Rebalancing India’s Maritime Posture in the Indo-Pacific

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Rebalancing India’s Maritime Posture in the Indo-Pacific

India could help maintain strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific, if it is prepared to broaden its thinking.

Rebalancing India’s Maritime Posture in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful visit to Japan, New Delhi and Tokyo have upgraded their relationship to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” For India, the visit has, indeed, been quite “special.” With Japan committing to increase its investment in India’s economy and formally declaring its intention to transfer equipment technology to the Indian defense sector, the takeaways for New Delhi have been substantial. An agreement to accelerate talks on the possible sale of the US-2 amphibious aircraft is poised to make the Indian Navy the beneficiary of Japan’s first overseas military sale in nearly 50 years.

The deepening of defense relations has also raised hopes of a stronger maritime partnership. If the media reports of the various interactions and press-briefings at Tokyo are anything to go by, India and Japan could soon be in a strategic maritime embrace. Both countries reportedly committed themselves to increasing their maritime interaction and reaffirmed support for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s continued participation in the annual Indo-U.S. MALABAR maritime exercises. In a veiled mention of China, Modi even spoke of “expansionism” and “maritime encroachment” – issues that resonate with the Japanese masses – even as he recognized India’s “shared interest” with Japan in ensuring common maritime security.

Yet, expectations that the two countries’ maritime forces will be patrolling the sea lanes of the Pacific together are unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon – ironically, because of the very symbolism of deeper strategic cooperation that promises to give each side a broader security role.

The paradox is reflected in recent maritime discussions in India. Following last month’s commissioning of two indigenous warships – Kolkata and Kamorta – most commentary in the Indian media focused on the Indian Navy’s role as “protector” of India’s economic interests in the Indian Ocean. The generous references to the navy’s contribution in ensuring the safety of maritime trade and the protection of India’s offshore energy interests, seemed driven by a deep concern for the security of the sea-lines of communication (SLOCs) in the IOR.

The growing emphasis on the Indian Navy’s economic-security role, though well-intentioned, appeared to detract from the Navy’s larger role in defending India’s strategic equities in the Indo-Pacific region. A navy is, after all, a military arm primarily meant for use in traditional conflict scenarios involving a clash of broader strategic interests. By first principles, it is a weapon of defense in situations where the nation’s strategic stakes are threatened by a rival maritime power.

The proponents of the Indian Navy’s economic role are buoyed by views expressed on the subject by Narendra Modi himself. As he commissioned INS Kolkata a few days ago, Modi stressed the Navy’s role in securing the sea lanes, drawing attention to the “inextricable connection between maritime power and national growth story” and “the Indian navy’s potential to inspire confidence among those involved in maritime trade.” His observations, though legitimate from an economic-security perspective, highlight a deeper reality: popularly elected governments today increasingly look upon maritime forces to protect national economic interests, sometimes at the cost of other strategic functions. Having been elected into office on a plank of economic renewal, the NDA government too is likely to pursue a maritime policy aimed at supporting domestic growth. As a corollary – and regardless of the political warmth between India and Japan – New Delhi will not do anything to antagonize Beijing. If anything, its maritime policy will be built around the twin principles of strategic risk avoidance, and robust multilateral engagement.

This, interestingly, marks a curious continuity with the previous UPA government’s approach to maritime security, which largely restricted the Indian navy to cooperative endeavors in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi’s central argument, for some time, has been that the Indian Ocean and Pacific are two strategically diverse theaters and that any conceptual framework that treats them as a single coherent strategic space is fundamentally flawed. A majority of India’s policy elite believe that the principal threats in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) are of the irregular kind and must be dealt through a process of region-wide consensus building and multilateral collaboration. The Pacific, on the other hand, is seen as a “strategic swamp” – a domain of political dissonances and an intractable conflict, which hasn’t been able to extricate itself from the morass of military brinkmanship, diplomatic posturing, and alliance politics.

There is, admittedly, some merit in the above argument. Maritime forces in the Indian Ocean have for some time been grappling with non-traditional challenges such as piracy, maritime terrorism, trafficking and humanitarian crises. The region is yet to countenance maritime confrontation of the kind long seen in the Western Pacific. But Indian policymakers believe that the problems in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are so different, they almost shout out for variable solutions.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in a larger strategic context – especially if one were to consider the real reason why the Indian Ocean lacks a strategic dialectic. One doesn’t need deep nautical insight to detect that the Indian Ocean Region’s (IOR) relatively peaceful status is mainly a result of India’s prominent maritime status in the region. Not only is the Indian Navy the most powerful in South Asia, it is also a principal security provider in the central Indian Ocean. With no real challenge to its strategic primacy in the IOR, it has had the luxury of focusing on humanitarian relief and irregular threats.

