Showing Up is Half the Battle: U.S. Maritime Forces in the Indian Ocean
The world’s most important strategic chokepoints lie in the Indian Ocean, making the region a key theater in geopolitical competition. Then why is it still missing from Washington’s Indo-Pacific priorities? U.S. Pacific Command was recently re-named United States Indo-Pacific Command in order to highlight the importance of the Indian Ocean region. Yet, the Indian Ocean, in its entirety, remains largely absent from the command’s priorities and engagements. A name change alone can’t alter the fact that the Indian and the Pacific Oceans require different approaches, and that Indo-Pacific Command remains focused primarily on China and the Pacific. Ironically, even as China emerges as the primary competition to U.S. interests in the Indian Ocean region, Washington’s maritime forces have been relatively quiet there.
American foreign and defense policy does not treat the Indian Ocean region as one space but instead as a boundary between spaces. This division has led to fragmented policies across the region that fail to address regional strategic concerns and challenges. As Washington looks to the Indian Ocean as part of its Indo-Pacific commitments, it should go beyond the U.S. Navy and leverage the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard through practical collaborations. While the U.S. Marine Corps’ expertise on island defense and specialized operations can address shared concerns with friends like India, the Coast Guard’s expertise in nontraditional security issues is of immense value and interest to the small islands and littorals. Washington’s Indian Ocean approach ought to include collaborations both with its key partners as well as directly with small islands to address the range of traditional and non-traditional security concerns and challenges in the region. A reactionary policy that only responds to expanding Chinese presence in the region won’t be enough.
The recently announced idea of creating a First Fleet focused on the Indian Ocean region could be a positive step forward in engaging with new Indian Ocean dynamics. An early priority for the First Fleet ought to be an Indian Ocean deployment of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard forces aimed at understanding, and engaging with, the region. Such an interaction — with U.S. maritime forces navigating beyond the imaginary line Indo-Pacific Command draws at India — will engender a much-needed fresh perspective on Indian Ocean developments.
An Ocean Divided
Over the years, the division of the Indian Ocean region into three combatant commands (Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and Africa Command) has challenged Washington’s view of the region. Together with the numerous State Department regional bureaus that cover the many subregions of the Indian Ocean (South and Central Asian Affairs, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and African Affairs), there is no one place in the Department of Defense or at the State Department monitoring regional developments as a whole.
There are reason for Washington’s distant policy in the Indian Ocean. First, the region has remained a secondary area of priority. Following the Cold War, in the absence of direct competition, the Indian Ocean essentially served as the staging ground for Washington’s Middle East engagements. Second, with France, the United Kingdom, and India as the key security providers in the Indian Ocean, and in the absence of geopolitical competition, Washington grew comfortable with its Indian Ocean presence without much substantial engagement with the region’s littorals and islands.
To be sure, the region remains under America’s wider security umbrella, primarily through the presence of carrier groups transiting between the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific. But this presence views the Indian Ocean mostly as a transit corridor, so this force projection and presence is not focused on the interests of the states in the littorals and islands of the Indian Ocean. Most of these nations have small navies that operate with smaller vessels and assets, which cannot engage meaningfully with an aircraft carrier. Washington’s current Indo-Pacific strategy lacks an understanding of small island nations and littoral states, and how the changing dynamics between these small states and their security providers is shaping the overall regional security environment.
Indian Ocean security dynamics have changed significantly from the Cold War era. For the first time, the islands of Indian Ocean find themselves in the middle of a power struggle as sovereign states with their own sets of priorities and choices rather than as colonial outposts.
Whereas Washington failed to account for the importance of the region, Beijing worked toward establishing diplomatic and political ties across the Indian Ocean. For instance, China has diplomatic missions in all six of the island nations in the region: Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros. In comparison, Washington has only three embassies (in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Madagascar), with two defense attachés covering the six islands, which span the entire Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka to the Mozambique Channel. No other Indian Ocean player — India, France, or the United Kingdom —has a presence in all six island nations. The American military base in Diego Garcia could provide significant opportunities to engage with the region, but that potential is yet to be realized. Further, the ongoing dispute over the Chagos Archipelago complicates Diego Garcia’s role in the Indian Ocean.
