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July 3, 2023

Connection between Environmental Security and Geostrategy: Major Power Competition and Climate Change Vulnerability in the Indian Ocean

Written By: David Brewster

The Indian Ocean is becoming a much more complex, congested and contested strategic space. This presents challenges (and sometimes also opportunities) for everyone in the region. In recent years we have seen some major powers try to build influence and even coerce Indian Ocean states through imperatives for economic development. Increasingly environmental security, and the narrative around climate change, will form part of the battleground for influence in the region. This paper proposes that Indian Ocean states should work together to develop regional structures and arrangements to facilitate them working together to improve resilience to environmental security and mitigate any attempts to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of regional states.

Key conclusions of this paper are:

  • After several decades of US predominance, the Indian Ocean is now becoming a much more complex, congested and contested strategic space.
  • At the same time, environmental challenges may represent an even greater set of security threats for the region.
  • Environmental threats cannot be seen in isolation from other threats. These threats will interact with conventional geopolitical threats.
  • There are currently no effective region-wide structures or groupings that are well adjusted to help regional states address these threats.

This paper will first discuss major power competition. Second, it will talk about the interaction of geo-environmental and geo-strategic challenges. Third, it will discuss the imperative for Indian Ocean countries to take an active role in addressing vulnerabilities through building regional responses to environmental threats, and what some of those collective responses could look like.

The Indian Ocean as a Contested Strategic Space

The United States has been the predominant power in the Indian Ocean for more than four decades and most likely will remain the strongest power for years to come, even as its relative lead diminishes. But there are many uncertainties about the future US role in the region.

The main US focus in the region has long been on the Persian Gulf. But there are important strategic changes occurring there. At the same time there is a significant reduction in the US dependence on energy sourced from the Persian Gulf which will only accelerate as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. This could fundamentally alter the shape of the US presence in this region.

The second major change in regional dynamics comes from the emergence of India as the largest economy and biggest military power among Indian Ocean states. India has long harboured ambitions to be recognised as the leading Indian Ocean power, with special security responsibilities in the region. India’s concerns about its position in the region is now very much focused on China meaning that strategic competition between India and China is likely to become a key factor in the dynamics of the region.

Another big change in the region comes from China’s growing presence. Beijing has important strategic interests in the Indian Ocean that are likely to drive an ever-greater military presence in coming years. It is widely understood that China’s most crucial interest is the protection of its trading routes over the Indian Ocean, over which a large majority of its imported oil needs are transported from the Middle East and Africa. But China also has other important strategic interests in the region, including a growing number of Chinese nationals and investments.

China’s flagship initiative in the region, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), involves building new pathways across the Indian Ocean region, both on land and at sea, may entrench China’s economic power in the region. The adverse financial consequences of the BRI for some Indian Ocean states are also becoming apparent. China has come under increasing criticism for engaging in so-called ‘debt trap’ diplomacy in some circumstances with some economically vulnerable countries. Pakistan is already seeing unsustainable indebtedness incurred in some projects. Sri Lanka has also experienced some of the consequences of entering into financially unfeasible BRI projects which in several ways contributed to its recent economic crisis.

Although there are many connections between strategic competition in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the dynamics of the Indian Ocean are somewhat different. In the Pacific, the United States and China are the main strategic competitors, but the dynamics are somewhat different in the Indian Ocean, where competition is at its sharpest between India and China.   Regional states need to take this into account in trying to mitigate the potential impact of strategic competition.

Major Power Competition and Economic and Environmental Vulnerabilities of Indian Ocean states

Major power competition has the potential to significantly destabilise the region, as we see major powers increasingly jostling for influence among smaller countries.

Much of the focus over the last few years has been on economic development and economic competition. China has used the banner of the BRI to enter the region through a range of development projects.  Many of these may be intended to provide projects to benefit Chinese companies, but they have also been used to build economic and political influence among smaller countries.

A number of these projects have been economically unsustainable and debt burdens as well as competition for influence have been a significant contributor to economic and political instability in some Indian Ocean states. We saw that in Maldives in 2018 and Sri Lanka in 2022. In coming months, we will likely see indebtedness related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative become a significant factor in the stability of Pakistan. We will likely see major economic disruptions there, including from an unsustainable debt burden, that will likely contribute to significant economic instability.

These developments provide important lessons to all Indian Ocean states about reducing their economic vulnerabilities. Australia has recently experienced a three-year campaign of economic coercion where a major economic partner sought to use trade as a weapon against it. The program of coercion was not successful, but it certainly taught Australia many lessons about the importance of reducing economic vulnerabilities.

Major power competition will not only occur in the economic sphere. There is a significant risk that some major powers will also seek to exploit vulnerabilities in the environmental space.

The Indo-Pacific and particularly the Indian Ocean is an epicentre of threats to our environment arising from climate change and other human activities – including severe weather events, sea level rise, failure of monsoon, salinification of ground water, oil spills, loss of fish stocks. These environmental challenges will increasingly make many Indian Ocean states more vulnerable to external shocks and external influence, including as part of geopolitical competition.

