India was known as a reluctant maritime power in the Northern Indian Ocean Region. In spite of the dominant geo-strategic location, India refrained from demonstrating and unveiling its proactive maritime diplomacy to project power with an objective of securing vital national interests. If India does not create capabilities matching the strategic boundaries that extend from Red Sea in the West to South China Sea in the East, the space will be encroached upon by China with an aggressive “String of Pearls Strategy” (backed by infrastructure development and Maritime Silk Route). India has now realized that maritime diplomacy to “Go West” and “Act East” on land and ocean is vital to secure economic and military interests. But security alone is not an answer to the already volatile and polarised under developed region. Such strategy must be nurtured for long period since it takes time to fructify and develop capabilities. The beginning has been made and it requires continuous government focus and impetus. India must develop capabilities with a view to become a resident maritime dominant power but avoid competing with China till India is able to develop comprehensive maritime power that is able to project power beyond territorial waters of the Indian Ocean.
Alfred Thayer Mahan said that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, and the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”1 India derives its Geo-strategic importance principally from its geographic location in the Northern Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean was considered to be an “Ocean of Peace” but due to historic distrust, territorial disputes, ideological differences and differential military capabilities among the regional countries, the region has become now an “arc of instability”. It is now one of the most militarized and nuclearized zones in the world. There is inexorable hybrid war that continues to simmer in West Asia and North Africa. Major cause of instability and turbulence in the region is spread of Pan Islamic terrorism and internal armed conflicts within the countries. Direct intervention of US in Iraq and Afghanistan and rise of Islamic fundamentalism from Mogadishu to Manila has made the region an unstable plateau. From the military perspective, India is a key regional power to maintain stability along the critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). As a result, India is emerging as a major regional maritime power which is capable of influencing the future trajectory of security environment in the Indian Ocean Region.
Indian Ocean is emerging as the “centre stage” for 21st century “and it remains a stage for the pursuit of the global strategic and regional military interests of all world and regional powers.”2 To a great extent development of India as a comprehensive national power (CNP) depends upon how India develops and projects maritime capabilities. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) landmass is a heavily militarized zone but historically its SLOCs have largely remained free of military intervention. And as majority of IOR states followed the Continental Strategy, naval forces have rarely been a strong element.3 This has led to maritime power vacuum in the region. Instability and power vacuum in the IOR will impinge upon the trade, energy security and human resource development. India will be most affected by destabilization of nations due to economic and political implosion of states. In fact, “insecurity in the 21st century appears to come less from the collisions of powerful states than from the debris of imploding ones.”4 Some of the main reasons of regional security imbalance and implosion would be debt trap, demise of local industry, environment pollution, unemployment, political polarisation and radicalization. In fact, these factors that can cause imbalance and instability in the IOR can be attributed to the entry of China and Pan Islamic fundamentalism in IOR. Thus, India needs to fix the flux of power in the Indian Ocean Region and emerge as a net security provider to the Northern Indian Ocean Region against the non-traditional threats.
Geostrategic Significance of the Indian Ocean to India
Indian Ocean is third largest ocean in the world and home to approximately one third of the world population with the land mass of just about 25%, a huge human resource. A total of 70 percent of the world’s oil, 33 percent of global trade and 50 percent of world’s container traffic passes through the SLOCs of IOR. The Indian Ocean is a geographical and cultural bridge to the rising economies of South East Asia, South Asia and Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It directly impacts multilateral trade and transit between Asia and Africa, Asia and Europe. Indian Ocean contributes immensely to the economic growth and security of India. Approximately 95% of the country’s trade by volume and 70% by value are moved through SLOCs of the Indian Ocean.5 India is natural inheritor of resident maritime power of the Indian Ocean with 12 major ports and 200 minor ports in Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.6 These ports have direct impact on security and economic growth of India. Major ports are Kolkata, Paradip, Visakhapatnam, Chennai, Ennore, and Tuticorin on the east coast and Cochin, new Mangalore, Mormugao, Nhava, Mumbai and Kandla on the west coast. India’s rise as a regional power in the foreseeable future is solely dependent on its capability to influence and protect its interest in Indian Ocean Region. Geographically, India is ideally poised to assert its influence on Indian Ocean Rim Nations.
The geo-political context of India and Indian Ocean might have changed, but geography has not. If geography is destiny, India has a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean and its littoral, irrespective of who rules New Delhi.7 There is a considered view that if India does not keep pace with the development of maritime capabilities, the key players in the Indian Ocean would be the US, Russia, Iran, China, Indonesia and Japan.8 Development of maritime capability for India is vital to remain a dominant stakeholder in the region to secure vital economic and military interests. But before India decides to put a strategy in place, it is important to understand the strategic boundaries of India and what is at stake for India in the Indian Ocean Region.
