Asia today is dominated by the three large economies of India, Japan and China. These three countries, along with the United States, represent the principal actors in the global commons of the Indian Ocean.
Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations & ANZUS groupings are particularly keen to increase ties with India and the United States – the largest and (arguably) oldest democracies today, and two of the leading emerging and established economic actors. But there have also been some interesting developments recently that point to other strategic alliances.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s recent visit to India, for example, is a harbinger of the 21st century modifications being gradually implemented in Japan’s outward global posture. Indeed, this reality was on show during the trilateral meetings of India, the United States and Japan in Washington in December 2011. This arrangement points to a recognition on all sides of the importance of strengthened ties amidst the changing geopolitical scene in the region, in particular vis-à-vis China.
As has been noted in The Diplomat, India and the United States take a dim view of recent Chinese activities and ambitions in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Regions. India has watched Chinese moves in the region with great interest, especially with sea lines of communications from the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman converging at the Malacca Straits, Lombok Straits and Sunda Straits – all of which are within the Indian Navy’s reach in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
The recent modernization of the Indian Navy with nuclear propelled submarines, aircraft carriers, missile frigates and missile destroyers is a clear enunciation of India’s response to its emerging challenges in the Indian Ocean. More such capable units will be added in the months and years ahead.
The island territories of Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar have been developed as a type of “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and major Indian Army amphibious brigades have been prepositioned. The Indian Navy’s core interest areas were defined from Madagascar to the Malacca Straits to Minicoy Island in the Indian Ocean by the Defense Minister at the recent Naval Commanders Conference in 2011. The Indian Ocean Bridges of Friendship meetings with the Indian Ocean region littoral states, meanwhile, are also being vigorously sponsored by the Indian Navy and the Ministry of Defense.
India has taken a careful and pragmatic approach to China’s rise. It has undertaken carefully crafted modernizations to its armed forces while at the same time forming strategic partnerships with other nations.
All this said, India should still seek to work with China and all nations in areas of shared interest and common focus. Conflict with China is by no means inevitable. All nations have a vital interest to do what they can to lessen regional tensions. In the meantime, though, India must ensure its vital national interests are protected. A balanced approach is clearly in order.