The Indian Ocean and the Asia Chessboard

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Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to The Asia Chessboard, the podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hannah Fodale: This week, Mike is joined by Darshana Baruah of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to discuss the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean to the United States and our allies and partners in the region. Darshana provides historical context for the new focus on the Indo-Pacific and dives into the politics of the Indian Ocean region. Mike and Darshana also tackle the rise of Chinese influence and how the Indian Ocean fits in with US-China strategic competition.

Mike Green: Welcome back to The Asia Chessboard. I'm Mike Green. I'm joined by Darshana Baruah, and we're going to talk about the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is emerging as one of the most important parts of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. The very fact we are now calling it the Indo-Pacific reflects that. But the history of American engagement in this region has been a bit uneven. In 2008, the Quadrennial Defense Review of the Pentagon publicly stated that the United States will develop an Indian Ocean strategy. And I was briefly pulled in together with my friend and earlier guests on this podcast, Ashley Tellis, to meet with the Obama NSC in 2009 to think through the Indian Ocean strategy idea. I don't think much came of the effort, actually. And part of the thing that I saw was that the Indian Ocean is owned by too many agencies, too many commands, and so a coherent geopolitical, geographic strategic concept for this region has been elusive. But I think that has also been true even for India or Australia, which, of course, border the Indian Ocean.

Mike Green: Historically for the United States and for our allies, the Indian Ocean has come to matter enormously in wartime. In both World War I and World War II, hostile navies penetrated the Indian Ocean. Had the Germans and the Japanese been able to connect, that would have been decisive in the second world war. In the cold war, the Indian Ocean was critical for our swing strategy to be able to swing forces between CENTCOM and PACOM in crises. And it became important also for strategic depth because of the choke points at either end in the Straits of Hormuz and Straits of Malacca. So Naval strategists know that it matters. Historically, it mattered enormously to the US and Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navies and the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War I and II. But we've lost focus as a government on what it means. And the Indian Ocean strategy we need that the QDR called for in 2008, needs to be in all of government strategy.

Mike Green: So one of the very few people in think tanks or in universities who's thinking comprehensively and holistically about the Indian Ocean as a strategic space is Darshana Baruah, who is a associate fellow with South Asia program at Carnegie, where she leads the Indian Ocean Initiative. So Darshana, welcome. Why don't we start as we always do with you telling us how you got into the Indian Ocean and security in that region?

Darshana Baruah: Thank you so much, Dr. Green. It's really great to be here and to be talking about the Indian Ocean issues. I've just arrived in DC a month ago, and very much into kind of talking about Indian Ocean issues. So this is a great, great opportunity for me to, I guess, introduce to all the listeners in Washington about the importance of the Indian Ocean and why this matters and the research I'm doing. I was interested in the Indian Ocean because from the point of view of maritime security, which is what I joined of a think tank. I grew up in India. I'm from India. Grew up in the state of Assam. For my master's, which I did in the UK, I ended up doing my dissertation on maritime security, and I focused on the South China Sea. And that was 2011, 2012. And while I was writing my thesis, the Scarborough Shoal incident had happened in April of 2012. And I decided to use that as a case study and talked about how the competition on the maritime domain will actually change the way we look at the security architecture. And you could see the shift, a very clear shift to the maritime domain with the rise of China and what was happening in the South China Sea.

Darshana Baruah: So that was 2012, and the conversation was fairly new and almost invisible in Delhi, though, when I went back after my master's. And it was quite hard to work on maritime security at that point in time. But luckily, I joined the Observer Research Foundation initially as an intern. And then I ended up working with Dr. Raj Mohan, who's really been my mentor. And we worked a lot on maritime security at that time because of what was happening in South China Sea there, but more because India has focused on the Indian Ocean region on the Indian Ocean region as such. So even if that was not that much in the news, I was studying a little bit more on the Indian Ocean region to understand the maritime security and the dynamics of it. And then weaving that into the contemporary developments that was happening at the point from South China Sea.