- The foundation of India’s maritime diplomacy was laid by two visionaries. First, it was Lord Curzon who wrote in his book ‘The Place of India in the Empire’, published in 1909, about India’s geopolitical significance. He wrote, “On the West, India must exercise a predominant influence over the destinies of Persia and Afghanistan; on the north, it can veto any rival in Tibet; on the north-east and last it can exert great pressure upon China, and it is one of the guardians of the autonomous existence of Siam”. It is a very profound thought on strategic boundaries of a nation that sits right on top and centre of the Indian Ocean with an ability to influence and dominate the entire expense of Northern Indian Ocean and littoral states from Red Sea in the West to South China Sea in the East. Subsequently in 2003 Former PM Atal Vihari Vajpayee laid down the contours of India’s strategic area of interest and extended neighbourhood. He said, “As we grow in international stature, our defence strategies should naturally reflect our political, economic and security concerns, extending well beyond the geographical confines of South Asia”. “Our security environment ranges from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca across the Indian Ocean, includes Central Asia and Afghanistan in the North West, China in the North East and South East Asia. Our strategic thinking has also to extend to these horizons”9
- Threats and Challenges to India: What is at stake for India? India has 7,516 KM of coastline and more than 1,197 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep groups of islands. These islands provide strategic depth and reach to India and make India an important economic and military ally to the regional and extra regional powers. The challenge that comes to India is from state and non-state actors that would attempt to erode India’s influence as an economic and hard military power. China has already entered the Indian Ocean and is keen to maintain permanent presence with its port strategy. China Daily Mail has reported that China plans to build 18 naval bases in areas of the Indian Ocean.10China has established its first off shore base at Djibouti that will be hosting approximately 10,000 Chinese troops. It is only the first step in what is likely to become a network of Chinese bases across the Indian Ocean. Many analysts had long thought that the next Chinese naval base would be established at Gwadar.11 The threat from China becomes more pronounced when it is looked at from the perspective of China-Pak strategic nexus especially to encircle India by “String of Pearls” with an objective of containing India economically and militarily. Second, challenge that is threatening the region and India in particular is Pan Asia Islamic terrorism. 26/11 had indicated that open sea is no more a geographical obstacle for the Jihadi terror groups. Apart from MENA, Islamic State and al-Qaeda have already found toe hold in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indian Peninsula, Bangladesh and Arakan Coast of Myanmar. India continues to face non-traditional threat manifested from natural disasters, displacement of population and influx of population from neighbouring countries in search of employment and to escape from persecution by religious majority.
- India a Natural Dominant Power in the Indian Ocean Region: India dominates 6 and 9 degree navigational channels passing through Northern Indian Ocean. It is both an advantage and an obligation for India to maintain incident free passage of SLOC. Failure of India to provide safe and free passage will invite presence of extra-regional powers closer to Indian shores which in fact is detrimental to the national and strategic interest and will also undermine the growing influence of India in the region. Island territories and Indian peninsula gives India reach to dominate the SLOC from Gulf of Aden to Malacca Strait.12Jeff M Smith, a Scholar with ‘The Heritage Foundation’ calls Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) a strategic out post of India that dominates the 6th and 9th degree channels and provides India strategic reach and dominance over choke points that connects Indian Ocean SLOCs with South China Sea. ANI constitutes just 0.2 percent of India’s landmass but provide for 30 percent (6,00,000 sq kms) of the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).13 Today ANI is fast becoming an unsinkable aircraft carrier and with its developed capabilities, the ANI could help India monitor military and commercial traffic passing between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. ANI could provide India a forward position from which to serve its growing economic, political, and military interests in East Asia, and further position India as the “gatekeeper” of the Indian Ocean.14
Military Diplomacy in IOR
Diplomacy will only work if India is able to keep pace with development of maritime capabilities. There are only two options for India, either to build own capabilities and maintain strategic autonomy, or join an alliance led by the US to contain/ develop leverages against China. Ideally, India should focus on building comprehensive maritime capabilities, sea-based infrastructure development, building regional capacities in partnership with littoral and island nations against common threats. Maritime diplomacy of India in IOR must be to secure vital national interests rather than competing with China.
In the last five years, India has adopted a more proactive maritime diplomacy in the Indian Ocean Region. In fact, India’s maritime diplomacy should be ideally called a “turning strategy” to encircle the encirclement of ‘String of Pearls’. Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan in a very precise manner has described India’s maritime diplomacy as the pursuit, promotion, preservation and protection of India’s ‘maritime interests’.15 He underpins maritime-diplomacy as an instrument of State policy to prevent others to use Indian Ocean that compromises India’s vital national interests. There are two aspects of maritime diplomacy of India with regard to the IOR, first, securing vital national interests of India and second, for collective safety, security and growth of the regional neighbours.
