A book Review – 'The Indian Ocean as a New Political and Security Region'
According to the authors, the book will be offering a fresh insight into the changing geo-strategic environment in the Indian Ocean region, explaining the threats the West should perceive from China’s rising power in the Indian Ocean.
The book was written by Frederic Grare and Jean-Loup Samaan. It was published in 2022 by Palgrave-Macmillan in Switzerland. The work was intended as a helpful means to inform both scholars and policymakers of how to deal with the Indian Ocean’s geopolitics. It was released at a time in which the conflict between the US and the West, from one side, and Russia and China, from the other, has reached a dangerous point, especially since China has widely expanded its Belt and Road Initiative in the region.
Frederic Grare is a fellow at European Council for Foreign Relations working on Indo-Pacific issues and a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research at Carnegie focused on the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, security engineering research, and South Asian security issues. Prior to Carnegie, Grare served as a consultant at the Center for Analysis, Forecasting, and Strategy at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as head of the Asia Bureau in the Strategic Affairs Directorate of the French Ministry of Defense.
Jean-Loup Samaan is a researcher at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He is an associated researcher at the French Institute of International Relations. Semaan was an assistant lecturer at Yale-NUS College, and his research focuses on Eastern strategic affairs, particularly the struggle between "Israel" and Hezbollah and the evolution of the Gulf security system. Prior to that, Semaan served as a policy analyst at the Strategic Affairs Directorate of the French Ministry of Defense (2008-2011), a research consultant at the NATO Defense College (2011-2016), and a visiting professor of strategic studies emanating from the United States Center for the Near East and South Asia to Emirates National Defense College (2016-2021).
According to the authors, the book will be offering a fresh insight into the changing geo-strategic environment in the Indian Ocean region. Hence, the book explains the threats the West should perceive from China’s military and economic power in the Indian Ocean. China was able to challenge Europe in Africa and establish economic relations with it. On the other hand, American maritime power is becoming more limited in the Indian Ocean. It is clear that the background of the writers makes it difficult for them to see the rising power of China positively or as a step toward balancing powers in the world. They see China’s rising power as a "threat" to the Western world.
The geographic location of the Indian Ocean is very vital. It overlooks the Red Sea, the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Ocean extends from Africa in the west to Australia and Indonesia in the east and from Asia in the north to Antarctica in the south. Therefore, the book discusses the role of the Indian Ocean region in global trade transformations; in addition to the relationship between the great industrial development in China and its increased need for energy import from the Middle East and West Asia in particular.
The book is divided into nine chapters including the introduction. Each of the chapters represents a new security perspective in the Indian Ocean by discussing separately the countries or regions involved.
Chapter One: Introduction
It includes a summary of the chapter’s contents, the theories used in presenting the cases, the hypothesis, and the main goal of the book.
Chapter Two: The Advent of China’s Indian Ocean Strategy
The chapter investigates China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its strategy in the Indian Ocean over the past two decades. It analyzes Beijing’s objectives in the Indian Ocean region and their impact on all other players in the area. At the same time, the authors try to identify how China has become both a unifying and a polarizing factor in both the region and the world. Its Initiative has turned the Indian Ocean region into a great area of competition, generating a series of realignments in the process. China has been involved in the funding and construction of several commercial and port facilities in countries, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Kenya. It has also built a military base in Djibouti while increasing its naval presence in the area and linking China to the Indian Ocean. All these developments are signals that signify China’s peaceful rise. Consequently, the writers raise critical questions about China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean.
Chapter Three: Between East and West, India’s Revived Engagements
This chapter is a new insight into the changing geo-strategic development between China and India in the Indian Ocean region during the last two decades. It was discussed within the prospects offered by Belt and Road Initiative. Basically, the book keeps in mind the importance of India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean and India’s economic rise, which makes it dependent on energy supplies and raw materials for industry, just like China. According to the authors, with the accelerating rise of China, India had to work actively on modifying its initiatives in building better relations with the countries around the Persian Gulf and Africa by building strong tie partnerships. From this perspective, the chapter draws attention to the relationship between India and other powers in the region such as Japan, France, the US, and even China. India, in order to build its regional force strategy, launched a series of rapprochements with the small island states of the Indian Ocean through the trilateral initiative. And according to the authors: “India’s policy is now trying, in cooperation with Japan, to expand infrastructure projects within its regional strategy in order to mitigate China’s influence in East Africa Eastern countries as well as in Southeast Asia. In the process, India not only changed its Indian Ocean policy and defined a new role for itself, but it also found a new prominence that it reluctantly but gradually came to assume." In the process, it built a cautious defense partnership with the aforementioned countries.
Chapter Four: The US, the Reluctant Offshore Balancer of the Indian Ocean Rivalries
This chapter examines the new role of the United States in the Indian Ocean region. The US has considered the region a secondary priority for a long time, which resulted in the expansion of China’s power. The writers see that the United States is still a major player because it is still the most important military player. US interests in the region are a by-product of its economic competition with China. In the first part, the chapter argues that the Indian Ocean should be viewed through the perspective of the rivalry of great powers—namely China and India. The second part discusses the issue of the two opponents in relation to other players in the region as being classified as secondary players by the US. Such an assessment prevents the United States from fully appeasing the emerging powers participating in the region, such as South Africa and the Arabian Gulf countries. For example, we have witnessed in the past weeks the major development of relations between the Arab Gulf countries and Iran from one side and China on the other.