Darshana Baruah: But by 2014, kind of Chinese sovereigns adopted Sri Lanka. So the conversation had started coming into the Indian Ocean region. Although, I wouldn't say it was enough to drive a narrative or a conversation the way it is perhaps happening now or will be happening six months to a year from now. So that has been my interest because I felt, while studying, that there was a shift to the maritime domain. And then I started studying and reading more and looking into why the maritime initiative is important, how that impacts our competition. Of course, shifting that to the 21st century, where it's no longer the colonial period, which is where a lot of my journal articles talked about that I read through university. And yeah that really has been, and the last couple of years, I've chosen to focus on this.

Mike Green: So it's interesting. So see, Raj Mohan's a good friend of mine. He told me that one of his most successful students of grand strategy in the Indian Ocean was a Marxist, but that's not you, Right?

Darshana Baruah: No.

Mike Green: Okay. He didn't tell me who. So he wrote in 2011, I think it was, his famous book or well-received book on Indian Ocean strategy from an Indian perspective. And he tried to ground it, to the extent you can ground a maritime strategy, in Indian strategic traditions and Curzonian foreign policy. But he was ahead of his time, wasn't he? And so were other people like Rory Metcalf from Australia or I suppose myself and Andrew Scheer or Ashley Tellis, who started talking about this. So what happened? Now all of a sudden, we have an INDOPACOM. People are beginning to think about it again. What happened between 2012 and 2020, '21 that we lost focus? Do you think?

Darshana Baruah: No. First of all, I've read all of your work through for a very long time. So first, it's an absolute privilege and an opportunity to be here talking to you about this. I think a lot changed because governments, I guess. The way at least I look at the Indian Ocean region is that governments tend to have policies only when there is a competition or a conflict in the horizon. And the Indian Ocean really kind of did not have that a competition in the 1990s onward. So it was the most perhaps stable area that government did not worry about. And when you don't have to worry about something, it slides into the more comfortable zone, where it's taken for granted. It's there. It's take care of itself. And I think the security architecture that emerged out of with France taking a very prominent lead on the Western Indian Ocean, India taking the lead on the Eastern Indian Ocean and US through its alliances knew that it will be taken care of. And it did not anticipate any competition or trouble, that the Indian Ocean remained as such.

Darshana Baruah: But of course, the conversation on the South China Sea really changed the narrative and really changed the conversation, not just between US and China, but also US and its partners and the region as such. And I think by 2015, '16, there was an acknowledgement and recognition, if not at the highest level of government, at least with different people who had been working in this in government, within the bureaucracy, that there is going to be spill over into the Indian Ocean region. And if you're talking about partnerships, the Western Pacific on the South China Sea does not rank in the same level of priority that it does for perhaps Japan, Korea or the US, like for instance, for India. And if India and US going to talk about maritime security, the focus point is perhaps not going to be the South China Sea, but if you want to talk about a larger maritime collaboration, the Indo-Pacific makes more sense because it is bringing together the two ocean that also brings in far too many players.

Mike Green: That's a really interesting point. So the 2014, '15 construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and then, despite Xi Jinping's pledged to President Obama he wouldn't militarize those islands, the heavy militarization of those islands, giving China and the PLA Air Force essentially air cover, against any adversary other than perhaps the US in the South China Sea. That was huge. But do you think it created this focus on the Indian Ocean because it alerted the US, Australia and Japan more to the importance of India counterbalance China? Or do you think it was based on a real sense that China would continue to extend that coercive military presence into the Indian Ocean? If you see what I mean, was it the sense of common danger or a specific worry about the Indian Ocean being next? How did you read that?

Darshana Baruah: I don't think there was a focus or even concentration in the Indian Ocean at that point in time. I don't think people or governments were really thinking about the Indian Ocean region. I think the whole focus was whatever is happening in the South China Sea, let's contain it within the South China Sea, the first island chain, the second island chain. That was, I think, the extent of the conversation. I don't think the Indian Navy itself predicted or assumed that you know China will be in the Indian Ocean in the way that it is. And the other part, or the way I see the challenge of the Indian Ocean was that the Indian Ocean is very divided, and it's very much divided into Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Indian Ocean. When people talk about Africa, they do not connect Africa to the Indian Ocean coast at all, but it is very much a part of the Indian Ocean region. So when you talk about Africa, you think so far away, so distant then you don't connect the maritime part of it. So the silos and the geographical silos that emerged after some time in the '70 and continued through the '90s I think really took away the opportunity or took away the need to have a conversation on maritime security or maritime domain as a strategic curator for bureaucracies and policymakers. And I think that had an impact.

