The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The economic, military, and collaborative dynamics are rapidly evolving to transcend traditional notions of power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. The ocean is the key to the Seven Seas.” – Alfred Thayer Mahan

Spanning from Africa’s Eastern Coast to Australia’s Western Coast, the Indo-Pacific is a region of monumental importance, home to 33 nations and 2.9 billion people. To fully appreciate its strategic significance, one must view this vast area as a continuous theater encompassing about 20 percent of the world’s water surface, a quarter of its landmass, and three-quarters of global reserves of oil, iron, and tin. Astoundingly, around 80% of the world’s maritime oil traffic and 9.84 billion tons of cargo transit through the Indian Ocean region annually.

A dramatic shift in power dynamics occurred when India decided to align closely with the U.S., transitioning from the traditional “Asia Pacific” to the “Indo-Pacific.” This strategic realignment has bolstered India’s position against growing regional competition, particularly with China, leading to the emergence of “minilateralism.” In this framework, smaller, focused partnerships address specific areas of concern, transforming the Indian Ocean from a mere battleground of great power rivalry into a hub of multifaceted strategic cooperation. As we navigate deeper into the 21st century’s “Asian Century,” the economic, military, and collaborative dynamics are rapidly evolving to transcend traditional notions of power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

Several key drivers are accelerating this shift towards novel, minilateral cooperation. Firstly, nations across the region, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, are adopting “hedging strategies” to diversify their alliances and mitigate overreliance on any single power. These countries maintain economic ties with China while forging security partnerships with the United States and other regional powers. India, too, finds itself delicately balancing its relations between the U.S. and China. Secondly, shared concerns over maritime security threats—such as piracy, illegal fishing, and territorial disputes—necessitate regional cooperation. Initiatives like the Combined Maritime Task Forces (TF) and the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) program address these challenges by promoting collective action to ensure a stable and secure environment.

Additionally, the existential threat of climate change is uniting nations to collaborate on clean energy solutions, disaster risk reduction, and fostering innovation for a sustainable future. This growing environmental consciousness is driving the push for renewable energy projects and technological advancements that are crucial for the region’s long-term sustainability.

Moreover, an evolving sense of regional identity is strengthening collaborations on issues uniquely pertinent to the Indo-Pacific. Regional organizations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) are increasingly reflective of this regional consciousness. Furthermore, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, is intensifying its focus on maritime security cooperation, humanitarian assistance, and technological advancement in critical areas. The expansion of Quad into the Quad Plus, involving additional members, and the formation of the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, highlight the growing emphasis on defense and technological collaborations to address contemporary security challenges and the strategic needs of the Indo-Pacific region.

These partnerships, addressing a spectrum of urgent issues from maritime security to economic integration and environmental sustainability, are pivotal for the Indo-Pacific’s future. They enhance regional security, promote economic prosperity, and foster innovation across a wide range of sectors. However, navigating this complex landscape is not without challenges. The differing priorities and approaches within these groupings necessitate ongoing diplomatic efforts to forge common grounds and develop mutually beneficial solutions. Domestic political dynamics within each country also play a crucial role, influencing the level of commitment towards regional initiatives.

The Indo-Pacific stands at a critical juncture, with these dynamic partnerships paving the way toward a more integrated and cooperative future. The region’s trajectory is increasingly characterized by a shift from traditional bilateral alliances to a more fluid, multipolar order where regional collaboration shapes the strategic landscape. This new dawn in the Indo-Pacific is not just about managing the balance of power but about creating a resilient, interconnected region capable of facing the future with confidence.

Manahil Jaffer is a International Relations scholar, with keen interest in international affairs, terrorism and strategic issues.