String of Pearls: Naval Power and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean with Nilanthi Samaranayake

In this week’s episode, A’ndre and Ryan talk with Nilanthi Samaranayake, director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.  Nilanthi provides an overview of the Indian Ocean region, its strategic importance, and geopolitics. They also discuss the role of China in the region and how India and the United States can work to push back against Chinese influence. The conversation concludes with a broader discussion of U.S. strategy and then future of bilateral and multilateral relations with Indian Ocean powers.

Click here to learn more about Nilanthi and her work.

On the Indian Ocean: 

“India is still a major power in the region, with its own prerogatives about its security, and expectations about its smaller neighbor’s ties with great powers like China, like the United States. And India also has prerogatives about what it wants to see in terms of regional architecture, and institutions like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the Indian Ocean naval symposium or ions.”

On the influence of China and the U.S. on the Indian Ocean region: 

“I think both the US and China have played a very important role in terms of these countries building their economic security and futures.”

On military/political importance of this region: 

“I would argue that India has really been the focus of US policy in Asia for like the last 20 years and essentially cultivating India as a strategic partner to the United States. So it’s taken a long time, but you’re really seeing that the fruits of all that labor, culminating now in India, is considered a major defense partner to the United States. And it’s also signed the U.S. defense foundational agreements with regard to logistics and communication, security and others. So that relationship has really ascended very strongly, particularly under the Modi administration in India.” 

“There’s been some cost in terms of the U.S. having strategic relationships with some of India’s smaller neighboring countries, like Sri Lanka and Maldives, where you don’t really see as advanced or developed defense and security relationships with those countries.”

On U.S. security presence in the Indian Ocean region: 

“It really spans the entire region. So you have a U.S. naval base in sort of the western part in Bahrain; you have a naval support facility in Diego Garcia at the center of the Indian Ocean; and then the U.S. also has access in Singapore. So really spanning the entire Indian Ocean. And there’s also access to air bases, or across an Indian Ocean country. And so, the US is still an extra regional power. So, it doesn’t have the benefit of having territory in the region, but it does have access spanning the entire region.”

On Chinese competition: 

“I don’t think the Indian Ocean is going to be a hotspot that may be a controversial claim. But I think just for both countries, there are priorities in the Pacific. And so really, essentially rendering the Indian Ocean to be of less importance, not that it’s unimportant to the Indian Ocean is still very important.” 

“You can actually argue that both the U.S. and China have converging interests in this region, essentially keeping the sea lanes open, keeping the region stable. And, you know, just essentially the role of this region to the global economy and the passage of cargo.”

On Sri Lanka’s relationship with China: 

“In terms of the crisis that Sri Lanka finds itself in now, and in recent years, it’s that they’re still trying to essentially update their strategies. They’ve become so used to receiving loans at concessional rates, and that the more you increase in terms of economic status, you kind of lose access to the loans at the concessional rates you had once become accustomed to. There’s this type of debt trap diplomacy, but I think it’s more related to the middle income trap. And really, Sri Lanka’s inability to update its debt management strategies in the context of its growing status economically, and not really adjusting to the fact that it can’t expect to receive loans at the same concessional rates than it used to.”

“It wasn’t like Sri Lanka was paying the loans back to China, it wasn’t that situation. But at the same time, I think you can argue China as a rising great power. Did these organizations really need to help do this deal only under the terms of a 99 year lease with this country that was clearly struggling financially?”

“Well, I think there’s a lot of suspicion about China, just looking at what China is doing in the South China Sea, for example, or elsewhere. So that kind of assertiveness I think, quite logically, people have questions about what China intends to do and in their own country, whether it’s Sri Lanka or other Indian Ocean countries. I mean, these are commercial deals.”

“I don’t know what China intends with these projects. But I think it’s important to look at the smaller states and consider the agency that they have there, I think that tends to get overlooked.” 

On China’s relationship with the Maldives: 

“Maldives has a very different relationship with India than Sri Lanka has. That defense relationship between Maldives and India is very close. Whereas I think you’ve seen more willingness on the part of the Sri Lankans to kind of deviate from India’s preferences in terms of security.”

