As a result of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent trip to Oman — part of a broader Middle Eastern tour — New Delhi and Muscat finalized an agreement that will see India gain access to the strategically located port of Duqm, on Oman’s southern coast. The port sits on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean and also provides easy access onward into the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden.
Per initial reports, the contours of the Indo-Omani agreement over Duqm are generous for New Delhi. The Indian Navy will be able to use the port for logistics and support, allowing it to sustain long-term operations in the western Indian Ocean, a hotspot for piracy in the area. According to the Indian Express, a dry dock will be available to the Indian Navy at Duqm as well, allowing for maintenance without returning vessels to India-based shipyards.
Most significantly, India’s access to Duqm will shape up to be an important factor in the now long-running contest for influence in the Indian Ocean against China. Indian strategists have long concerned themselves with Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls”; the phrase, common among Indian strategic elites, borrows from a mid-2000s report by U.S. consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and refers to a network of strategically located coastal facilities.
For readers of The Diplomat, many of these names will be familiar. China’s two most prominent “pearls” are its first overseas military base in Djibouti and the port facility at Gwadar in Pakistan, the southern terminal of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing has additionally made investments in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh in a range of facilities. (Incidentally, the special economic zone at Duqm is backed by Chinese capital.)
Outside of Djibouti, China has no overt military facilities, but Indian strategists concern themselves with so-called dual-use port facilities. Geopolitically, analysts have long pointed to the ease with which China could hedge its over-reliance on sea lanes transiting the Strait of Malacca by setting up a network of accessible facilities in the Indian Ocean.
Littoral facilities like Gwadar and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar would allow for land-based transit of goods while sea-based nodes, like the Maldives and Sri Lanka-based ports, would allow proximity to East Asia-bound sea lanes. In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, and its accompanying capital outlays, have made the Indian Ocean a priority too.
India gaining access to Duqm isn’t a game-changer, but it does significantly enhance New Delhi’s geopolitical positioning. In particular, with renewed interest in the Quadrilateral Initiative and the Japanese-led “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept gaining support among like-minded democratic states in the region, the stage is being set for a sustainable security network in the Indian Ocean. Duqm — and other facilities — are just a part of this, and much of this will likely show few results for at least a couple decades.
Between India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Japan, there now exists a well-distributed network of sites, allowing these countries’ navies to patrol the wider Indian Ocean region. With Duqm in Oman, Chabahar in Iran, Assumption Island in the Seychelles, Agalega in Mauritius, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India will soon have access to sustain modestly expeditionary deployments for its navy.
The United States Navy, meanwhile, has a support facility at Diego Garcia, a British possession. India’s conclusion of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the United States in 2016 also opens up reciprocal access for both countries at each others’ facilities and at sea. Australia, finally, is planning on improving the Cocos Islands, in the southeastern Indian Ocean, to support P-8 Poseidon operations. (The western Indian Ocean is also where U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility ends and U.S. Central Command takes over, bringing U.S. facilities in Djibouti and Bahrain into the picture as well.)
Add in periodic Japanese deployments to the Indian Ocean and the burgeoning “quadrilateral” appears well-positioned to maintain at least a presence in the Indian Ocean; this could manifest in increased cooperation on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations, search and rescue, and anti-piracy at first, moving on to anti-submarine warfare and broader maritime domain awareness cooperation as the four countries continue to converge. The four navies are fast developing links and growing more used to interoperating. This trend will also continue. This year’s trilateral India-U.S.-Japan Malabar exercise is expected to also include the Australian Navy, for instance.
None of this should be overstated. Remember: the quad is far from an alliance and the grouping’s ability to effectively cooperate to counter expanding Chinese ambition in the Indian Ocean may fizzle. When viewed from the 30,000 foot level, the network of facilities available to like-minded states in the Indian Ocean, ranging from Duqm to the Cocos Islands, is promising, but making anything of this impressive geographic coverage of the world’s third’s largest ocean won’t be easy. Divergent priorities may prevail, for example.
For instance, the Indian military’s priorities have historically been based on land (for good reason), and all the interest in a “free and open” maritime commons in the Indo-Pacific may do little to fundamentally shift the needle. As India has seen first-hand too, shifting domestic politics in many Indian Ocean states may make long-term strategic planning challenging. The United States, meanwhile, has made the Indo-Pacific a priority under the Trump administration, but its fundamental orientation focuses on the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the latter being the anteroom to the U.S. west coast. (The two together host four important U.S. treaty allies.)
Amid all this, what’s clear is that the contest for the Indian Ocean has effectively just begun and won’t necessarily be decided by real estate alone. Neither China nor its competitors in the region can grow complacent. If India and its like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific want to ensure they’ll be able to sustain the Indian Ocean status quo several decades into the future, they’ll have to start planning and preparing now. The good news is they already have.