Mike Green: So the point you're making about the divisions in how we look at the Indian Ocean, that's mostly about the US government because when Japan talks about the Indo-Pacific, they include East Africa, and I think that's true for the Australian government, whereas the US, AFRICOM, INDOPACOM the Africa bureau, the South Asia bureau, our stove pipes split the Indian Ocean. Are you mostly talking about the US view of the Indian Ocean? Or do you think India, Australia and Japan-

Darshana Baruah: No, I'm actually talking about everybody, including India-

Mike Green: Everybody. Interesting.

Darshana Baruah: ... because even when Japan talks about eastern coast of Africa as Indo-Pacific. When you talk about priorities, I was in Japan for the last two years, and they don't think about Africa. Japan has a very good Africa program, the TICAD. They host that annual. They meet the leaders regularly, but they have not been able to connect it from the Indian Ocean point of view simply because I think they don't look at it as, I don't know, it's not a continuing theater. The problem with the Indian Ocean as most governments look at the countries of the Indian Ocean region through continental desk. Either Sri Lanka and Maldives will be South Asia. Mauritius and Seychelles would be Africa. So two island nations with a group of 50 countries, and the 48 are continental two islands. They disappear in the conversation. So whether it's at State, whether it's at MOFA, whether it's at DEFAD, whether it's at NEA, the conversations get lost. And India is the only country I think now, beginning 2016, that I have a very specific Indian Ocean desk which looks at the islands.

Mike Green: That's interesting. And that may be something other foreign ministries or defense ministries emulate. So TICAD, the Japanese annual development conference with Africa, is run by development people. It's not a security, which is why it's successful in part. The African side feels like it's about development. They don't want it to be about China, although it really is in terms of competition. The Japanese government gets excited when they get more African heads of state than the Chinese do for their annual conference, and Africa is reaping the benefit of this rivalry. So what do you make then of the so-called String of Pearls, of China's interest in dual-use military access ports in Djibouti, obviously, Gwadar in Pakistan and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and so forth? Is that a real threat from your perspective? When this first came up a decade or so ago, the response from many was, well, look, these are small ports far from China; we'll just take them out in a conflict. And the counter to that would be no, it forces us to pay attention in a crisis before we're shooting, and it stretches us out. And it intimidates and threatens. But what's your take on the actual Chinese threat to the Indian Ocean, the String of Pearls? And maybe what is China's intention?

Darshana Baruah: Right. No. The String of Pearl conversation, at least in India, has a very India lens to it in the sense the conversation is that it was designed to contain India because of the ports that were in question, which was Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka. I don't think it was a conversation to contain India. Whatever China was doing it was doing to address those vulnerabilities. When China is talking about being a great power, when China is talking about its maritime team, and it's talking about being a maritime power, its vulnerabilities lie in the Indian Ocean region. It is much more confident in the Western Pacific. So, if it really wants to be a maritime power, I'm not saying it wants to replace the US, but just think from the point of view of China as a nation who wants to be a maritime power. It will have to be able to address the gaps in the Indian Ocean region and not only security vulnerabilities, but also offer alternatives and regional solutions to what's happening in the region right. And I think that was China's end goal. And the first Chinese base did come up in Djibouti. I mean it was the eastern coast of Africa. It came up in Indian Ocean.

Darshana Baruah: And I think if there's going to be a second base in the Indian Ocean, and I think there will be a second base in the Indian Ocean, it'll again be the African coast because that is the coast which is least watched. It's the least contested one. The Eastern Indian Ocean is heavily monitored. Everyone is present there. It's easier to warrant a response or a pushback. And second point I wanted to make, I think it was interesting. And you mentioned when the whole String of Pearls or even the Belt and Road Initiative came up, I guess the counter argument was that, well, we can take them out in the context of a conflict right, an armed conflict. So what really is the conversation with China? Is it about talking whether you will win a war with China, or is it about competition? Because at this stage, I think there are two parallel conversations on that because if you're talking about an armed conflict, then yes, okay, you're talking about a real conflict at the time. Then you're just talking from a naval point of view what basis you can take it off. And at that point you are committing to much more than what is on the table because you will be at war too.

