THE IMPORTANCE OF DIEGO GARCIA IN U.S. INDIAN OCEAN STRATEGY

Journal Asian Security in vol. 6, no. 3, 2010, published the article “Diego Garcia and the United States’ Emerging Indian Ocean Strategy”. Since 2010 Diego Garcia has become the core of the United States strategy in the Indian Ocean to be compared to the importance of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Excerpts below:

As the world’s economic and strategic “center of gravity” shifts from the Euro-Atlantic area to the Asia-Pacific, the Indian Ocean is emerging as an increasingly critical trade and energy conduit. This region has long been a strategic backwater for the United States. Moreover, unlike in other critical subregions of Asia, the United States lacks significant host-nation bases and is unlikely to acquire them.

The British territory of Diego Garcia, whose location and political reliability give it significant strategic utility, is thus central to US power projection in the Indian Ocean littoral region. The US military’s approach to Diego Garcia reflects an implicit Indian Ocean strategy that seeks to establish a flexible and enduring presence within a critical and contested space. However, Washington needs to move toward an explicit Indian Ocean policy that views the region holistically rather than narrowly viewing separate US Pacific Command, US Central Command, and US Africa Command theaters.

The United States faces a growing contradiction in some of the world’s most strategically vital areas. The number of land-based US forces in the Middle East and South Asia is expected to shrink over time, even as counterinsurgency activities there remain a long-term priority.


…barring an unprecedented erosion of grand strategic ambitions, access to regional bases and other military facilities will be essential for American power projection and influence.

Maintaining US presence throughout the broader Indian Ocean littoral regiondepends on identifying enduring US interests in the region and developing a strategy to pursue those interests.

According to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US “strategy supports the development of a tailored posture in the broader Middle East and Central and South Asia, promotes a peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific region, and reaffirms our commitment to NATO and Europe.”

The security situation in the Indian Ocean region, long characterized by uncertain relations between its major power brokers, is prone to strategic miscalculation. More thanever before, the interests of the United States, India, and China all coincide and collide in the Indian Ocean littoral. These key states, one predominant and the others ascendant, may find themselves at odds as they protect national interests in a region with great potential and numerous challenges, including:

• volatile and fragile states, which are often beset by, and sometimes facilitate, irregular threats, irredentist powers, sectarian divides, and religious tensions;

• a rich flow of resources through constrained and vulnerable shipping lanes;

• often skittish host nations; and

• newly capable actors possibly seeking to undermine others’ influence by sustained projection of power.

It has been widely argued that the world is undergoing a significant geopolitical realignment as the global “center of gravity” shifts from the Euro-Atlantic to the greater Asia-Pacific. The National Intelligence Council envisions fast developing powers, notably India and China, joining the United States atop a multipolar international system. As India and China continue to accrete military might, they pull this zero point – where no forces dominate – toward the Indian Ocean. In such a dynamic Asian Security international environment, the United States will have to adapt its geostrategic focus if it hopes to retain its position of global preeminence in the twenty-first century.

This is particularly true in the maritime dimension, where the US Navy guarantees the free flow of goods at sea worldwide. To maintain its preponderant position, the United States will have to shift its geostrategic focus from the Euro-Atlantic, which, after decades of American attention, is prosperous, secure, and self-sustaining, to regions of the world that were once dismissed as peripheral to American interests. One such area is the Indian Ocean, the littoral of which is emerging as a key strategic region in the “Asian Century.”

Most importantly, America’s forward bases facilitate the projection of US power around the globe, and in the post–Cold War strategic environment, access to such facilities has become more tenuous. Yet, maintaining the security of the sea lanes and the free flow of goods transiting the Indian Ocean requires a sustained US maritime presence.

In such an environment, American interests are best served by the cultivation of a regional presence for strike and deterrence that does not depend on the acquiescence of local governments responding to sometimes volatile public sentiment.

At the center, Diego Garcia offers politically unconstrained access.

Elsewhere in the region, the United States should attempt to reduce political risks:

By basing in small, politically stable nations at the periphery of troubled areas that have strong geopolitical reasons to ally with America, and under any circumstances away from major cities. Qatar, with its rich gas reserves abutting those of Iran, its majority population of non-Qatari citizens, and its ongoing border dispute with Saudi Arabia, is thus well placed to host CENTCOM’s Middle East Operations Center at al-Udeid Air Base. Larger bases should be supplemented with multiple, redundant, forwardoperating locations, as the United States enjoys in Bahrain and Singapore.

With such a flexible constellation of bases and other facilities in place, US strategists must shield these bases and the larger region from any interference by state and substate actors, both physically and politically. In doing so, the United States must avoid an insular approach and craft a coherent Indian Ocean policy that accounts for the reactions of India and China as well as the interests of its regional partners. That approach will strengthen US command of the commons in partnership with India and may open ways to engage with China in the Indian Ocean.

A direct evaluation of Indian Ocean policy, which could assist in taking a holistic view of the Indian Ocean littoral and the unique aspects of Indian Ocean security rather than narrowly viewing separate PACOM, CENTCOM and AFRICOM theaters, is long overdue.

The United States must augment its regional knowledge, enhance coordination, and for the first time, consider the Indian Ocean holistically as a vital strategic space with a networked basing arrangement at its core.

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