India cannot, however, be assured that the strategic scenario that exists in the Indian Ocean today will remain unchanged in the future. China’s economic interests in the region have been growing rapidly. In time, as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) gears up for a larger role in the IOR, India’s policy elite are bound to come up against an acute security dilemma: cooperate with China on Beijing’s terms, or prepare to take on its superior naval might in the Indian Ocean region. In the event, there are no guarantees that the Indian Ocean’s future strategic dynamic would be any less adversarial than the one that attends the Pacific today.

While there is no imminent threat to India’s Indian Ocean stakes presently, the situation could change dramatically once the PLA-N succeeds in establishing a more durable presence in the region. The Maritime Silk Route (MSR), which Beijing is actively promoting, heralds the beginning of that process. From developing maritime infrastructure in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong in South Asia, to building and revitalizing port facilities in Mombasa, Dar-e-Salam and Bagamoyo on the East Coast of Africa, Beijing appears intent on creating a Chinese trade-corridor in the Indian Ocean.

The latest to join the list of Chinese port development projects is the Kenyan port city of Lamu. A Chinese firm recently signed a nearly $500 million deal to construct three berths at Lamu. The project is part of the Kenya-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport, or LAPSSET corridor, with a potentially defining role in the Africa-section of the MSR. Maritime watchers worry that at some stage China’s expanding naval footprint in the Indian Ocean would come into conflict with India’s sphere of strategic influence, triggering a chain of events that could eventually lead a larger strategic confrontation.

For the moment, India is rightly wary of countervailing China’s maritime power in the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi neither has the naval capability at its disposal, nor the political capital to resist China’s broader nautical endeavors in maritime-Asia. But it needs to search for an answer to end its strategic predicament. For one thing, in the larger contest for regional dominance, New Delhi will need the Indian Navy to deliver on its principal mandate of defending national stakes by remedying power asymmetries that undermine regional stability. For this, it must consider playing the role of a gentle “stabilizer” in the Indo-Pacific.

As opposed to an active China containment strategy, a stabilizing role would only entail a discreet commitment by New Delhi to oppose any unilateral military means that could potentially cause conflict. As a corollary, India would need to increase its involvement in political discussions concerning maritime security in the Pacific. This would mean taking active part in the deliberations of the ARF, the East Asia Summit, ADMM plus and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). It also implies India would need to articulate its stand on maritime security matters clearly in forums such as the Shangri-La dialogue. As a supporting strategy, New Delhi will have to reinvigorate its trilateral diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. Tripartite discussions have a unique quality of conferring legitimacy and sense of urgency to shared security concerns; India would need to leverage this feature to its advantage.

The Indian Navy would also need to expand its operational engagement in East Asia. Notwithstanding the recent addition of a maritime component to “Look East” policy, the Navy’s Pacific forays have been limited in both scope and intensity. For a more durable strategic presence, it will need to interact on the higher-end of the operational spectrum, and gain institutionalized access to refueling and resupply facilities in the Pacific littorals.  Logistical arrangements with friendly Southeast states and new littoral warfare assets will provide the Navy with the vital tools it needs to undertake strategic missions. Most importantly, the Indian Navy will need a new doctrinal framework that would give the military-security function as much emphasis as the benign and constabulary role, presently soaking up the most of its operational energies. The key would be to enhance its strategic capabilities to enable a credible distant-seas presence.

While the Indian Navy has participated in a series of engagements in the Pacific recently – including an interaction with the PLA-N at Qingdao, the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, and the U.S.-India MALABAR exercises (also joined by Japan this year) – it has tended to treat all its maritime engagements as isolated and unconnected events, thereby hindering the creation of a coherent strategic picture. With all emerging narratives canceling each other out, no clear strategic message has been effectively conveyed to any of its partners.

The Navy’s operational managers will know well that in the absence of a cogent and considered strategy of graded engagement, all maritime cooperation is a largely pointless endeavor. While the Indian Navy is entitled to engage with all its strategic partners, the need for the “balance of narrative” to point in a single direction is acute.

Far from translating into an anti-China coalition, a comprehensive maritime partnership with Japan has the potential to provide substantive security in the broader Indo-Pacific. After the re-interpretation of Article 9 of its Constitution in July this year, Japan is well placed to be a potent military partner. More importantly, a maritime relationship with Japan will provide the Indian Navy with the opportunity to redefine its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

Ultimately, if India needs its navy to play a defining role in safeguarding national equities, it must not only be a “protector” of SLOCs in the Indian Ocean but also a “defender” of its strategic stakes. The Indian Navy could play an instrumental part in maintaining a stable geopolitical equilibrium, but the strategic messaging for that will need to be as effectively directed, as it is well-honed.

Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses at New Delhi and looks at maritime security issues. He is co-author of Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.