David Brewster is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

US strategic thinking about the Indian Ocean is in a state of flux. While it is not at all clear where it will go, we can nevertheless understand some of the basics of US strategy in the region.

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region has come into vogue over the last few years. Robert Kaplan famously claimed that the Indian Ocean would become 'centre stage' for the twenty-first century. A US Navy and Marines' 2007 strategic concept paper nominated the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as the two oceans where combat power will be 'continuously postured'. The January 2012 Defense Guidance is rather more ambiguous about the place of the Indian Ocean in US thinking, although it identifies India as the key US security partner in the region.

Clearly there is a need for the US to redefine its strategic role in the region as a consequence of the drawdown of US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, there are concerns about the rise of China's military power in East Asia. However, a coherent strategy in the IOR is still the subject of debate, and there are many questions to be answered: 

  • Should the Indian Ocean region be seen as an extension of the Pacific?
  • What to do with China (constrain or cooperate)? 
  • Should the US attempt to develop a region-wide security architecture?
  • Should be US adopt a 'Neo-Nixonian' doctrine in the region (encouraging 'self help' by friends and allies in a manner similar to US policy in the years following the Vietnam war)?  

While strategic theories are being debated, some important features of US strategy in the Indian Ocean are becoming relatively clear. These include the following:

1. The US perceives a relatively wide range of potential threats to its interests in the IOR, ranging from state-based threats (such as from China and Iran) to non-state actors. There are numerous security concerns, ranging from SLOC protection to nuclear proliferation to failed states. The threat of Islamic terrorism remains important but has considerably less priority than it had several years ago.

2. the US perceive China as a significant strategic concern across the entire Indo-Pacific. Although any threat from China will arise primarily in East Asia, China is also seen as a long-term (if largely undefined) threat to US interests in the Indian Ocean. The 'string of pearls' theory (the idea that China has ambitions to establish a string of naval bases across the Indian Ocean) is not given a great deal of credence, although it is recognised that China is building relationships in the region that could be of future military value. 

3. Significant US defence spending cuts in coming years will result in a reduction in resources that the US is able to commit to the Indian Ocean. The Asian 'pivot' (or 'Rebalance') will involve a greater relative focus of US defence resources on East Asia than is currently the case, and relatively less on the Indian Ocean. Cuts will be largest among ground forces (including headcount reductions of more than 100,000 in the Army and Marines), but there will also be significant cuts to the Air Force. The US Navy will suffer the least reductions.

4. A reduction in committed defence resources may create a capability gap in the Indian Ocean region. This may be partially ameliorated by the shift in US defence resources from the Northwest Pacific towards the Southwest Pacific (including Australia, Singapore and Guam). These resources may be available for deployment in the Indian Ocean. There is likely to be greater reliance on Diego Garcia as a staging point for resources brought into the region in response to specific threats.

5. The majority of this capability gap needs to be filled by US friends and allies. This primarily means India, although there is a hope that Australia and others such as Indonesia can assume greater responsibilities for regional security. It is believed that India's strategic interests in the Indian Ocean are broadly aligned with US interests and that the US can therefore safely rely on India to assume a considerable share of the security burden. 

6. While US pronouncements have gone out of their way to avoid any suggestion of an alliance with India, there is a great deal of optimism that India will work with the US in providing security to the region. Whether India can be persuaded to do so is an open question.

7. There will be a change in the nature of US power projection in the region. The US will likely seek to exercise what US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert has called the 'offshore option' to US strategic requirements. This would involve much greater reliance on the US Navy and much less on ground forces.

It will be interesting to see how all this can be pulled together into a coherent strategy. Possibly all that can be hoped for is that the US will seek to pragmatically 'manage' as best it can the various security threats it faces in the Indian Ocean.

Photo (of US Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson visiting India in 1961) by Flickr user US Embassy New Delhi.