Darshana Baruah: But if you're talking about the lead up until then, which is the competition, then it's completely different. Then you have to compete. And the competition is actually going to be in the Indian Ocean region. What are you competing over? You're competing over gaining more influence with littorals, with islands, gaining a more foothold, diplomatically, politically, economically, militarily. How do you do that? By engaging that. By gaining a better foothold than the US has, than India has, than Australia has, than Japan has. So it's a continuing conversation. It is a continuing engagement. And I think that's where the competition is. But the problem is that the entire conversation, I think at least from Washington in the last one month that I've heard, is a lot of the conversation is like, okay, fine. But you know worst case scenario, we can just bomb it. You're directly at the point of view of war. And you're not competing, but you're talking about competition.

Mike Green: Yeah. I think in my view, it's a spectrum. It's not black and white. And competition for influence and access is part of that spectrum that runs right up to the high risk, dangerous, full on warfare because if Beijing has the ability to dictate, either through coercion or through Belt and Road projects or through elite capture, bribery, the policies of key access points, whether it's Sri Lanka or the Maldives, Mynamar or you know Djibouti, that complicates our planning. It makes it much harder for us to be confident we can swing forces through the Indian Ocean, that India can secure the Indian Ocean, and gives Beijing leverage. And at the same time, it's a completely legitimate objective for a country that is a major power and has interests in the Middle East and has imports. Yeah. And it was, I guess, a little over a decade ago that Hu Jintao made a speech noticed by China experts that the PLA Navy has not only to defend China, but China's interests.

Mike Green: So it's both menacing but also legitimate. And as you pointed out, you can't compete with that with war fighting strategies. You may need to because it's relevant, but you have to be invested in relationships and diplomacy and development. That's, in a way, a microcosm of the whole competition with China. Have you seen the movie Wolf Warrior, which is about East Africa? The movie, for people who haven't seen it, opens up with a humanitarian disaster. And the opening scene is Anglo-American, Japanese, Australian fleets fleeing as the PLA Navy heads into some East African crisis. And at the end of the movie, they have that script running down the screen saying Chinese citizens should know that anywhere in the world, if they're in trouble, the PLA will take care of them. But it is interesting it was East Africa. And Djibouti, where China has built a base, that base, it's pretty well chronicled, is militarized. It seems to me it's violated the status of forces agreement that Djibouti has demanded from every country. So it's a real thing.

Mike Green: In your description of the Indian Ocean strategy and how to think about it holistically, one thing I saw you picked up on was the proposal by the previous Secretary of the Navy, the last Trump administration secretary, for a first fleet, a new US fleet that would be based in Singapore, Perth, somewhere in the Indian Ocean or near the Indian Ocean to focus on it. And you praise that in some of your writing. I gather that's not happening. And what would you do to get the US government more focused on the Indian Ocean?

Darshana Baruah: Right. Yeah. I mean I haven't heard anything on that. I wasn't talking so much on an Indian Ocean fleet, but more about the need to go into the Indian Ocean region because I wrote a piece about showing up is half the battle in the sense that the US forces are not in the Indian Ocean as much. I was talking more also probably more in terms of an Indian Ocean deployment in the sense that US Navy is very much present in the Indian Ocean when you look at statistics, when you look at numbers, when you look at frequency. But then they're transiting the region, not to engage with the region. They're transiting to get to the Middle East, so they're transiting to kind of get to Japan. On the way, they would do exercises with the US as its biggest partner and one the partners there or something like passing exercises. But it doesn't do deployments in a way to engage with the Indian Ocean region. And I think that is something that could be started. And it is to engage with the region, to have conversation, to see how the countries, how the...

Darshana Baruah: Again, if the goal is to gain influence, if the goal is to have access, if the goal is to deny China that access and that influence, you'd have to show up and engage with the region and understand how they are describing or framing this competition and also the challenges and priorities. And I think in Indian Ocean deployment, I didn't think the US Coast Guard really goes to the region. I know there's questions of resources and constraints and other things, but then a lot of the other nations in the Indian Ocean won't have a Navy. They have a Coast Guard. And exercise with them, even if it is to invite them over to the US for training purposes. It's a big step forward because it doesn't exist. Right now, they have very limited engagements, which is what their key partners, which is France and India. And France and India will remain the key players in the Indian Ocean region. But I just don't see this enough, given the pace at which China is engaging, given at the pace China's owned capital and resources, which neither France nor India can kind of compensate or compete with. So if you're looking for collaborations, I think US should really go into the Indian Ocean region, whatever format, whatever way it is possible at this point, but really start engaging with the region and showing up for them and not just use it as a highway.

