One of the most frequently cited indicators of India’s status as a rising power is its growing emphasis on naval modernization. Historically a land power with a “continentalist” mindset, in recent years India has started to expand its strategic horizons and devote greater attention toward the maritime domain. Although the Indian Navy remains the country’s smallest military service in terms of both personnel and funding, its share of the national defense budget has progressively increased (albeit defense was cut across the board in the latest defense budget). These added resources have supported a number of high-profile acquisition programs, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious transport ships, submarines, and surveillance aircraft. In the words of India’s former Chief of the Naval Staff, this additional funding also reflects “an increasing realization that the destiny of our nation is entwined with our maritime destiny.”
While India’s goals are lofty, its aspirations are understandable. Rising powers often look to the sea for a host of reasons: to extend their defensive perimeters against potential competitors, to expand and protect their overseas commerce, to intervene abroad in response to emerging threats or humanitarian impulses, and to gain prestige. For its part, New Delhi has good reasons to travel down the path of its predecessors. Despite having little interest in maritime power-projection for most of its history, India’s economic growth now depends upon seaborne commerce, particularly imported crude oil from the Middle East and Africa, along with exports to various countries in East Asia. As a result, it has a natural stake in protecting the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that stretch from the Arabian Sea to the Indonesian archipelago.
In addition, China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean has provided India with an incentive to develop larger and more capable naval forces. Given its own dependence on commercial exports as well as imported natural resources and raw materials, Beijing has a strong interest in preventing any disruption to the SLOCs that connect it to the global economy. It is also skeptical that it can rely on other nations to protect its overseas trade. Today, China does not have the force structure or overseas basing infrastructure necessary to monitor and defend distant sea-lanes running through the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, it is taking steps to mitigate its “Malacca dilemma,” from building up its surface naval forces and undersea fleet, to financing deep-water commercial ports in littoral and island nations, to making diplomatic inroads with key actors across the Indian Ocean basin. In the future, these efforts could give China the ability to sustain forward-deployed forces in greater numbers—and might upend the maritime military balance in the region.
Of course, similar interests could be an impetus for strategic collaboration between India and China. In this case, however, they are just as likely to spark a maritime security dilemma. Capabilities that will enable New Delhi to project power and protect SLOCs could also be used to threaten Beijing’s seaborne trade, leading China to further develop its so-called “string of pearls.” Likewise, China’s efforts to increase its military presence in the Indian Ocean region are already viewed as an early form of encirclement in India, prompting countermoves by New Delhi.
Despite these trends, efforts by India to establish itself as a naval power to be reckoned with—not just by weaker nations in its neighborhood but also by extra-regional powers such as China—will have to overcome a number of serious obstacles.
First, given the enormous costs and complexity of advanced naval platforms, any nation attempting to build a capable blue water fleet will confront a host of technical and financial challenges. As the renowned strategist Colin Gray explains, “The aircraft carrier, the nuclear submarine, and the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and air defense cruiser are the largest, most complex, and inevitably most expensive, weapon systems produced by contemporary service-based economies.”