Indian Ocean Strategic Futures

Re-examining assumptions of capability and intent
July 29, 2021
Cover of issue 16 of the journal Asia Policy and the Nimitz Carrier sailing in the Indian Ocean

U.S. strategy, directed toward an escalating competition with China, now sees the Indian Ocean as inseparable from the Pacific—combined in an organic Indo-Pacific whole—and India as a linchpin partner in it. As the United States plans to redouble its military power in the western Pacific, it is relying on India to grow more powerful and help safeguard their shared interests in the Indian Ocean, easing demands on U.S. resources in that region.

But that will not be the end of the story. India remains the most consequential strategic actor in the Indian Ocean by virtue of its geographic centrality, economic and military power, and abiding networks of influence across the region. But its capabilities and intentions—and therefore the strategic trajectory of the Indian Ocean—will continue to evolve as they have since the uncertain days of 1989 and long before. What if in the coming years India fails to expand its military power as its champions expect and instead is outmatched by China in the Indian Ocean? Or what if, in the throes of competition with China, India exercises its power more nakedly than its regional partners would wish? Relatedly, what if the United States, which has for decades underwritten regional security, chooses to retrench its strategic presence to focus efforts in the western Pacific? Policymakers in Washington, Canberra, and regional capitals would be well-advised to accept that many trajectories—some sharply divergent—are possible.

This essay offers a preliminary attempt at illustrating some of those sharply divergent scenarios. It uses a novel alternative futures methodology known as major/minor trends to derive scenarios of Indian and U.S. strategic behavior and their resulting effects on the Indian Ocean region. The essay briefly introduces the methodology and then sketches three alternative futures designed around a relatively weaker India, an aggressive India, and a retrenching United States, respectively. Each scenario is designed to convey a key lesson for policymakers on the fragility of the assumptions that underpin current policy.