Mike Green: That’s an interesting point about the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard is stretched very thin. And of course, now they have to worry about the arctic with nuclear powered icebreakers deploying from Russia and China and so forth. So they have a lot on their plate. But I think if you meet the Coast Guard Command, then I think you can make a pretty compelling case that he might want to have maybe an older cutter permanently deployed out of Guam or someplace, maybe even Japan, to do that mission because it's about engagement primarily. And it's interesting because I would say probably the most significant engagement the US military has done in the Indian Ocean in the last 20 years was the 2005, ‘04, '05 Indian Ocean tsunami response. I was in the White House at the time. That was Admiral Duran, the seventh fleet, steaming to Iraq, steaming to the Middle East to deal with the contingency. He happened to have his fleet off of, basically, Bondaccai and slowed down, waiting for Washington to catch up and order him to form what became the Quad.

Mike Green: So actually, turning those transits into opportunities for engagement is a great idea. I suspect what the Navy will say is most of those transits to the Middle East are not planned ahead of time there because of contingencies. So it'd probably take some pretty creative foresight and probably an Indian Ocean desk, an INDOPACOM in the state department, to look for those opportunities.

Darshana Baruah: It's not that difficult to map out a deployment as such if you know the region. It's very, I won't say straightforward, but I think it's pretty doable with the assets that US already has. Plus, US has also the Diego Garcia there. So the island nations knows that there this base there, of course, taking away the issue with Mauritius, which we can come to, which is another issue. But there are assets there, but then those assets are not engaging with the region as such. They're not going to be structured. My point is that you don't necessarily have to put in more resources to be in the Indian Ocean, but perhaps a little bit restructuring and reorienting. And for that, you're right. First, maybe an Indian Ocean strategy or an Indian Ocean desk at least somewhere in State, DOD, back fleet, I don't know, somewhere, who can monitor it as there is no place. There is no one place who's monitoring Indian Ocean as one region.

Mike Green: Except for you and Carnegie. So you mentioned Diego Garcia. Can you take a minute or two and bring us up to speed? And for people who don't know what Diego Garcia is, why it's so important to the US and why it's under some... Well, tell me if you think it is under some threat right now politically because of the Chagos Archipelago claims.

Darshana Baruah: Diego Garcia, of course, is extremely important for. That is US's main foothold in the Indian Ocean region. Take over Diego Garcia, and US is really not present in the Indian Ocean region. There is no base. The closest would be Singapore or Djibouti in Africa. So in the Indian Ocean, I think Diego Garcia is very strategically located. It is almost equidistant to the Middle East, Africa and Asia. You can reach airpower. Diego Garcia gives air power to the US that is almost, I think, something the Chinese would love to have or anybody who is looking to engage with the Indian Ocean region. But a base came out of negotiation between US and UK as Mauritius was gaining independence from the British, the Chagos Archipelago. It's an engagement that goes back to the '60s, and it was for the first 50 years. And the 50 years is over, and Mauritius is saying that this is the process of the decolonization process, and it should come back to us because it's ours. David Vine has an excellent book called Island of Shame. I think that talks about what happened to the people on the island and how it was acquired and access. And I think that gives insight into the conversation in Mauritius and how they view the view that conversation.

Darshana Baruah: But I think the biggest impact of the Diego Garcia today is the UN resolutions. You have the UN. When you're talking at a time about a rules based international order, when US is saying that if the PCA ruling between China and Philippines holds and China must abide and US ignoring a UN resolution and the ICJ, the verdict of it, it's contradictory. And what is happening is China is actually exploiting this, utilizing this, whatever, however you say, to say to the smaller islands and littorals in the region saying, "Look, all of you were colonies. And all of you have left over standing conflicts or territorial disputes. Take it to the UN, knowing that most bigger powers will not perhaps abide or follow whatever comes out of it, and in a way, undermining the whole system, then, in the sense that it's not just China who ignored the PCA ruling, but also UK and the US and France or Japan or whoever else has it. And I think there's a way to do it in the sense that Mauritius has gone on record multiple times to say that it is willing to renegotiate an agreement, particularly on the Diego Garcia base and the base remains as such, but acknowledge that this is an issue of de-colonization, acknowledged that Chagos Archipelago is hard.

