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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 71. The New Arms Race for the Indian Ocean

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Eighty per cent of the world's trade will pass through the Indian Ocean at some point on its journey, yet the importance of this crucial theatre seems lost on many observers at the moment. With Beijing, Washington and New Delhi all making moves to capitalise on this crucial waterway which one of these nations has the momentum behind them? And which nation is beginning to fall behind?



Michael Kugelman

  • Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center

  • A leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States.

  • Columnist for Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel and regular contributor to New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Politico,, Bloomberg View, The Diplomat, Al Jazeera, and The National Interest, among others.

Michael Wesley

  • Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne.

  • Previously he served as Professor of International Affairs and Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, and Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy,

  • He has previously published articles on Australian foreign policy, Asia’s international relations and strategic affairs, and the politics of state-building interventions.

Dhruva Jaishankar

  • Director of the US Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

  • Previously he was a Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

  • His research examines India’s role in the international system and the effects of global developments on India’s politics, economics, and society, with a particular focus on India’s relations with the United States, Asia and the Indo-Pacific, and Europe.


Part 1: The Fight at the End of the Tunnel (3:59)

  • Michael Kugelman provides an overview of the current situation in the Indian Ocean, with a complex plethora of regional powers in a precarious stalemate. He then dives into the speculation surround China and how those regional powers perceive its potential to upset that balance of power.

  • Kugelman unpacks the sentiment among some Indian naval officers that India has been encircled by China in recent years, with an aggressive expansion through the purchase of surrounding ports in locations such as Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gwadar in Pakistan.

  • He then notes the simultaneous Indian build up within the region, with its own series of military and naval modernisation efforts to increase its ability to project power in the region. The discussion then goes on to analyse the geographical problems India faces in its defence planning, both on the continent and in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

  • We conclude by pondering if the Indian Ocean could ever become as contentious as something like the South China Sea, with multiple states competing for influence and territory, and how the US might factor into such a scenario.


Part 2: The Traffic Stop (34:23)

  • Michael Wesley continues our South China Sea comparison, noting that three of the four Quad members have a long and notable history of strategic planning around the Indian Ocean. We also discuss Australia's comparative lack of planning and strategic manoeuvring to project power in this region.

  • Wesley rejects the notion that China could, if needed, supply itself overland through Central Asia, leaving no doubt that it will need to secure trade routes and the ability to operate freely in the Indian Ocean moving forward.

  • He posits that rather than the 'String of Pearls' theory, China is instead positioning itself to be reliant on submarines to defend its interests and trade routes, which can further be evidenced through the build up of anti-submarine capabilities by the Indian military.

  • We conclude the segment by talking through the potential for an arms race escalating amongst the regional players, including the potential expansion of new bases across the Indian Ocean coastlines from Western Australia to Eastern Africa.


Part 3: Not Enough Ships To Go Round (47:59)

  • Dhruva Jaishankar notes the strengthening of India's bilateral relations with its fellow Quad members in recent years reflects an understanding that there is a significant drop off in capability amongst its allies in the region past the United States, Japan, and Australia.

  • Jaishankar discusses the traditional Indian force structure and bias towards funding the army, reflecting the border struggles with Pakistan and China, and how defence spending has evolved in recent years to increase funding for Navy and Coast Guard capabilities in the most recent budget.

  • We discuss questions around India's defence relationship with Russia and if the current international response to Ukraine will force a diversification of Indian arms supplies away from its current largest provider.

  • Jaishankar offers his thoughts on the potential future design and capability direction of the Indian navy, as well as the potential for India to develop its own remote island bases in the Indian Ocean akin to Diego Garcia for the US or to develop base sharing agreements with its fellow Quad members.


The Red Line's Indian Ocean Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of the India Ocean.


India's Naval Strategy and Asian Security

Edited by Anit Mukherjee, C. Raja Mohan

China's Grand Strategy and Australia's Future in the New Global Order

Geoff Raby

Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future

Rory Medcalf


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Rowan Pike and Ward Brooks.


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