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September 9, 2016

Security Outlook of Indian Ocean and India’s Geostrategic interest in the IOR

~ By Siddharth Singh

The Indian Ocean Region is a very diverse region with great potential& prospect and it holds substantialstrategic importance. The region also holds significance because of the global and intra-regional trade which passes through it and for the value of its aquatic resources. The security of the Indian Ocean region is important for all those nations which faces its waters and also for all those nations which depend on the global maritime trading system by using Indian Ocean as a passage.

The Indian Ocean represents an increasingly significant avenue for global trade. Rising prosperity in Asia, growing dependence and therefore linkage between producers and consumers on natural resourcesacross the Asia and Africa andalso the existence of globalized supply chains and distribution networks are binding the region ever more closely using the mediumof the Indian Ocean. At the same time, emerging problems likepiracy, terrorism and global environmental pressures on the coastal and marine resources pose significant governance challenges for maritime policy-makers around the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Strategically thecrucial choke points across the Indian Oceanplay both roles:  as a facilitator by reducing travel distance and sometimes by putting constraint; if these bottlenecks come under wrong hands then it could cripple dependent economies. The seven key chokepoints in the IOR are the Lombok Strait, the Sunda Strait, the Malacca Straits, the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, Mozambique Channel, and the Bab el Mandeb.

Although sharing the same ocean, the Indian Ocean Region displaysincrediblemultiplicityas well as divergences in the littoral countries’ politics, culture values, economic models, and environmental concerns.Despite the noteworthy geographical span and large and growing population of the Indian Ocean region, it has long suffered comparativenegligence in the geopolitics of world affairs. During most of the 20th century, the region’s role and prominencewere generallyeclipsed and considered subsidiary to the super power rivalries playing out happeningsomewhere else in the globe. While the Indian Ocean Regionhas now risen to the forefront and features more prominently in world geopoliticsincluding the strategic interests and commercial controls of extra-regional powers such as the US, EU nations, Japan, and China, the littoral states of Indian Ocean are also increasingly influencing regional and global geopolitics.


The Indian Ocean Security Outlook

The security outlook for the Indian Ocean region is increasingly important for global stability and prosperity because it encompasses a vital and expanding intersection of geostrategic rivalries, economic ambitions, resource competition, environmental management, development challenges and demographic change. Its geostrategic importance is accentuated by the fact that it is the most intensively used and strategically important trade highway in the world. A broad architecture of security cooperation among Indian Ocean and non-regional states needs to be responsive to the growing complexities in the region along with the rising geostrategic importance of IOR. In doing so, it needs to accommodate legacies from the region’s past and respond creatively to its contemporary and future challenges.

The complex realities of the security outlook in the Indian Ocean have fundamentally important implications for its security architecture. The region is simply too vast in its geography, too diverse in the economic needs and priorities of its constituent states, and too disparate in its strategic outlooks to accommodate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to regional security architecture. The Indian Ocean region’s security outlook demands responses that are practical, adaptive and multi-layered. It needs to reflect the realities of major power cooperation and competition, alliance frameworks, sub-regional groupings and more plurilateral arrangements. Strategic competition, particularly among major powers such as the United States, China and India is inevitable, but such competition needs to be balanced by strategic cooperation to minimise misunderstanding and misinformation, and to strengthen habits of cooperation on specific issues.

In addition to major power relations, aspects of Indian Ocean security are also critically affected by alliance and strategic partnerships involving regional and non-regional states. Some of those partnerships are longstanding and established; others are emerging and evolving. Some are bilateral; others are more broadly based. But all such partnerships constitute only a dimension of regional security architecture, and not the sum total of it.

On a range of issues – such as economic development, piracy, terrorism and illicit trafficking – more plurilateral mechanisms which involves major as well as minor powers, can offer the most productive way forward. Such coalitions of interest can embrace strategic partners as well as competitors; and they can be formal or informal.Sub-regional structures in the Indian Ocean region also play niche roles in support of regional development and security.

The key question for the future of the Indian Ocean’s security architecture is how it’s existing and emerging gaps – at major power level and at multilateral level – are going to be filled in order to accommodate the evolving challenges and opportunities in the region. The more productive way forward for the Indian Ocean’s security architecture is a genuinely multi-layered one that addresses State security and human security challenges, and that is designed to promote strategic cooperation as well as manage the realities of strategic competition.

A productive security architecture in the Indian Ocean is always going to have layers of bilateral and plurilateral interaction characterising it. The challenge is to make that mosaic as complementary, practical and intersecting as possible in order to advance the objectives of strategic stability and economic development that regional states share.