Darshana Baruah: And it might be useful for US to also consider that Chagos is almost 1,000 nautical miles away from Mauritius. Mauritius is well aware that the security is not going to be easy to provide to the region. I think there are ways to work on economic partnerships, allowing fishing on the modern part of the archipelago. There 60 islands within the Chagos Archipelago. Diego Garcia is the bottom right, it’s in the corner. So I think it has multiple questions around it, which one is one is undermine the whole Western powers versus China, where the West is trying to bully China, whereas they themselves don't believe in international law and order, but is forcing us. And they would do it to you as well. It's going to have a domino effect, and it is having an impact in the Indian Ocean conversation.

Mike Green: I would be nervous about touching too much on the sovereignty issue if I were in the administration, but you make a really important point about fisheries agreements or other things that would give some de facto, not de jure, but de facto sovereign opportunities to weaken the Chinese assault. Speaking of diplomacy, what are some of the other political issues in the Indian Ocean in addition to the Diego Garcia dispute? There's the Maldives. There's Hambantota in Sri Lanka. There's a lot of politics in the Indian Ocean region that has just behind it strategic competition with China. What else are you focused on besides the one you just described?

Darshana Baruah: I think, one, I'm looking at the Indian Ocean as a whole. I'm writing a book on the islands of the Indian Ocean region, which is to look at how islands will shape this great power interaction or competition because simply from the hypothesis that... At the beginning of this podcast, you mentioned how Indian Ocean was important for the Imperial powers. It was important for the Cold War. And I think it was important because naval powers have important bases there, which allowed them to operate in that region and not just in Indian Ocean and to cross what we call-

Mike Green: North.

Darshana Baruah: ... to be the Indo-Pacific. Those bases were on the islands, but at that point, they were colonies. Today, they're not colonies. Today, the sovereign nations. So they have their own foreign policy choices, their own military and economic choices. And who they interact with, who they engage with, who they partner with will have an impact. So the conversation today is not necessarily only driven by US and its partners or US versus China, but the conversation can actually be pitted against each other by the smaller island nations. So I think it is important to understand how they're playing that game or how they're looking at it, how they're placing it. And across the Indian Ocean island nations today, there's a new identity. There's a new maritime identity. Just out of the Cold War, you have Sri Lanka and Maldives very vehemently, very strongly talking about their South Asia identity or Madagascar talking about its Africa identity. Today, the first open would say, "I am an Indian Ocean nation," because maritime security is at the front and center of geopolitical competition today. And it gives a wider opportunity for littoral states to engage with a number of people across the region. And I think there's been a change in that identity, which is also having an impact. But again, you have to look at it as one region from east to the west to actually understand the developments and the trends and what is going on.

Mike Green: So it's kind of Alfred Thayer Mahan islands matter meets constructivism identity matters in sort of the 19th century meets the 21st century. Is there a forum where these discussions take deeper root? The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium doesn't seem like it would be the place. That's mostly navies. SARC wouldn't be the place cause it's dominated by continental powers. Is there an actual forum even online or virtual where this happens, or is it more, I don't know, organic?

Darshana Baruah: So you have the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which is the Indian Ocean regional kind of forum. And that has different billows, and migrant security is one of it. IORA has members from Iran to South Africa to Indonesia to Australia. Everyone's political priorities, the social fabric, culture, religion is very different. It's very hard to come to an agreement, and it's very hard to voice the concerns. Unlike the Pacific Island Forum, however problematic or however challenging it might be, there is a platform where the islands can come together, one, talk to each other and also together present a set of priorities or challenges to the world. The Indian Ocean does not have that. The Indian Ocean has the Indian Ocean Commission, which is the Franco-speaking islands of the Southwest Indian Ocean, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros. And then you have La Reunion, which is French overseas kind of department. And through that, France is a member there. So that's IOC. But that leaves out Sri Lanka and Maldives, which are part of SAR, and which leaves out the others. So there is no one platform. And I think that is an issue in itself. They cannot just to have these conversation, but islands are also not engaging with each other.

