Joaquin Castro, member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee. File

Joaquin Castro, member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee. File
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee will introduce legislation on Tuesday requring the U.S. administration to present a formal and “cohesive” Indian Ocean strategy across key departments.

The Indian Ocean Region Strategic Review Act, sponsored by Joaquin Castro (Democrat, Texas) and Darrell Issa (Republican, California), is based on a recommendation of the Bipartisan US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a body set up in 2000 to review and report on the US-China relationship.

The Commission’s November 2022 report had recommended that the US administration submit an Indian Ocean Region (IOR) strategy that would include plans to develop U.S. economic interests in the region, defend freedom of navigation, support regional partners and promote cooperation with Japan , Australia, India, the U.K. and France, among others.

Mr Castro supported the Biden administration’s Indo Pacific strategy , his spokesperson told The Hindu, but felt it was too heavily focused on the Pacific Ocean and wanted the State Department to increase its prioritisation of the Indian Ocean region.

The proposed Act would require coordination across three key departments – State, Defense and the U.S International Agency for International Development (USAID) – in synthesizing and executing a strategy for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The strategy will require the U.S. to strengthen diplomatic ties in the region such as via its participation in regional organisations.

The U.S. Secretary of State will be required to, within 180 days of the Act becoming law, submit a ”multi-year strategy and implementation plan” for U.S. “engagement and posture” in the region, according to the text seen by The Hindu.

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The Act will require the U.S. to “build upon existing agreements with strategic partners like India to foster military communication and intelligence sharing” according to a spokesperson for Mr Castro.

There is also a freedom of navigation clause in the legislation and a mandate to protect international shipping lanes. The text of the legislation says the report to Congress must provide details of efforts to improve cooperation between Quad countries (the U.S., India, Australia and Japan).

The legislation will also require the administration to work closely with island nations and India, Japan, Australia and others to foster commercial exchanges and economic development. The bill mandates that the U.S. government enhance the capacity of regional governments and NGOs to respond to and mitigate environmental disasters.

A version of the legislation was introduced in June 2021 by Mr Castro and included in the omnibus House-passed bill, the America COMPETES Act, but did not become law ( a version of the bill that went on to become the CHIPS and Science Act, 2022).

“Congressman Castro is optimistic that the legislation could be included in future legislative packages focused on competition with China along with other bipartisan priorities,” a spokesperson for Mr Castro told The Hindu on Tuesday.

Joshua T White, an professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins and a Director for South Asia in former U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council said the act was “largely symbolic” given that there is coordination between the departments of the administration with regard to the region.

“That said, I welcome the effort to draw attention to the need for more active and persistent U.S. engagement in a region that is increasingly contested — both economically and strategically,” Mr White told The Hindu.

The timing of this bill has been driven by certain factors, including a spate of attacks on ships in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. Congress’s attention on protecting sea lines of communication, according to Mr Castro’s spokesperson.

A number of China-focused bills are likely to be considered later this year , according to Mr Castro’s spokesperson and the Indian Ocean bill is part of the U.S. Congress’s attempts to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific

“This bill is an opportunity to channel that sentiment into productive avenues of U.S. engagement with the Indo-Pacific Region,” they said.