Over the last three decades or so, the political climate in the Indian Ocean has changed significantly. For example, Sri Lanka and Maldives recently witnessed strong anti-Indian sentiments, while Madagascar and Comoros are embroiled in bitter territorial disputes with France. With little focus from Washington or other Indo-Pacific partners such as Australia and Japan, China’s emergence in the Indian Ocean has been a welcome alternative for the islands of the Indian Ocean. Beyond China, there has been a steady increase in engagements between African islands and littoral states and Russia and Saudi Arabia. For example, Russia’s recent announcement that it will be establishing a naval base in Port Sudan underlines the new security challenges on the horizon.
The division of the Indian Ocean into three geographic zones, and the lack of a single node for the region, means Washington misses the link between developments in one corner of the Indian Ocean and their implications for the wider region. For example, the Russian base in Sudan is out of Indo-Pacific Command’s purview, while changing political dynamics in Sri Lanka is of little importance to Africa Command. In the meantime, for Central Command, the maritime domain might still be of little importance given ongoing continental hostilities in the Middle East. However, together, these developments and their interactions with each other carry wider security concerns directly affecting U.S. interests in the region. Simply put, if Washington is not aware of the emerging challenges, it cannot make any effort to address them.
The growing Chinese presence and Russian interests are not the only reasons why the United States ought to redirect resources to the Indian Ocean. Indeed, Washington would benefit from understanding new Indian Ocean dynamics and their implications on U.S. foreign policy and security interests. The United States can no longer rely on France, the United Kingdom, and India alone for stability in the Indian Ocean. While these players will continue to play prominent roles in the Indian Ocean, neither Paris nor London nor Delhi has the capacity, capital, or expertise to address emerging threats and concerns in their entirety. These threats and concerns include antisubmarine warfare; maritime domain awareness; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions; illegal fishing; humanitarian disaster response; sustainable development; human trafficking; and drug smuggling. With the Indian Ocean covering waters off Australia’s western coast to the eastern coast of Africa and comprising the subregions of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal, it is too vast for any one navy to assume complete responsibility. The United States and its partners will have to work through a burden-sharing model in the region. For that, Washington should first be aware of the relevant challenges and interactions and then decide where, and in what capacity, it can play a role.
First, the Indian Ocean ought to be seen as one continuous strategic space to understand the evolving regional dynamics. Most nations over the years have either worked in the region through its subregions (the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal) or as two separate theaters — the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Indian Ocean. The islands of the region today, however, value their identity as Indian Ocean islands in conjunction with their identities as South Asian or African islands. Therefore, when bigger powers choose to interact with only a few littorals and islands under their Indian Ocean framework, they are, by design, leaving out a significant portion of the region, most often the southwest Indian Ocean and the eastern Coast of Africa. While engagements with African littorals fall under U.S. Africa Command, the priorities, and even the resources, of the two commands (Indo-Pacific Command and Africa Command) are considerably different. Further, engagements with one region through different commands leads to different priorities and actions resulting in a fragmented and partial picture of developments in the Indian Ocean region.
An Indian Ocean Deployment
In line with Washington’s military and political interests and priorities, U.S. maritime forces should look to develop a coherent approach toward the Indian Ocean. A step in that direction could be to initiate an Indian Ocean deployment with representation from all the United States’ maritime services (the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marine Corps). This deployment would make port calls and interact with maritime forces in the region. The frequency of port calls, exercises, and interactions between U.S. naval forces and those of Indian Ocean island nations — especially at a bilateral level — are irregular and ad-hoc at best, resulting in a lack of understanding and differences in the perception of regional and security issues.
Such a deployment could engage with the region in a number of ways from traditional security exercises to training interactions, delegation visits, and dialogue between the different services of the U.S. maritime forces and their counterparts in the region. Most importantly, this approach will increase the exchange of views, on what constitutes Indian Ocean security challenges, allowing the United States to understand the many perspectives and dynamics of the Indian Ocean. A single node of U.S. bureaucracy responsible for such an interaction or deployment would finally allow for a complete view of the Indian Ocean. This understanding also aids Washington’s conversation with partners such as India. While Delhi falls under Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility, India’s own concerns in the region go well into the areas under Central Command and Africa Command. A holistic view of the region will pave the way for Washington to decide on, and formulate, a feasible framework for the Indian Ocean, one that is based on burden sharing with its key partners while engaging on issues of concerns with smaller littorals and islands. Although it is unclear whether Washington has the capacity to reinstate its First Fleet for the Indian Ocean, such an approach could potentially address many challenges originating from the combatant division of the Indian Ocean.
A foundational step as far as geopolitical competition is concerned is to show up, and U.S. forces have to do just that. As the Department of Defense prepares for multi-theater competition with China, there is value in an Indian Ocean-specific deployment aimed at increasing presence, visibility, and understanding with the littorals and islands of the region. Further, Washington need not deploy its ships and assets all across the region simultaneously. Perhaps, as an alternative in some subregions, it could support missions addressing common concerns by providing information and intelligence in areas where its partners are already operating. However, in order to develop a burden-sharing model, Washington has to first interact with the region in its entirety and be aware of the complexities and changing power dynamics in the Indian Ocean. An Indian Ocean deployment can address this challenge.
Trilateral Cooperation Leveraging the Strengths of the Marine Corps
As far as critically located islands are concerned, the United States and its partners occupy key geographic spaces in the Indian Ocean. Island nations from Sri Lanka to Comoros sit across key communications lines, and island territories such as the Andaman and Nicobar islands provide access to critical chokepoints in the region. Andaman and Nicobar (near the Strait of Malacca), Cocos Keeling (near the Sunda, Lombok, Ombai, Wetar Straits), and La Réunion (near the Mozambique Channel) are all island territories under Indian, Australian and French jurisdiction, respectively. Combined with Diego Garcia (where U.S. and U.K. maintains a military base but Mauritius claims its sovereignty supported by a U.N. resolution), these island territories constitute strategic territory close to key chokepoints monitoring entry and exit points into the region.
Competition over strategic islands will continue to intensify as the relationship between Beijing and Delhi, Canberra, and Paris becomes increasingly fraught with difficulties. As part of this competition, the island territories offer significant potential and strategic advantages. However, Cocos Keeling and the Andamans remain underdeveloped and there are considerable concerns regarding island defense capabilities. A step toward addressing such concerns could be exploring military exercises with a focus on island defense and amphibious training.
India addresses this concern through the “Defence of Andaman & Nicobar Islands Exercise,” but there is room for improved collaboration to further strengthen experience and expertise through interactions and training. It was perhaps with similar concerns in mind that Delhi hosted the inaugural edition of “Tiger Triumph,” a joint tri-service exercise between U.S. and Indian forces, including the U.S. Marine Corps, off the southern coast of India. The 2019 edition of the exercise, although centered on humanitarian assistance, was intended to increase amphibious landing capabilities, as well as those of coastal defense and invasion. Given the increased collaboration between the two nations, the United States and India could possibly work together on island defense for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, whose security pose a real concern for many in Delhi.
India’s interactions with the Marines Corps have been limited, but there are critical lessons for Delhi from their experience and expertise. Given the U.S. Marines’ particular focus on island defense and amphibious operations from the Pacific campaign in the World War II to its current roles in Okinawa and Guam, Indian forces stand to gain considerably from interactions with the Marine Corps. Such an approach would also complement the Marine Corps’ ongoing structural changes to address a rising Chinese threat in the maritime domain with a focus on island defense and invasion. From Washington’s view, this provides a new avenue for engagements increasing the complexity of its maritime exercises with India and, by extension, in the Indian Ocean writ large.
Depending on political will, island defense exercises led by the U.S. Marines could include Australia and France in the eastern and western Indian Ocean, respectively, in a trilateral format.
Although U.S. Marines are stationed in Darwin in northern Australia, periodic visits to Cocos Keeling, a key communications facility during the World War II, would truly elevate Washington’s Indian Ocean presence and missions. U.S.-Indian-Australian collaboration centered around the islands of Cocos Keeling and Andaman with a focus on island defense and amphibious training would increase interoperability, understanding, knowledge, and training as both Canberra and Delhi look to better utilize their strategically located island territories. Similarly, India, the United States, and France could undertake similar missions in the western Indian Ocean using La Réunion and, potentially, Diego Garcia or even Djibouti.
Such interactions and exercises would provide a platform for an increased U.S. presence across the Indian Ocean in collaboration with its closest friends and allies. In terms of operational strength, bringing the Marine Corps into the Indian Ocean, especially in collaboration with U.S. partners, would help elevate Washington’s Indian Ocean partnerships, further strengthening its maritime presence.
A Coast Guard Initiative
Finally, Washington should look to its Coast Guard in maximizing its interactions with small island nations. While the Coast Guard plays a significant role in training Pacific island nations’ maritime forces, they are rarely seen in the Indian Ocean. As with the Pacific, the islands of the Indian Ocean, too, face similar non-traditional security issues as their primary challenges. Interactions between, and trainings conducted with, the Coast Guard and Indian Ocean island nations might carry more value at the operational and tactical level. Recognizing resource constraints and its limited capacity to deploy in the region, Coast Guard initiatives can come in the form of training and capacity building efforts. Many island nations such as Maldives, Mauritius, and Comoros have a coast guard tasked with both law enforcement and defense of their sovereign territories. Given the nature of their primary threats — such as illegal fishing, drug smuggling, and human trafficking — training with the U. S. Coast Guard will be a significant step forward for many of the island nations of the Indian Ocean. Such engagements could also help offset an overreliance on military trainings in Beijing, including interpretation of customary law and the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea. Chinese interpretation of customary and international laws at Sea are notably different than those of the U.S. and its allies. However, these interactions should be extended to islands and littorals across the region, instead of limiting them to Sri Lanka and Maldives only.
The U.S. Coast Guard could potentially utilize some of its lessons and experiences from the Pacific in interacting with, and training, the islands of the Indian Ocean on a range of issues from law enforcement to surveillance to disaster response. Washington could perhaps borrow from its interactions as a member of the Pacific Quad, prioritizing engagements with island nations and their security concerns as a model for the Indian Ocean too. If the Coast Guard is to take on this additional mission, it will require additional resources, which may require a willingness to cut some Department of Defense resources previously devoted to ground wars in the Middle East and redirect them to the Coast Guard.
An Indian Ocean deployment leveraging all its maritime forces allows Washington to address two immediate concerns in the region. First, it would provide a singular node, or a specific agency, tasked with engaging with the region as a whole to bridge the gap resulting from the divided combatant commands. Second, a burden-sharing model with close partners and allies leveraging the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps aids the already extended U.S. Navy and its role in the Indian Ocean. This could help conceptualize a framework that allows Washington to deploy and engage its maritime forces in the region in a meaningful and, more importantly, an achievable way.
The announcement of a resurrected First Fleet would be a good start to addressing the issues of fragmented U.S. Indian Ocean policy. But a bureaucratic structure alone won’t do it. A strategic Indian Ocean policy will also entail increasing maritime capacity in the region and enhancing the region’s priority. Given that U.S. interests have for so long been outside of the Indian Ocean as a geostrategic theater, there remains the risk of continued dismissal by both military and political leadership in favor of immediate threats and engagements in the Middle East and in the Pacific. This is not an argument for pushing the importance of the Pacific to the periphery but one in favor of restructuring and reorganizing possible assets and resources from the Middle East and Afghanistan so that the United States is more present in the Indian Ocean. Most importantly, this is a push toward adopting a fresh perspective on the Indian Ocean — one where the region is viewed in its entirety to truly understand its importance and its vast geographic space.
Instead of putting together a reactionary policy in the Indian Ocean, the United States should define and outline its interests in the region in order to frame a coherent approach. Despite the urgency of U.S. interests in the Pacific, there are numerous avenues and platforms available to maximize U.S. presence and engagements in the Indian Ocean region without undermining its efforts in the Pacific. As far as strategic competition is concerned, Beijing will continue to strengthen its presence and engagements in the Indian Ocean, regardless of America’s priorities.
Darshana M. Baruah is an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she leads the Indian Ocean Initiative. She is also a visiting fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation working on a book project on the strategic role of islands in the Indian Ocean.