Securing Vital National Interests of India
- Securing of island territories, territorial boundaries and offshore assets.
- Deter and defeat threat from states and non-state actors to sea-based assets.
- Prevent encroachment and exploitation of blue economy within the EEZ of India.
- Secure own commercial shipping against the threat from inimical forces.
- Protect and extricate own diaspora if threatened during war and internal instability in a foreign country.
- Undertake HADR in island territories during natural disasters and calamities.
- Protect vital SLOCs from crime on high seas.
- Undertake maritime reconnaissance and sea patrols to ensure freedom of manoeuvre of naval combat fleet as part of routine naval operations.
The key diplomatic objectives of maritime diplomacy of India in the IOR are as under:-
- ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy in connectivity, development and economic growth.
- Preserve organic usnity while advancing cooperation.
- Use the Indian Ocean as an engine for growth and prosperity in our region and beyond.
- IOR nations bear the responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity of the IOR littoral states.
- Sharing and benefitting collectively from the ‘Blue Economy’ is a new avenue for prosperity in the region.
- Effective response mechanism to address humanitarian crises and natural disasters for collective good of the states and the people.
- IOR is a global stage for continued economic, social, and cultural engagement.
- Prevent militarization of Indian Ocean and prevent crime on high seas.
- Freedom of navigation for trade and transit.
India’s Maritime Diplomacy A Turning Strategy
India’s ‘Look West’ Maritime Diplomacy:16India is engaged in anti-piracy operations since 2008, however, the “Look West” maritime diplomacy as a major initiative is taking shape as part of durable maritime relations. The most significant dimension of India’s Indian Ocean diplomacy, however, has been the outreach to Arab Gulf states, where the Indian Navy has embarked on program of sustained capacity building and security collaboration.17 India and Oman are maritime strategic partners and has been engaged in biennial maritime exercises since 1993. However, deeper engagement has been given flip after India’s “Look West” policy was formalised. Oman has played a key role in sustaining India’s security efforts in the Gulf of Aden by offering berthing and replenishment facilities to Indian naval ships, and hosting a crucial Indian listening post in the Western Indian Ocean.18 Indian navy is now providing training hydrographic support and refueling facilities to Oman’s naval ships. West Asia is important for India due to energy security and security of more than 6 million Indian Diaspora, a major source of forex remittance. Thus, there is a need for Indian Navy to maintain a listening post and birthing facilities to deal with any eventualities in future.
India’s Maritime Pivot to the East:19 In a major departure from the reluctant maritime diplomacy to a proactive diplomacy, India has entered into an agreement with Indonesia to develop a strategic port at Sabang, which lies at the tip of the Sumatra Island and close to the Malacca Strait. During the recent visit of Prime Minster Modi to Indonesia, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the press, “India is a strategic defence partner… and we will continue to advance our cooperation in developing infrastructure, including at Sabang Island and the Andaman Islands.”20 China may see it as a move to contain and choke the SLOCs. However, it certainly is an initiative to put in place turning strategy that China may find it difficult to out manoeuvre with ANI as a backup leverage to dominate 6th and 9th degree channel SLOCs. As part of “Act East Policy” India has now deepened its engagement with Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. “Vietnam and Japan are currently embroiled in territorial disputes with China in the South China and East China seas, respectively, and are willing to partner with India to form diplomatic and security ties under the threat of Chinese maritime expansion.”21
Naval Support for Surveillance of Ocean: To strengthen maritime relations India has been assisting island countries such as Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius by providing aerial and maritime vessels for better surveillance of their territorial waters. India has offered custom made ships and patrol boats for its maritime allies and partners. India has offered $100 million in credit, a Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, along with assistance for strengthening the Seychelles coast guard in the Assumption Islands.22 The Indian Navy has been assisting Mauritius, Maldives, and the Seychelles in training and hydrographic assistance for mapping ocean waters to ensure maritime security. This will assist India in maintaining a permanent presence as well as assisting the island nations in ensuring territorial integrity. Though India and Seychelles had agreed on lease of Assumption Island, however, for some internal reasons within Seychelles the agreement is yet to be promulgated.
Andaman & Nicobar Island an Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier: Andaman & Nicobar Islands are geo-strategically most significant land mass that dominates Bay of Bengal and choke points leading to South China Sea. These islands stretch approximately 500 NM in North South direction. These islands are a formidable land mass that gives India an advantage SLOCs leading to Malacca and Sunda Straight. Beyond active surveillance and submarine hunting, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is an important marker of India’s strategic presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean.23 Government of India has taken initiative to create key islands into unsinkable aircraft carriers that can support, naval, amphibious and maritime air operations. In addition, the infrastructure that will be created under the roll-on plan of 10 years will support electronic and air defence operations against the enemy air and missile threat. This will certainly give India a vital edge over China in the region and also keep this region free from organized crime on high seas.
Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR): Prime Minster Modi unveiled his SAGAR doctrine and linked it with the larger project of transforming India and regional maritime neighbours by developing blue economy and security of the region. India seeks to deepen economic and security cooperation with its maritime neighbours and assist in building their maritime security capabilities.24 SAGAR Doctrine is aimed at to fill a serious security and policy vacuum and highlighted the critical interdependent link between maritime security, maritime cooperation and blue economy25 and governance of sea for shared benefits.
Recommended Actions to make maritime Diplomacy more potent and enduring
Joint Exercises: India could expand maritime exercises to include Southeast Asian partners and Western African nations. The currently annual trilateral Malabar naval exercise, comprising India, the United States and Japan, takes place in alternate years in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.26 India must take lead to invite other Southeast Asian countries of IOR to take part in regional multilateral naval exercises to develop deeper understanding for joint operations especially against the common nontraditional threats. Similarly, India could engage with anti-piracy and HADR exercises with Western African nations. It will ensure interdependence, cooperation and inter-operability during any regional crisis.
Building Maritime Surveillance Capabilities: India should assist regional countries to build capabilities to keep their territorial water under surveillance and domination to prevent misuse by non-state actors and organized crime on the high seas. India has successfully indigenized naval platforms and most of its ships, both small and large, are being built in Indian shipyards. India needs to capitalize on its leverage in naval systems by providing it as aid to Southeast Asian countries.27 This will lead to closer interaction and interdependence.
Joint HADR and Counter Terrorist Centre to Build Partnership: South Asia and South East Asia are known for natural disasters. India has capabilities to predict, forewarn and capacity to assist and mitigate impact of disasters. With the rise in acts of terrorism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Indonesia, it will be prudent for India to take lead to establish joint training and operation centre for IOR nations to assist the regional partners to deal with the threat effectively. Islamic terrorism is not a problem of one nation; it requires collective and synergized efforts to neutralize the threat. Initiative of joint training, intelligence sharing and joint planning will assist to coordinate operations on and off shore, sharing of information to operate independently and jointly.
(Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM is a former Infantry Officer and
currently a Distinguished Fellow at The United Service Institution of India.)
1 Khan A. Sufyan, Greater Indian Ocean: A Peaceful Geo-Political Pivot Or A Contentious Source Of Hedging, Eurasia Review, June 23, 2011.
2 The Indian Ocean: Nexus of Environment Energy Trade and security, The New Security Beat, 6-5-2009.
3 Sufyan, N 1.
4 Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, RAND 2008.
5 Shodhganga, Accessed from
http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/208298/8/08_chapter1.pdf on April 04,2019 , P 1.
6 A FICCI Report, Smart border management: Indian coastal and maritime security, September 2017, P 4
7 C. Raja Mohan, Jaswant and Lord Curzon’s legacy, The Hindu, January 28, 2002
8 Theodore Karasik, Why all eyes should be on the Indian Ocean, Al Arabiya, January 09, 2014.
9 Dr Subhash Kapila, India defines her strategic frontiers: an analysis, South Asia Analysis Group, Paper no. 832, April November 04, 2003.
10 China to build 18 naval bases in Indian Ocean, China Daily Mail, November 22, 2014.
11 David Brewster, China’s New Network of Indian Ocean Bases, The Maritime Executive, January 31, 2018.
12 Narender Kumar, Challenges in the Indian Ocean Regions: Response Options. Knowledge World, 2011, P 2.
13 Jeff M. Smith, Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Strategic Outpost, The Diplomat, March 18, 2014.
15 Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, Maritime Diplomacy, South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, November 11, 2015, P 16.
16 Abhijit Singh, India’s ‘Look West’ Maritime Diplomacy, The Diplomat, October 04, 2015.
19 Joshy M. Paul, India’s Maritime Pivot to the East, The Diplomat, March 08, 2018.
20 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, The Trouble with India’s Indian Ocean Diplomacy, The Diplomat, June 26, 2018
21 India’s naval diplomacy aims to contain China: Report, The Economic Times, PTI, July 12, 2018.
22 Arunima Gupta, India’s Island Diplomacy: Building an Indian Ocean Security Architecture, The Diplomat, August 30, 2018
23 Abhijit Singh, Andaman and Nicobar: India’s ‘strategic anchor’ holds ground, ORF, February 05, 2019.
24 G. Padmaja, Revisiting ‘SAGAR’ – India’s Template for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, Maritime national Foundation, April 26, 2018
26 Paul, N 19.
(This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)