This week, India unveiled its first indigenously developed aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, just days after the reactor of the country’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, achieved criticality. The milestones continue India’s rapid naval modernization, as its strategic relevance in Asia is increasingly determined by its maritime role.
“Maritime Asia” has emerged as a new geopolitical frame of reference in recent years as the nations of Asia evolve into major trading and resource-consuming powers with economic growth contingent on seaborne trade. India is no exception, with 95 percent of its total external trade by volume and 75 percent by value now conducted by sea, and with more than 70 percent of its oil imports transiting the maritime domain. To protect these burgeoning maritime interests, the Indian government has expressed lofty ambitions to establish “a brand new multi-dimensional Navy” with “reach and sustainability.” The country has the world’s fifth-largest navy with plans to build a 160-plus-ship navy, comprising three aircraft carrier battle groups by 2022.
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However, India’s maritime ambitions are being challenged by the fact that the country’s maritime position is often regarded as contested. Take, for instance, the South China Sea: although almost 55 per cent of India’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, some countries continue to oppose allowing it to play a prominent role.
Notably, China has voiced displeasure at the growing Indian naval presence in the region. This was evidenced by reports in July 2011 that an Indian Navy vessel received radio contact from the Chinese Navy demanding that it depart disputed waters in the South China Sea after completing a port call in Vietnam. This was followed by the less belligerent but nonetheless provocative gesture of an Indian naval vessel receiving a Chinese naval escort while on its way from the Philippines to South Korea in June 2012. Beijing has also opposed Vietnam granting exploration rights to Indian company ONGC Videsh in offshore blocks located in disputed waters.
Well-entrenched maritime interests
Despite the fact that India does not share a contiguous maritime border with the South China Sea, its maritime interests in the region are well established. While not as vocal as the United States, which declared maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea a “national interest” in 2010, New Delhi has nonetheless echoed the U.S. position of calling for a peaceful resolution and continued freedom of navigation. India has also pursued deepening maritime relations with several claimant states, notably Vietnam, with the Indian Navy gaining permanent berthing rights at Nha Trang port and offering the Vietnamese training in submarine warfare.
Since its first deployment to the South China Sea in 2000, the Indian Navy has also been involved in several high-profile maritime operations in the region, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, joint naval exercises, and port calls. This includes its prominent role in relief operations following the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the cyclone that struck Myanmar (Burma) in 2008. The Indian Navy also escorted U.S. naval vessels transiting the Strait of Malacca as part of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in 2002.