Mike Green: So if the US government, if the Biden ministration came out and said, we'd like to create an Indian Ocean Rim, maybe they'd do it with Australia since that's on the Indian Ocean, a new forum like this, do you think Delhi would accept that? Because historically, when the US tried to institution build in the Indian Ocean, MEA, the Indian government, didn't always like it. You think the times are changing where that would be more welcome?

Darshana Baruah: I think times are definitely changing when it depends on, I guess, what is the level of concession and how Washington approaches it. India definitely does not want to be undermined in the Indian Ocean region because for Washington, it's a strategic domain. For India, it's more existential because anything that happens in the theater directly impacts India's security concerns or its own kind of strategic ambitions. But I think if we were to come up together under, I don't know, some collaboration framework or that Washington and Delhi being the drivers behind this, I definitely think there's a need for something island-focused or something for Indian Ocean focus, which gives a platform to talk about these. I'm hoping to do something at a think tank level, but then that's, again... It's not government. It's not the same. You can only generate so much as the discussion. But I think if Washington is willing to talk to Delhi about it, it might not happen today. It might not happen in the next six months. But I think overtime as Delhi also realizes that it has its own limitations because of resource and capital and partnerships, India definitely is paying more attention to partnerships in managing its competition with China. So I think there is scope for it, but it depends how Washington navigates it.

Mike Green: I frequently in this podcast evoke Ronald Reagan's 1984 national security document, which I got declassified for my last book, which states that Indian primacy in the Indian Ocean and South Asia is in US interests, whether or not India is a US ally. And in a way, although nobody in the Bush administration knew about it when we started, in a way, that was sort of the animating assumption, I think, for our strategy 20 years ago. But what I'm hearing you say is Indian unipolarity in the Indian Ocean is not actually an option. Is that right? Is this kind of a multipolar subregion, where to maintain a favorable strategic equilibrium, we've got to multilateralize is it, we have got to get France UK, Japan, Australia? Or do you think Indian primacy is, which would be a strategy of enhancing Indian capacity? Do you think that's an option still, or do you think we're really moving into more of a mini multipolarity within the Indian Ocean?

Darshana Baruah: I think a little bit of both, simply because I think within the Quad, nobody's as invested in the Indian Ocean as India is. Like I said, it's a primary theater for India. So India, whether it wants to or not, it cannot wish away the Indian Ocean region, whereas the others can actually draw lines in the Indian Ocean and say, "Okay, for me, Indian Ocean matters under Sri Lanka or Maldives," or, "For me, Indian Ocean matters only the Africa part of it." But the problem with India is the capital constraint, the resource constraint to look at Indian Ocean as a whole. Even the Indian primacy has been very much restricted until Seychelles. So you have Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles. It is beginning to now do more in the western coast of Western Indian Ocean and eastern coast of Africa with Madagascar, Comoros and all of that, but it's not enough.

Darshana Baruah: And this is where the other players also need to come in. When I say it has to be more players or more of these countries that can partner with India, not all have to be in the form of naval assets. I think there are multiple ways to work in the Indian Ocean region. And for that to be able to, first, recognize what is the need of the region. The concern is not really that much of a naval base in terms of the smaller islands. It will be more of climate change. It'll be more of disaster management, resilience, more engagement. So there are multiple initiatives right now, actually, at the UN level, Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, Solar Light. There's so many of these initiatives that has been going on for the last few years. I don't think a single project has come out of it.

Mike Green: Yeah. Interesting. It sounds a little bit like the Australian Step-Up strategy in the Pacific islands. These subregions that mattered, these vast areas of ocean with important islands in them, if you will, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific island, that mattered as critical flanks to Australia in particular, but for US strategy in both World War I and in a much more intense way to World War II and the Cold War. And now we're discovering the geography. And you know when people talk about the Pacific islands, the people who know the region best, like South Asia and the Indian Ocean, say it's about being the best partner, addressing climate change, resilience, security as defined by the people in that region. That ultimately is grand strategy because you're standerdizing these regions against strategic competition and interference. And we don't have in the US a core of experts on the Indian Ocean, very small, like with the Pacific islands. And we're going to have to grow them. At Georgetown, SFS Qatar now has a new program where you can get a certificate, I think, a master's degree in Indian Ocean studies in Qatar. You have your program at Carnegie. We're going to need to nurture, train a generation of experts.

