The security situation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is complex and has attracted global attention for various reasons. Firstly, it is home to three countries with nuclear capabilities – India, China, and Pakistan – while another one, Russia, is in the backyard. The region is known for its economic strength, strategic location, and historical rivalries. Over the past two decades, the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, the rise of China as an emerging power, and increased Indian involvement in great power politics have enhanced the importance of IOR at the global level.
Recent developments have added to the significance of the IOR, including the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s increasing political and economic engagement in the region and worldwide.
The bloc politics, notably Quad and AUKUS, is another geopolitical dimension of IOR that aptly affect the region’s security architecture. AUKUS involves the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and focuses on selling nuclear submarines to Australia. Secondly, Quad is a security arrangement between the US, Australia, Japan, and India. Both these Axes have China in their crosshair and threaten its national security.
Chinese officials have criticized Quad, likening it to a new version of NATO and expressing concerns about its potential to disrupt regional peace and security. Similarly, China scorned the AUKUS arrangement as the US’s counterbalancing strategy for China in the Asia Pacific region. Both AUKUS and Quad have negatively impacted the security architecture of the IOR in multiple ways.
First, China perceives AUKUS and Quad as efforts to counter its regional strategic interests. China is expanding its economic influence in the IOR and seeks political support from regional states for win-win initiatives. Through Quad, India encourages regional countries to distance themselves from China. Similarly, AUKUS creates a negative image of China and prompts countries like Japan and South Korea to reassess their national security regarding China in the Asia Pacific region.
Some experts, like Michael Auslin from the Hoover Institute, argue that Japan should be included in AUKUS, creating “JAUKUS.” While Japan has not officially endorsed the use of nuclear technology for warfare, the idea of security development is gaining traction and may evolve further in the future.
Second, India is actively seeking a dominant position in the IOR, aided by Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which designates India as a key security provider in the region. Viewing China as a threat to its interests, India is rapidly building up its power in the Indian Ocean to counter China’s influence. India can leverage the objectives of the Quad Alliance to bolster its strategic influence, potentially leading to an arms race and increased instability in the region. China’s recent success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia has elevated its role and replaced the US as a regional mediator, marking a significant shift in power dynamics.
Third, the concept of developing middle power is crucial for understanding the power dynamics of Quad in the IOR. India seeks to stimulate smaller countries like Iran, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines to hedge against China. However, many countries remain neutral and avoid taking sides, particularly against China. India’s ambiguous and bloc political approach can create uneasiness and insecurity in the region.
Fourth, AUKUS and Quad are being seen as a way for the US to counter China’s growing regional influence. However, these arrangements have also raised concerns about an arms race and increased strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. This has disturbed many regional states, fearing that the two superpowers’ tensions could escalate and lead to conflict.
Last, the AUKUS represents a departure from traditional security norms by emphasizing advanced technological capabilities, particularly nuclear-powered submarines. This shift marks a significant change in how states address their national security. Consequently, it could prompt a reappraisal of the established security norms such as arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, and the role of advanced technology in military operations. These developments may have concerning implications for the security of the IOR.
The historical rivalry between Pakistan and India, and its strained relationship with the US, have heightened Pakistan’s vulnerability to the geopolitical implications of AUKUS and Quad. In response to these political shifts in the IOR, Pakistan has multiple avenues to consider for balancing the situation.
First, lining up with China and Russia could be considered to safeguard regional security concerns and counterbalance political changes in the regional power dynamics resulting from AUKUS and Quad. Second, Pakistan must emphasize multilateralism and work with regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), promoting a cooperative approach that safeguards the interests of all stakeholders. Third, Pakistan must bolster its maritime capabilities in the Indian Ocean, strengthening naval forces, improving surveillance, and fostering regional cooperation to safeguard national interests. Fourth, Pakistan must enhance ties with non-Quad and non-AUKUS countries, expanding partnerships, seeking cooperation, and fostering a balanced regional security architecture. Last, Pakistan can effectively promote stability in the region by facilitating dialogue and confidence-building measures among all countries in the IOR.
Political instability in the Indian Ocean Region can impact global politics due to the strategic significance of key chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz, and the Suez Canal located in the area. Initiatives like AUKUS and Quad do not bode well and may motivate other countries to make political alliances and blocs on the pattern of the Cold War era.
The Author is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. His area of research includes Nuclear proliferation, arms control and disarmament, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific region. He tweets @abusalahreseach.