Analysing the Role of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)& Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS):

There are some plurilateral initiatives that focus in a more genuinely regional way on Indian Ocean economic and security issues. They include the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

The Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) was formally launched at its first ministerial meeting in Mauritius in March 1997; and was renamed IORA at the council of ministers meeting in Perth in November 2013. IORA currently has 21 member States, seven dialogue partners and two observers. Its objectives are to promote sustainable growth and balanced development in the region and of its member states and to create common ground for regional economic cooperation. It strives towards building and expanding understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation among the countries in the Indian Ocean region.

IORA contributes to trade and investment facilitation among 21 Indian Ocean littoral countries, with important input from seven dialogue partners – China, France, Egypt, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. While IONS, with Indian Ocean littoral states as members and with engagement by extra-regional states as well, effectively promotes maritime cooperation and productive information flows among relevant navies particularly in relation to doctrines, procedures, capabilities, organisational and logistical systems, maritime safety and operational processes. These two Indian Ocean multilateral processes are highly desirable but are structured to achieve quite specific purposes. Neither constitutes a region-wide deliberative forum covering the broad range of Indian Ocean security and development issues.

IORA priorities are more practically focused on maritime safety, freedom of the high seas, disaster response and risk management, economic growth through regional trade facilitation and customs simplification, sustainable use of Indian Ocean resources, more effective fisheries arrangements and oceanic research as well as enhanced people-to-people links through tourism, education and business. IORA objectives still remain broad and aspirational. Over time, they would only achieve their potential if they are calibrated more specifically to benchmarks, timelines and practically focused work. The resurgence of the Indian Ocean Rim Association(IORA) is critical, given the region’s economic dynamism, huge marketsand rich natural resources.The growing geo-strategic and geo-economic salience of the IORA makes itevidently clear that there should be greater regional collaboration among thestakeholders to effectively address and confront non-traditional securitythreats such as maritime terrorism and piracy; trans-national crimes; andenvironmental & natural disasters.

IORA is the most suitable multilateral vehicle for the Indian Ocean region. If IORA has to achieve  more tangible outcomes in coming future then it would be best for it to keep its focus restricted to just the four “super priority” areasnamely maritime safety and security; trade and investment facilitation; fisheries management; and, disaster risk management.

The Indian Navy initiated IONS in 2008 to promote cooperation between navies, coastguards and marine police in the Indian Ocean region. It was inspired by and modelled on the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) created by the Royal Australian Navy in 1988, to provide a regional mechanism for navies and maritime forces to meet periodically to discuss and interact on matters of common interest and to pursue cooperative engagement and initiatives. The key objectivesare to bring together regional navies and maritime forces to synergise their collective resources, and to maintain good order at sea in the Indian Ocean.


IONS are a voluntary initiative with membership limited to the Indian Ocean littoral states. Following the progress of IONS since its inception shows that the ‘Chairmanship’ matters. While there are a multitude of common interests, particularly in the maritime domain, not involving extra-regional countries that have important interests and stakes in the region may prove to be a major stumbling block.

In relation to IONS, its future evolution as a forum for enhancing professional naval exchanges, capacity building and interoperability will be critical for the effectiveness of the region’s security architecture. IONS should include freedom of navigation (including freedom from piracy), facilitation of maritime trade, safety of life at sea, environmental protection, information sharing, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief arrangements.IONS are a vital facilitator of navy-to-navy understanding and professional cooperation. But neither it encompasses the political dimensions of regional security cooperation nor or the wider dimensions of national security as perceived by regional states.

The security architecture of the Indian Ocean region would be further strengthened if arrangements such as IORA and IONS were complemented by other multilateralinitiatives. This will be important if the Indian Ocean region is to develop a practical, adaptable and multi-layered security architecture.

India’s Geostrategic interests in the Indian Ocean

K.M. Panikkar, pioneer Indian geo-politician, argued more than 60 years ago that ‘Since India’s future was dependent on the Indian Ocean, then the Indian Ocean must therefore remain truly Indian’. Even earlier, in the 16th century, Portuguese Governor of Goa Alfonso Albuquerque was of the opinion that ‘Control of key choke points extending from the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope and the Malacca Strait was essential to prevent an inimical power from making an entry in the Indian Ocean’.

Yet post-independence, and until the end of the Cold War, India reduced its influence to within the sub-continent, thus limiting its influence to South Asia only. However, after 1991, India took a different approach and embraced a new open-minded policyalong with economic liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. This policy included enlarging India’s political, diplomatic and economic spheres, and forging defence contacts in the Indian Ocean region and beyond. For the first time, India’s ‘Look East’ policy focused on Southeast Asiato shore up India’s ability to compete geopolitically with other powers like China.