Mike Green: But the interesting thing is in the Quad countries, people are waking up to this. And there does seem to be, don't you think, a convergence in, you also say, an Indian, Japanese, French, and British thinking about how we think about the region, the importance of it. That's encouraging for you, I assume.

Darshana Baruah: No, it most certainly is. And I do see the enthusiasm. I do see the interest. But I think, like you said, there's a need to kind of train, educate a whole generation of policymakers on Indian Ocean issues because it was just left out so often. The problem's of it also the understandings at the very fundamental level. And that, I think, is a challenge in borrowing from experiences elsewhere. For instance, Pacific Island, Pacific Quad and which is more effective, which has been in operation for a while. And they focus on illegal fishing. And they focused on a lot of what we define as non-traditional security issues, which also falls under the umbrella of maritime domain awareness. So I think countries will have to figure out a way of which are the issues where there's kind of an overlap between traditional security issues and non-traditional security issues and do that. Like you said, that in itself is grand strategy to standardize and to limit the need for the region to see external partners. But to be able to do that, you have to first engage with the region. Again, not dismissing US or France's position in the Indian Ocean region. They are the two big players, and they also have the biggest, I think, the strongest partnership amongst themselves on Indian Ocean issues.

Darshana Baruah: I don't think regardless of what position Washington takes, India or France can get away or disappear from the Indian Ocean dynamics. But just to give an example, in 2015 when Prime Minister Modi went to the three islands in the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, I think, or Maldives, it was the first time that a leader from India in 30 years had visited them. So there was a huge strategic inertia, which came from the fact that there was no one else for the islands to engage with. They either had France, or they either had India. And that led to a liturgy amongst the capitals when said that, okay, this is fine; we don't have to engage with it, and we can ignore it. And I don't think the Chinese interest is new at all. China is the only country with an embassy in each of the six islands in the Indian Ocean region. And that has been going on for years. So they have invested in it.

Darshana Baruah: France has territorial disputes in the Western Indian Ocean left over, again, from the colonial period. So there's a lot of conflicting sentiments towards India and France as well, which, again, would be the two bigger or greater partners for Washington right. And again, not saying that Washington cannot work with these partners. Washington should and must work with them. But I think you have to understand also the dynamics on the ground to navigate the partnerships and where it's most effective.

Mike Green: That's one of the beauties of the Quad and of the increasing cooperation you have among maritime democracies because if you're the Philippines, for example, and your territory doesn't like the US, he likes Abe, he likes Suga, he likes Japan. If you're the Pacific islands and you're a little tired of Australia and New Zealand, they liked Japan. They would like more of the US. We can pool our resources, and at least somebody in this grouping of major democracies is likable somewhere. You'll always find good partner. And it’s really, a lot of it's about coordinating. In the Pacific islands, if the US is largely anchoring and strategy in Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, Japan, France perspectives. But we're heavily anchoring on the expertise and connections and insights from Australia. We're going to have to do that with India for the Indian Ocean. But it's a growth area. It's very dynamic and exciting and welcome back to Washington, Darshana. I think people will be really interested in following your work, Darshana Baruah, at Carnegie. I see your stuff in Diplomat , Entrepreneurial blogs, but Carnegie is where your program is housed and where people should look. And last thing, tell us about the book. It's about island states in the Indian Ocean. When is it coming out?

Darshana Baruah: Yeah. Soon. I'm in the process of finishing the manuscript and talking to publishers, but hopefully sometime late to early next year. But then looking at the island nations of the Indian Ocean region and how they're going to shape the great power competition, but also the island territories, which remain within the Quad framework, which is actually Okinawa, Guam, Cocos Keeling of Australia, Andamans of India, Diego Garcia and La Reunion, and what we can actually do using the island territories to increase the defense and strategic collaboration somehow instead of staving bases on sovereign nations, which opens up a whole different door for competition with China.

Mike Green: A fascinating three-dimensional chess game in a part of the world people are going to have to learn a lot more about. Darshana Baruah, thanks so much. We look forward to seeing more of your work.

Darshana Baruah: Thank you so much. It was a great pleasure to be here.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia programs work, visit the CSIS website at, and click on the Asia program page.