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India and the Indian Ocean: A Briefing

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  • April 11, 2016

    Independent India was a typical continental power, mostly due to its difficult land border disputes with China and Pakistan. During the Cold War days, India wanted that the major world powers should withdraw themselves from the Indian Ocean, presence of whom was actually a threat to India’s ideological inclination to the non-aligned movement. 1 The end of Cold War brought few changes in Indian policy making, including economic liberalisation and enhanced supply of oil through Oceans and Seas in an order that increasing domestic demand for energy is satisfied. Approximately 80 percent of India’s energy imports traverse through the Indian Ocean and its different channels.2 In the 1990s, India became enthused about regional maritime cooperation as well, thanks to the increasing number of regional trading blocs across the world that played a stimulator for India’s integration with various regional groupings. Given this context, India’s interests in the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC, now Indian Ocean Rim Association- IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium are well understood. Fact of the matter is India should not and cannot ignore that it has a coastline of 7,500 km and is surrounded by Oceans and Seas in three sides of its international boundaries. As far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, its various channels are responsible for two-thirds of world’s oil shipment, one third of world’s cargo movement and nearly half of its container traffic movement.3 Marking the crucial role played by the Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Mr. Modi said,

    “For us, it also serves as a strategic bridge with the nations in our immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood. In March last year in Mauritius, I had spelt out our vision for the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Region is one of my foremost policy priorities. Our approach is evident in our vision of ‘sagar’4, which means ocean and stands for Security and Growth for all in the region”.5

    There are several factors that are pushing India towards a more comprehensive maritime policy. China’s special emphasis towards Indian Ocean (through its Silk Road project and growing cooperation with the littoral nations) as well as its formation of the blue water navy was perhaps a direct hit to New Delhi that stirred the latter to strengthen its maritime capability in the Indian Ocean, considered to be its ‘strategic backyard’.6 Another motivation came from India’s own desire to play a significant role in the Indo-Pacific region, which is supported by regional powers like United States, Australia and Japan as well. During his 2015 visit to Mauritius and Seychelles, Prime Minister Mr. Modi underlined that India is now ready to mark its presence in the wider geographic region of the Indo-Pacific and India may even consider building military bases outside its own national territory. This was in stark contradiction of what India had been practising till then.7 This changed perception should be understood in the context of Mumbai 2008 attack, perpetrators of which came through the Seas and revealed that India still has to overcome few challenges in terms of safeguarding its coastlines and national interests. In order to garner regional cooperation in enhancing maritime security, at Mauritius, PM Modi said,

    “Our goal is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime security issues; and increase in maritime cooperation.”8

    India’s new vision for maritime security is comprehensively articulated in Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, a 2015 document by the Indian Navy. The document clarifies that the Indian Navy’s interest areas now cover the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, IOR Island nations, Southwest Indian Ocean and East Coast of Africa littoral countries among many other nations and areas. The South China Sea, East China Sea and Western Pacific Ocean and their littoral nations are included in the Indian Navy’s secondary priority areas. By these, one expert has argued that New Delhi is trying to satisfy ASEAN which advocates for a larger Indian role in South China Sea on the one hand and on the other, content US-Australia-Japan countries that want to see India as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. The Joint Strategic Vision with the US, Japan’s inclusion into the Malabar Exercise, bilateral exercises with countries like Japan, Australia and Indonesia and re-engaging with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and South Pacific island nations – all signal India’s preparedness for a critical role in the Indo-Pacific region. 9 To enable India for the same, India is considering indigenisation of defence capabilities, diversifying sources for its naval hardware, increasing number of joint exercises with IOR partner countries, blue economy and sustainable use of marine resources in a cooperative manner to name a few.10

    However, one should not forget about the challenges that are still prevalent as India aspires to be a strong regional player in the Indo-Pacific. One of the challenges is of course posed by China. China’s ambition to control the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean and its creation of a chain of friendly island countries only escalates the existing bilateral tensions between India and China. 11 Another challenge emanates from Pakistan. Pakistan considers India as a constant threat which has to be deterred. Simultaneously, followed by the Osama episode, Pakistan’s relations with the US have also been strained. Therefore, it is only usual for Pakistan to enhance its closeness with China to counter-balance Indo-US partnership in the IOR.12 India’s poor record in forming multilateral mechanisms (example, SAARC, BIMSTEC etc.) is another concern as due to its failure in the aforementioned institutions India is mostly viewed as a country of bilateral choice.13 Holistic maritime cooperation, on the other hand, is based on multilateralism. Therefore, convincing the immediate and extended neighbours in the IOR may take few years of time and India has to showcase some concrete examples of actions to strengthen regional cooperation. In the International Fleet Review in February 2016 in Vishakhapatnam, India exhibited firm commitment towards intensified maritime cooperation with the IOR partner nations and it is only expected that New Delhi would work towards utilising its potential in the right way.

    The article was originally published in The SARCist, South Asian Regional Cooperation