Chapter Five: The UK and France: An European Struggle for Regional Influence
In this chapter, the book discusses the role of the outside players in the Indian Ocean region. The region is witnessing the return of middle European powers, specifically France and the United Kingdom as interested players. Hence, Paris and London continue to play an important role by developing their own partnerships, especially in Africa and ASEAN countries. Given that the Indian Ocean region historically never constituted an area for cooperation between Europeans, it was considered a rival region for influence. This eventually will undermine their powers due to the ambitions of countries that struggle to maintain a global position, especially in light of increasing financial constraints. Therefore, after explaining the previously mentioned feedback, the authors believe that today, the world will witness a significant regression in European economic policies, especially in Africa, which was based on exploitation. Consequently, the book alerts that the transformation into European economic investment policies will be essential, of course, if Europe was able to compete with China there.
Chapter Six: The Gulf Arab Monarchies from Gateways to Strategic Players in the Indian Ocean?
Chapter Six examines the rising role of the Arab Gulf kingdoms in the region. The transformation of the Arab Gulf Kingdoms from Sea Gates countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates into strategic players is of major significance. Their role in the Indian Ocean has expanded basically through improving their foreign policies. It relied on increasing their economic investments and military assets to gain influence in many sub-regions in the Indian Ocean such as the Horn of Africa and South Asia. Although these developments are indicative of the growth of local mediators in the Indian Ocean security complex, they also highlight new ambitions and how they can cause regional instability. The consequences are evident in the apparent rivalry between the UAE and Qatar over the Horn of Africa. This chapter discusses the changes in the balance of power that the region is now subjected to, which award the book clear importance as a distinguished re-reading in the new map of the power balance in the Indian Ocean.
Chapter Seven: Australia and the ASEAN Member States: From Interested to Commitment?
The transformation of Australia and ASEAN Members from Stakeholders to Future Decision Makers is the main topic in chapter seven. However, the book raises doubts concerning the ability of Australian and ASEAN members to be active participants in the Indian Ocean’s policy. It highlights how the shift in the Australian view toward the rise of China in the mid-2010s led to a revision of its regional standing and increased investment in strategic partnerships. Australia with the United States focused on the Indian Ocean, India, and France. At the same time, the chapter explains the transformations in ASEAN countries that are directly related to the development of the Indian Ocean regional security. The chapter also shows the obstacles that may prevent or limit the strategic participation of these countries due to their limited capabilities and the special dilemmas they have created for China.
Chapter Eight: Indian Ocean Africa, from Mere Stockholder to Future Power Broker?
The chapter is basically based on the importance of Africa for the American and European economies and industries. Internal transformation in the African continent has already started. Africa today in many of its countries is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The future role of Africa was thoroughly discussed in the chapter focusing on the fact that Africa has already begun its internal transformation and Europe is no longer able to control its rich resources as it did for more than two centuries of colonialism. Accordingly, chapter eight presents the role of East African countries in shaping the new Indian Ocean. It shows how most of these countries struggle because they are dependent states. The book writers presume that Africans have neither the initiative capabilities nor the intention to act upon it. Furthermore, with the exception of South Africa, the rest of the African countries do not have the ability to act as a maritime power. However, due to its natural resources, East African countries focus their attention on attracting regional powers, facing at the same time the challenge of transforming the power of external players into influence for their own benefit and moving from the position of being only stakeholders to becoming real power brokers.
Chapter Nine: Rethinking the Indian Ocean Security Architecture
In chapter nine, the writers build their perspectives on the security of the Indian Ocean region based on previous chapters to reflect on the challenge facing the West in managing the Indian Ocean region. They argue that the critical challenge in the region is to transform the economic and military capabilities of local and external players into tools of governance, rather than tools of competition. The authors believe that given the increased number of new players in the region, decision-makers should not exacerbate the struggle for power but should work to strengthen the multilateral mechanisms of governance in the Indian Ocean region. It should also be done through a pragmatic and flexible approach that combines the work of pre-existing regional organizations (despite the limitations placed on them) and develops new specialized cooperation frameworks, whether it depended on bilateral, trilateral, or multilateral levels in relations between states and organizations. The aim of this approach is to prevent the Indian Ocean region from becoming a future battleground between the great powers.
As the book lays down the issue of the possibility of building meaningful security architecture, including energy and maritime security, mainly piracy, it pushes toward finding new ideas for managing possible emerging tensions in the Indian Ocean, i.e. the security of maritime navigation. The book takes into consideration the presence of traditional obstacles to the development of an effective regional system because the area lacks regional integration and cultural inconsistency among coastal states' powers. In addition, the perspective on the region is partly imposed by outside players.
The importance of reading such a book is not only in the information that it provides but also in its ability to allow the reader to connect the dots among the different strategic information in regard to politics. Personally, the book has provoked me many times to study and overlook the map of the region as I was reading. It doesn’t mean that the book was not marked by the obvious Western ideas and readings of the US' ongoing struggle against the rising power of China; it also warned against China’s unique advancement, so unique that China’s growing commercial relationships with the rest of the world is introduced by the book as a security dilemma in many parts of the world and now in the Indian Ocean.
As we read, we should take into consideration that the Asian-Indian region is very diverse. It is the home of 50% of the world's population. People in the region speak 3000 different languages. It has the largest Muslim-majority nations; two of the three largest economies of the world are located in the Indian region. Yet, according to the writers, until recently the US has always dealt with the challenges in the Indian Ocean region as part of the Indo- Pacific challenges, well, until 2017.
The main challenge the US had to face is the rise of rivalries with China, especially with the economic, political, and strategic competition resulting from China's Belt and Road Initiative. It has generated considerable dynamism among the coastal countries. It created more space for entrepreneurship and pushed for greater convergence between the coastal countries to allow for more cooperation among them. During this process, the status of the key players has evolved. Although several Pacific countries kept their tied relation to the US, they were more apt to start a new economic, political, and sometimes military cooperation with China. Therefore, it is important to understand that the book was more directed to Western policymakers to draw their attention to the possible threat of China’s attempts to undermine the US hegemony in the Indian Ocean.