“Sri Lanka and Maldives are very different in terms of the their level of development or progression towards being able to sustain major shipping operations in that part of the Indian Ocean.”

On U.S. policy with South Asia: 

“I think, turning more attention toward the smaller countries would help essentially build out on that larger policy. The Indo-Pacific strategy was a term used in the previous administration, and it looks like the new Biden administration is continuing to move out on its effort and the priority of that region for U.S. interests.” 

“I think in terms of development finance, there is this relatively new international development finance corporation. So if the US could do more of that, essentially, in the region, in terms of helping provide finance advancing infrastructure and connectivity, this is something that the countries in the region are very much focused on. They see that increased connectivity is really their key to advancing their national economies. I think that would be well received.” 

On alliance and parties: 

“I feel like there’s an attempt to put political regimes into boxes and align it with particular great powers. But I think that the story is more complex there during the Rajapaksa regime, very close defense ties and security ties with India. So, I think some of those factors get overlooked. And I think sort of this desire to just assign, like political regimes to big powers.”

On the Chinese influence: 

“India has an edge in terms of its defense and strategic ties with Sri Lanka, just the amount of exercises that go on between the two countries, the level of training relationships, military training, relationships, and information sharing. It’s just a lot deeper. It’s just China’s defense relationship. And what’s wrong is that it just doesn’t compare.”

On policy focusing on the Indian Ocean: 

“China has helped augment India’s threat perceptions. And as a result, India is paying a lot more attention to the Indian Ocean region and its neighbors than it did before. So we’ve actually seen India conduct a lot more capacity building efforts and engagements with smaller Indian Ocean countries. India’s very proud of its COVID relief and response going all the way out to the Western Indian Ocean.”  

On India’s changing role: 

“India is also going through this process of evolving its priorities in the region strategically. So India is essentially, for the past few years, developing its capabilities, demonstrating diplomatic leadership in the region, and displaying its operational reach to all corners of the Indian Ocean.”

On ethno-religious tensions:

“There’s that concern about Hindu nationalism in India. Certainly there’s concern about Sri Lanka and the leadership that has come in and essentially believing that the UN Human Rights Council, that entire process, and this issue about the reconciliation and the management of the Civil War, over a decade ago. And then what remains to be done in terms of reconciliation and devolution of powers to the ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. So there’s definitely there’s the Rohingyas in Myanmar. So there are a lot of issues where India certainly has interests and can play a role, if it wants to. It certainly has historically.” 

On the policy of non-alignment: 

“India has come a long way, in terms of its desire to be convergent with the US. I think that there’s always going to be the limits to that, because India insists on what it calls strategic autonomy.” 

“The India U.S. relationship has really come a long way, not only in the last 20 years, but even in the last 10 years, with all of the foundational agreements that have been signed, the defense foundational agreements that have been signed, in terms of defense trade and the sale of major platforms. It’s really quite significant.” 

On naval cooperation: 

“There’s a lot going on in terms of U.S. India naval cooperative opportunities. It’s really led the way among all the military services and in advancing the wider strategic relationship.” 

On creating an alliance: 

“I don’t think it’s likely. India really makes it clear that it’s, it’s never going to be a treaty ally to the US, and relations are really just soaring even in the absence of any kind of formal Media Alliance.” 

On the QUAD: 

“Since foreign policy is conducted essentially by the elite, by government officials, what we’re hearing and what we’ve been consistently hearing is an aversion to a formal treaty alliance with the U.S. But operationally, we are seeing a lot of fruit that has been born of this deeper relationship between the U.S. and India. And I think China has certainly been a driver of that.” 

On the future of Indian Ocean U.S. policy: 

“So I think that you have to think bilaterally, as well as in terms of mini-laterally in terms of these small groupings of countries. And then also formal regional architecture, like Iora, or ions.” 

On a long-term strategy: “It’s certainly good to have an assessment of where a particular region falls within the United States as larger global priorities because the U.S. certainly has higher priorities. I would argue then, that the Indian Ocean is maybe not necessary to have a fully fleshed out Indian Ocean Strategy. But I think it is useful to essentially situate where the Indian Ocean lies in terms of what the U.S. overall has on its plate and what its objectives are and what it actually 

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