Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Afreen Akhter led a U.S. delegation to the sixth Indian Ocean Conference. Since its inception in 2016, the Indian Ocean Conference has become a prominent gathering for regional stakeholders to discuss collective issues — from trade and economic cooperation to security considerations. This year’s proceedings in Dhaka, Bangladesh, featured representatives from 25 countries amid a backdrop of geopolitical concerns that have thrust the Indian Ocean into a prominent role in global affairs.

A cargo ship navigates one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, near Hambantota, Sri Lanka. May 2, 2018. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
A cargo ship navigates one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, near Hambantota, Sri Lanka. May 2, 2018. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

With so much U.S. attention paid toward neighboring regions like the Pacific and the Middle East, the conference was a chance for the U.S. delegation to articulate a discrete approach for its engagement in the Indian Ocean. USIP’s Nilanthi Samaranayake examines the speeches made by U.S. officials at the conference and offers four key takeaways for understanding U.S. policy toward the region.

1. The United States wants to do more in the Indian Ocean region.

In virtual remarks, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made an unequivocal statement about the U.S. pledge to increase engagement in the Indian Ocean. This was an important acknowledgment, as this level of commitment is not entirely evident in the recent U.S. National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Indo-Pacific Strategy. In each of the three documents, there is only one substantive mention of the Indian Ocean, which suggested that U.S. attention to the Indo-Pacific is filtered through a Pacific lens.

Sherman made clear that U.S. attention to the Indian Ocean is being driven by the region’s economics and evolving demographics. Roughly eight-in-ten maritime oil shipments cross critical sea lanes that connect the Indian Ocean to the world. Meanwhile, the region houses fisheries that provide protein for regional diets and fish for export extra-regionally. Sherman emphasized that the region’s population of 2.7 billion, with an average age of 30, constitutes a third of the global population at present. The continued growth and prosperity of this important demographic will contribute to the region’s long-term peace and stability.

2. Non-traditional security challenges are front and center for U.S. initiatives in the Indian Ocean.

While discussion about the Indian Ocean has increasingly turned toward strategic competition with China, Sherman acknowledged the importance of non-traditional security issues that acutely confront the region. Climate change, trafficking, piracy, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing were all identified as serious threats to the long-term existence and growth of Indian Ocean countries, especially small island states. In her remarks to the conference, Deputy Assistant Secretary Akhter went into further detail about developing climate smart agriculture, curbing marine plastics pollution and building on health resilience efforts from the pandemic to address various challenges.

She also indicated that addressing the climate crisis will be a U.S. priority. This message signals a clear and mostly consistent alignment between U.S. strategy toward the region and broader U.S. policy, such as the National Security Strategy’s discussion of South Asian partners’ concern about non-traditional security.

Notably, however, neither Sherman’s nor Akhter’s speech made explicit reference to China — a prominent topic in U.S. strategy documents. Most regional countries are wary of being drawn into U.S.-China tensions in the current era of strategic competition. By contrast, the focus on non-traditional security issues and practical solutions resonates well with this audience.

3. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) represents the key U.S. vehicle for regional-level engagement.

While the Indian Ocean’s size and diversity of stakeholders in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia are sometimes obstacles to close cooperation, the region’s architecture is nevertheless expanding. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is a regional organization that is devoted to economic development and sustainable growth and operates by a consensus-based approach, making it an increasingly sought-after partner for countries looking to engage in the region. For example, Maldives joined IORA in 2018, while France upgraded to full membership in 2020 and Russia became a dialogue partner in 2021.

However, the United States is an extra-regional country in the Indian Ocean. Despite its global power projection and success in securing access to military basing in the Indian Ocean, the United States does not have territory in the region and therefore doesn’t have the opportunity for membership in regional institutions like IORA or the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which is a forum for naval leaders and officers from the region to cooperate via meetings and exercises.

Instead, Washington has maintained dialogue partner status in IORA since 2012. Both Sherman and Akhter referenced IORA in their speeches, with Akhter previewing U.S. participation in IORA’s upcoming strategic dialogue and Washington’s focus on the climate crisis through its dialogue partner role in IORA.

Sherman also announced the State Department’s effort to seek $6 million from Congress for regional maritime security initiatives with Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. While Sherman recognized India’s leadership in her speech, the focus on the region’s smaller countries is notable, as these countries have garnered a large leadership stake in IORA: Bangladesh has been chair of IORA for the past two years, with Sri Lanka as vice chair, and later this year Sri Lanka will assume chair for the next two years.

4. Washington continues to see the Indian Ocean through a primarily South Asian lens.

Discussion of the Indian Ocean strategy and policy of the United States and its allies and partners raises the question of how the region’s geography is defined. The cover graphic on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy makes clear that, to Washington, India lies at the western boundary of the region. The document also links South Asia to the Indian Ocean, but not Southeast Asian littoral nations. Moreover, Akhter is from the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, which covers Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives in South Asia.

These observations — along with Sherman’s pledge to provide “$165 million for programs across the Indian Ocean region” for climate change adaptation, mitigation and clean energy transition — raise an intriguing question about how expansive the geography is for this funding. Depending on how the figure is calculated, the funding may indeed stop at India. If so, it would exclude the western half of the Indian Ocean. This sub-region has similar concerns about non-traditional security issues but is often left out of discussions about U.S. strategy toward the Indian Ocean.

Of note, the White House’s strategy for sub-Saharan Africa discusses a goal relevant to the Indian Ocean: to transcend geographic seams. Specifically, this goal acknowledges the need to “deepen our engagement with multilateral institutions” and notes how the United States “will integrate African states in Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific forums.” Greater coordination across regional bureaus in government represents an opportunity for deeper U.S. engagement in the Indian Ocean to transcend some of these bureaucratic seams and develop a more holistic strategy and policy toward this dynamic region.

Finally, the U.S. focus on non-traditional security offers prospects for cooperation on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda across Indian Ocean subregions. At the inaugural session of the conference, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina highlighted the need for greater inclusiveness of the voices of women. Meanwhile, Akhter referenced the issue of gender in her remarks and discussed how the U.S. Development Finance Corporation’s investment of $400 million is supporting mostly women-owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in Sri Lanka.

This issue has attracted attention across the Indian Ocean region. Bangladesh launched its WPS national action plan in 2019, and Sri Lanka adopted its first one this year with assistance from Japan. Other Indian Ocean countries such as South Africa, Mozambique, Indonesia, and Australia have also completed WPS national action plans. As next year’s Indian Ocean Conference will be hosted in Australia and organized again by the India Foundation, WPS and gender represent an important non-traditional security issue that U.S. officials can work on with allies and partners to advance peaceful norms and stability in the Indian Ocean region amid the backdrop of strategic competition.

Nilanthi Samaranayake is a visiting expert in USIP’s South Asia program.

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