The fact is that India is a maritime nation, not just by historical tradition but also because it’s geophysical configuration and geo-political circumstances makes it as dependent on the seas. India’s national security must treat the maritime space as an important dimension of its rising power status and a key component of its economic growth and energy security, although the strategic concepts of its maritime role have yet to be fully developed. For India, achieving closer diplomatic and economic relations with the Indian Ocean littoral states and other major powers has assumed added importance because a number of security analysts have asserted that energy security needs to be India’s primary strategic concern for the next 25 years, and that India must take urgent steps to address these needs in the Indian Ocean region. India also needs to pursue more aggressively the deeper economic ties with other Indian Ocean littoral states so as to develop leverages that would make them less inclined to facilitate Chinese access. More widely, if India develops cooperative security relationships with the larger littoral states of Southern Africa, Indonesia and Australia, it would achieve another of its aims of furthering its strategic reach. More targeted response of India is required which should be focused on enhancement of ‘hard power’ capabilities and interaction among strategic partners and like-minded countries.

India and China are both dependent on Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) through the Indian Ocean for secure energy routes and the free movement of trade to ensure their continued economic development. The potential geostrategic encirclement of India, through a combination of ports in the Indian Ocean (‘String of Pearls’) and China’s de facto alliance with Pakistan, creates a security dilemma for India. To secure itself against this possibility, India must ensure that the choke points in the Indian Ocean region remain open and free, ensuring the conditions for its continued economic growth.

India’s geostrategic interests has been very well articulated by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi himself. He said, “Indian Ocean, occupy a vital place in India’s national security and economic prosperity. The Indian Ocean Region is one of my foremost policy priorities. Our approach is evident in our vision of “SAGAR”, which means “Ocean” and stands for – Security and Growth for All in the Region. We would continue to actively pursue and promote our geo-political, strategic and economic interests on the seas, in particular the Indian Ocean”.


The emergent scenario of naval power in the Indian Ocean region is diversified and complex, with a variety of challenges and threats to the region. Evolving Maritime Multilateralism with extra-regional powers will be a very important dimension of India’s naval strategy and diplomacy in the Indian Ocean Region. India, being a dominant power in IOR, should be able toshape and influence the future discourse on the Indo-Pacific maritimeorder and for that India needs to develop a range of measures to secure its own interest in IOR which includes enhancing its military capability. In IOR, India has also engaged in capacity building in the form of gifting naval vessels and naval aircraft, enabling smaller Indian Ocean island states (like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles) to boost their maritime and air surveillance capabilities.Continued economic development and internal stability are also prerequisites for the successful execution of India’s strategy to counter China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean region. Additionally, India must further pursue its ‘Act East’ policy to achieve multilateral cohesion and leverage with Southeast Asian nations and other key stakeholders in the broader Indo-Pacific region. India must also pragmatically develop a closer relationship with the US, which has a common interest in ensuring that the SLOCs remain open and free.

The maritime security challenges must be addressed on a multifaceted basis. Some challenges that are primarily located around the Indian coast require a unilateral approach like the issue of policing and law enforcement functions. Other challenges such as military exercises which involvethe US Navy and other country’s naviesrequire a bilateral approach. A multilateral approach is desirable toward solving transnational criminality and upholding maritime order in the region.While regional cooperation between navies and coast guards must take centre stage in the evolving order, non-military maritime cooperation is equally important. Navies of littoral countries as well as navies of extra regional power must reorient themselves from the existing mind-set of ‘preparing for war in order to ensure peace’ to that of ‘if you want peace and stability,be prepared to cooperate.’

The security of India depends on the security of the Ocean and the countries that are littoral of it. India has to look to create strong relations with like-minded countries to serve India’s own national interest. India has made a new start with PM Modi’s visits to many of the Indian Ocean littoral countries.India has the potential to take the leadership role in the Indian Ocean Region and to transform it byfocusing on Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), as envisioned by Prime Minister Modi.


  2. 13th Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Perth Communiqué, 1 November 2013

  1. IORA Maritime Cooperation Declaration,Padang, 23 October 2015

  2. IONS Charter Version – Mar 2014

  1. PV Rao, Indian Ocean maritime security cooperation: the employment of navies and other maritime forces, Proceedings, Indian Ocean Maritime Security Symposium,47–48
  2. Ranjit B Rai, The Indian experience of strategy and the Indian perspective on maritime strategy in the 21st century in the IOR, paper delivered at the Conference on Strategic Theory, Stellenbosch, 11–12 June 2009, 6–7.
  3. Rajeev Sawhney, Indian Ocean maritime security key issues and perspectives, Proceedings, Indian Ocean Maritime Security Symposium, 39–40
  4. Geopolitics and Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean: What Role for the European Union? A joint policy brief of The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the Clingendael Institute.
  5. Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian MARITIME Security Strategy 2015
  6. Book: Growth of Naval Power in the Indian Ocean: Dynamics and Transformation, Author: W. Lawrence S. Prabhakar
  • Book: Maritime Perspectives 2016, Edited by Vijay Sakhuja and Gurpreet S Khurana
  • The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: Achieving U.S. National Security Objectives in a Changing Environment

Siddharth Singh is pursuing his M.Phil. from Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His Email ID is Twitter ID: @Sid4india

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