corporation efforts, and the U.S. pledge of $113 million in non-military aid in 2018 to the Indo-Pacific strategy stands in stark contrast to the tens of billions China has spent on the Maritime Silk Road for civilian infrastructure and economic projects,. A U.S. shift to focus on diplomacy and increased aid through the collaborative multilateral forums and trade agreements that smaller states favor will effectively exploit regional concern about Chinese influence.

As Lindsey Ford noted in War on the Rocks, “The most important landscape for strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific will not be in the military realm, but in the areas like economics, global governance, and technology.” The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is at risk as China exploits the geographical seams, expands its alliance with Pakistan, and leverages its wealth to gain political influence. The growth of Chinese power and influence will reinforce India’s historical inclination to non-alignment despite deep concerns about China’s intent, while the United States, given the imbalance of resources between military and non-military tools, risks over-militarizing its policy. To counter China, the United States will need to significantly increase its non-military investments and diplomatic engagement and implement an integrated strategy that considers the whole region — from Southeast Asia, through Iran and Pakistan, and all the way to the African littoral and the Arabian Peninsula.



Harry I. Hannah has spent over three decades working on national security issues for the U.S. government. He is a retired employee of the U.S. government. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. government. This does not constitute an official release of U.S. government information. This material may reflect CIA-required edits for classification and compliance with legal obligations.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Denver Applehans