Written by Hasan Alhasan

The decline of the status of the United States as the global superpower has put the future of multilateralism at stake. The US is credited with having led a multilateral-thrust which, since the Second World War, has created a set of institutions often collectively referred to as the ‘liberal international order’. These institutions, particularly through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), have extended their jurisdiction to the oceans. But now that US hegemony appears in decay, and other powers such as India and China have begun to rise, can we expect maritime multilateralism to survive in a region as vital to global commerce and geopolitics as the Indian Ocean?

Our main task is to test the proposition, which we shall apply to the Indian Ocean, that the emerging powers have as good a reason to promote multilateralism as did the US in its prime. Our findings are mixed, as India appears to embrace maritime multilateralism to its own ends, whereas China does not. But first, we shall briefly survey the impact of the global, multilateral maritime framework in place since the Cold War and of American leadership on the Indian Ocean. Then, we shall examine more closely both India’s and China’s approaches to the Indian Ocean, and what they mean for the future of multilateralism in the region.

On the global level, maritime multilateralism has had quite a successful track record. Beyond its importance in formalizing issues related to boundaries, jurisdiction, navigation, dispute settlement, etc., the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), some argue, even determines the ‘strategic seascape, affecting force structure and foreign policy’. As an internationally recognized playbook, so to speak, UNCLOS brings with it a degree of ‘stability and predictability’ that is vital to any effort to deconflict India’s and China’s expanding naval ambits.

Yet, UNCLOS has encountered a variety of challenges, not least in the Indian Ocean. First, it failed to achieve universal adherence, as several naval players in the Indian Ocean, including the United States, Iran, and Israel have failed to sign or ratify the convention. Second, the convention is open to conflicting interpretations, creating room for disagreement; the boundary disputes between India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal is only one such example.

As important as international law, perhaps, has been the US’s role in securing the global commons and fostering multilateral maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean, among both regional and extra-regional powers. The US maintains a network of bases across the Indian Ocean and conducts multinational exercises involving over two dozen navies under Combined Task Forces (CTF) 150 and 151 in counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, and other security-related operations in the Arabian Sea and Horn of Africa.

Yet, ‘America’s ability to bring a modicum of order to the globe is simply fading in slow motion’, assesses Kaplan, and nowhere is this truer than, perhaps, the Indian Ocean. As the alliances and rivalries of the Cold War era continue to shift, the Indian Ocean’s strategic environment is increasingly defined by an India that seeks to extend its dominance over the Indian Ocean, which it considers as its own backyard and a China that appears increasingly likely to encroach on it.

The rise of these powers has not spelled the end of multilateralism; instead, it has produced new experiments in maritime multilateral diplomacy. Prior to their rise, these states did not demonstrate a successful track record of maritime multilateral diplomacy in the Indian Ocean. In 1971, the non-aligned countries introduced Resolution 2832 at the United Nations General Assembly, declaring the Indian Ocean a ‘zone of peace’. Given the context of the Cold War, the initiative was interpreted as an attempt to keep the Western powers out of the Indian Ocean; because of its divisive nature, the initiative, by its members’ admission, failed miserably.

More recently, however, India has been at the helm of several, somewhat more successful initiatives to promote multilateral maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean; these, however, betray an Indian desire to build coalitions around itself and to become a ‘balancer of power’  particularly against China. Since 1995, India has led one of the Indian Ocean’s most important multinational naval exercises, Milan, which, in 2014, played host to 17 navies from the Indian Ocean littoral. In 2008, India launched the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) as a ‘regional forum for promoting maritime cooperation’, although it appears to have degenerated into a ‘talk shop’ in recent years. Both initiatives have systematically excluded powers that India considers as extra-regional, including China, the US, the United Kingdom, and France. Although the two initiatives have also excluded the United States, India has engaged the United States bilaterally through Malabar, an annual naval exercise begun in 1992 that has recently started to include Japan as well.

By contrast, China has taken a different route altogether, eschewing multilateralism in favour of bilateral arrangements. While China has so far been reluctant to initiate multilateral coalitions of its own, owing perhaps to an ‘image deficit’ or a desire not to precipitate a counter-balancing alliance, it has effectively concluded basing agreements and invested in infrastructure projects in Indian Ocean littoral states, most notably in Gwadar, Pakistan. Some analysts insist that China’s so-called maritime silk road, or the ‘string of pearls’ as its opponents more frequently call it, is designed to extend China’s economic reach and ensure the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) remain open; sceptics, nonetheless, particularly in New Delhi, see it as an attempt to encircle India, allowing Beijing to open maritime fronts against New Delhi in the eventuality of a militarized conflict.

Finally, we should be ill-advised to sound the death knell for multilateralism in the Indian Ocean; Ikenberry’s prediction seems, at least in part, rather vindicated. Following the end of the Second World War, the US successfully deployed multilateralism to construct an international order favourable to its hegemonic interests; today, India, in a more restricted sense, appears well positioned to do the same in its own backyard. But as China’s case seems to suggest, regionally-driven maritime multilateralism in the Indian Ocean is likely to encounter some of the same challenges, including a lack of universal adherence and a potential to create further disputes, that its globally-oriented predecessor once faced.

Hasan Alhasan is a PhD candidate studying jointly at the National University of Singapore and the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. His areas of research include the foreign policies of India and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter @HTAlhasan. Photo Credit: CC by Indian Ocean/ Wikimedia Commons.

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