To be clear, competition among major power can potentially be used by Indian Ocean states to their benefit. To the extent that major powers have an interest in helping smaller countries build resilience and respond to climate change then this could be a good thing for us all. But there is also the potential for some major powers to try to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of smaller states, to their own benefit.

This means that the environment and environmental challenges could increasingly become a battleground for major power competition. We need to be addressing environmental challenges for their own sake, but we can’t also be blind to the potential strategic implications of how these challenges may cause regional states to become much more vulnerable to external influence and coercion.

The Interaction of Geo-environmental and Geo-strategic Challenges

There is often a tendency to look at environmental challenges as being separate and distinct from geostrategy and major power competition, but there are deep links that we need to be aware of.

In practice major environmental disruptions, particularly from climate change, have the potential to go far beyond what is normally understood as discrete environmental challenges. Climate change and other environmental impacts, particularly when combined with ethnic or other social problems, can contribute to increased migration, internal instability, or intra-state insurgencies, and may foster terrorism or even cross-border conflict. Climate-induced resource competition can also increase tensions within and between states.

In addition, environmental disruptions also often do not occur as isolated events, but instead can occur in combination or as a cascading or compounding series of events. One environmental disruption can contribute to or exacerbate the occurrence of another. One event might significantly reduce a country’s resilience or its ability to respond to subsequent, unrelated, events. This potential for magnification or cascading influences can make it difficult to predict the consequences of what may individually appear to be moderate or manageable threats.

There are several recent examples of how environmental disruptions have exacerbated strategic instability, sometimes in unexpected ways. One example is the contribution of illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia to the rise of Somali-based piracy and the build-up of naval forces off the Horn of Africa. Another example is the diverse and often unexpected security impacts of the 2004 Tsunami in countries such as Indonesia (where the disaster led to the end of civil conflict) and Sri Lanka (where the disaster rekindled a civil conflict).

These examples are reminders of how what might initially appear to be a single disruption to the natural environment could have significant, and widespread, strategic consequences for the region in often unexpected ways. This is why we should understand them as ‘geo-environmental’ challenges, on par with geopolitical challenges in terms of their potential to become a significant disruption to the strategic order.

Regional Responses to Environmental Security Challenges

So, what are Indian Ocean states to do about this era of growing geo-political and geo-environmental challenges? What can Indian Ocean states do to collectively mitigate these disruptions, as well as mitigating external attempts to take advantage of regional vulnerabilities?

Importantly, resilience not only has to be developed at a national level, but also through regional cooperation that provides coordinated responses and a regional voice about developments. Cooperation not only helps states be more resilient in the face of environmental threats but can also help provide resilience and stability in the face of major power competition. Regional solidarity can be an important way of reducing vulnerabilities of states to physical challenges and major power competition.

Some would argue that the Indian Ocean is currently poorly served in cooperative arrangements relating to environmental security that could facilitate cooperation among countries. There are certainly significant deficiencies in regional cooperation on environmental security. Groupings such as IORA or BIMSTEC have only begun to discuss these issues, and currently there is little or no meaningful regional coordination on policies and responses to climate change. There are no political declarations, regular meetings among environment ministers or senior officials, few regional response mechanisms, and no regional institutions for research or training in this area.

There are many things that Indian Ocean states can learn from other comparable regions. The Pacific Island countries, for example, have in many instances taken the lead in developing effective regional initiatives to address a wide range of environmental security challenges, whether it be in sustaining fish stocks and biodiversity, addressing the challenge of marine plastics or working together to build resilience to climate change. The experience of the Pacific and other comparable regions in the world could provide important lessons for what Indian Ocean states should be doing.

This could include the following regional initiatives, among many others:

  • Regional declaration on environmental security: The 2018 Boe Declaration where Pacific Island Countries declared climate change to be their highest priority security threat.
  • Indian Ocean Environmental Security Forum: Consideration should be given to establishing an Indian Ocean Environmental Security Forum.

An Indian Ocean forum would bring together representatives from military and civilian agencies and non-governmental organisation across the Indian Ocean region to create shared understandings on environmental security threats and help establish habits of dialogue in the field of environmental security and potentially coordinate strategic policy in this area.

  • Disaster Risk Reduction: There is considerable scope for developing framework disaster management arrangements among key Indian Ocean states. Such an arrangement should focus on developing pre-existing coordination mechanisms for responding to disasters among the most capable states.

This could draw from the successful experiences of ASEAN and the FRANZ arrangements among Australia, France, and New Zealand in the South Pacific. Such arrangements do not necessarily need to depend on every country in the region. Rather, the starting point is the coordination of key states with capabilities to respond, working in cooperation with interested regional states.


The Indian Ocean region will face some major environmental challenges in coming years that may impact regional stability and make countries much more vulnerable to external factors. In thinking about responses to climate change and other environmental challenges we need to understand the potential connections between environmental issues and broader geo-strategic issues. The Indian Ocean region needs to work together to reduce vulnerability and build a regional voice on these issues. Other regions can sometimes give us useful lessons about what can be achieved.

Author’s Brief Bio: Dr. David Brewster is Senior Research Fellow, National Security College, Australian National University

Note: This article was published by India Foundation in the Indian Ocean Conference 2023 Theme Paper Booklet.

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