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.”
Second, these challenges are likely to be magnified in India’s case by a variety of domestic constraints, from excessive layers of bureaucracy, to political gridlock, to frequent allegations of corruption, all of which have contributed to spiraling costs and repeated delays in foreign and indigenous acquisition programs.
Third, India’s turn to the sea is likely to be tempered by its continuing focus on land-based security challenges, including the enduring threat of terrorism and insurgency, recurring crises with its archival Pakistan, and, increasingly, its longstanding border disputes with China.
The Sino-Indian competition on land, once relatively dormant, appears to be escalating. Over the past several years China has been building transportation and basing infrastructure throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which could enable it to deploy considerable forces near contested areas in a relatively short period of time. Incidents such as the recent incursion by a Chinese unit across the poorly demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) dividing the two powers have only heightened tensions between them. In response, India has undertaken its own infrastructure development projects, and is also deploying combat aircraft, land-based cruise missiles, and mountain warfare divisions to fortify its northern borders.
China’s actions are likely motivated by a variety of factors. Given its persistent concerns over the security of its SLOCs, however, one goal may be keeping India on guard, off-balance, and focused on the land rather than the sea. If so, Chinese complaints about India’s recent buildup on its side of the border suggest that Beijing may be getting a bit more than it bargained for. Nevertheless, should India redress the imbalance of military power near its disputed boundaries, China could still adopt countermeasures to distract India from its maritime ambitions, for example bolstering military support to Pakistan to exacerbate and exploit New Delhi’s longstanding fear of a two-front war.
From an American perspective, this type of continental security dilemma between India and China might actually have unexpected benefits – while Beijing might not want New Delhi to focus more on the sea, Washington might like Beijing to focus more on the land. Yet this dynamic will almost certainly hinder India’s aspirations to become a major naval power. Barring a dramatic change in New Delhi’s security environment, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force are likely to remain the nation’s dominant military services, potentially drowning out calls for continued naval modernization.
Despite these issues, New Delhi does have an alternative option for securing its interests in the maritime domain—a possible back-up plan that might look increasingly attractive if its aspirations outpace its capabilities. Rather than emphasizing blue water naval forces, it could take a page from China’s playbook. Although Beijing has been investing in maritime power-projection forces such as surface combatants and aircraft carriers, a core element of its military modernization effort has been the development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, including sea-based systems such as missile boats and submarines, as well as land-based systems such as maritime-strike aircraft and its highly publicized (but still unproven) DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.
For China, which seems intent on deterring or countering any American military intervention in a local crisis or conflict, A2/AD capabilities could be used to hold at risk the forward military bases and extended supply lines that the United States relies upon to deploy and sustain its forces far from home. In a potential Sino-Indian conflict in the Indian Ocean region, however, India would be the side with the home field advantage, while China would confront the tyranny of distance. As a result, India might look to develop its own anti-access option.
At the center of this option would be the island territories along India’s maritime flanks, namely the Lakshadweep Islands off of its southwest coast and especially the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the southeast. These territories, which overlook critical Indian Ocean sea-lanes, give New Delhi a toehold in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Not surprisingly, then, India has already taken steps to bolster its military presence on these strategically positioned islands. In 2001, for example, it established a joint Far Eastern Naval Command for its Andaman and Nicobar territories. Since then, it has opened additional port facilities and naval air stations throughout the island chain, upgraded local infrastructure, and reportedly deployed amphibious assault forces, fighter aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition, New Delhi recently opened a permanent naval base in the Lakshadweep Islands to support counter-piracy operations, prevent infiltration by extremists, and monitor sea-lanes.
Looking ahead, India could further reinforce these territories to bolster its strategic position in the Indian Ocean, take advantage of China’s dependence on distant SLOCs, and counterbalance efforts by Beijing to increase its presence in the region. Rather than considering the islands as simple hubs for surveillance activities or launching points for amphibious operations, New Delhi might come to view them as the epicenters of “denial zones.” The larger Andaman and Nicobar island chain could prove particularly important by allowing India to monitor and, if necessary, interdict maritime traffic exiting or entering the Strait of Malacca. With a combination of maritime-strike aircraft, diesel-electric submarines, and hardened or mobile anti-ship cruise missile batteries, India could hold at risk ships approaching or leaving the South China Sea. This could, in turn, limit the ability of forward-deployed Chinese naval forces to escort commercial ships the entire length of their journey, isolate those forces from potential reinforcements, or compel civilian and military vessels to circumvent denial zones by traveling through the southern Indian Ocean and around Australia—at significant cost in both time and money.
In the end, New Delhi’s naval capabilities may never match its ambitions. If it recognizes its limitations and takes advantage of its opportunities, however, India could still exercise significant influence in the maritime domain. The question, then, is how others might respond.
Evan Braden Montgomery is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC.