India’s Maritime Pivot to the East


New Delhi seems to be shifting the focus of its diplomacy to the east. The presence of all 10 ASEAN heads of government at this year’s Republic Day parade on January 26 demonstrated Southeast Asia’s expectations for India’s active role in the region, given China’s dominance, especially in the South China Sea. With land connectivity to Southeast Asia still a work in progress, the maritime domain attracts considerable attention in India’s “Look East/Act East” policy.

India’s Maritime Forays Into Southeast Asia

Beyond economic engagement, maritime connectivity with Southeast Asia has helped the Look East policy succeed in the post-Cold War world. India is one of two Dialogue Partners that shares both maritime and land borders with ASEAN. India gradually expanded its maritime influence to East Asia, especially Japan. 

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However, India plays an abysmally small role in Southeast Asian regional security dynamics, largely due to New Delhi’s inherent “strategic restraint” doctrine and its preoccupation with the Indian Ocean region. Similarly, the perception that New Delhi’s growing involvement in the South China Sea would provoke its giant neighbor, China, contributes to a delicate balance between its strategic interest and defensive mindset. On the other hand, China’s dominance in the South China Sea and its expansionist tendency toward the Indian Ocean region would curtail New Delhi’s ability to project maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Hence, India has shown greater strategic interest in the South China Sea as it connects the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. But even here, India’s maritime doctrines from 2007 onward highlight that the Malacca Strait is one of the Indian Navy’s primary interests, while the South China Sea is a secondary interest. India’s OVL signed a production sharing contract for the 7,058 square km Block 128 in Vietnam’s offshore PhuKhanh Basin in May 2006, but production has not yet started. The license’s fifth extension is valid until June 15, 2019.

India’s influence in the region remains low, although there have been efforts to bolster defense relations. For example, the India-Singapore joint naval exercise SIMBEX was held in the South China Sea in 2017. The bilateral India-Indonesia maritime exercise “Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT)” has occurred once every two years since 2002 in the Indian Ocean side of the Southeast Asian archipelago. India occasionally sends training naval ships to various Southeast Asian countries stabilizing is strategic relationships.  

A China-Centred Southeast Asia?

Trump’s “America first” policy and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea have contributed to the diminishing nature of ASEAN’s centrality in regional multilateral institutional mechanisms. Moreover, one of the major parties in the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines, has become more accommodating of China’s interests in the South China Sea dispute, leaving Vietnam seemingly alone in opposing China.

After ensuring its economic influence in Southeast Asia by way of various “sweeteners” like free trade agreements, China is now looking for a “predominant” position in the security dynamics of the region. China has effectively contained Southeast Asia’s opposition to various physical activities in the South China Sea, and started meddling in regional issues. According to Japanese commentator Yoichi Funabashi, “These days China is even interfering in ASEAN personnel matters, telling ASEAN member states that certain people are undesirable because of their anti-Chinese views.”

Southeast Asian nations do not necessarily want their region to be used for big power rivalry, but the member states of ASEAN do have concerns about China’s regional dominance. They believe a strong commitment from the United States, Japan and India can balance China’s weight in the region. However, many in ASEAN view the latest Quad mechanism initiated by the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia with suspicion as it would diminish ASEAN’s significance and lead to great power politics in the Indo-Pacific. For ASEAN, “the relevance of the Quad depends on how they engage with the region and [ASEAN officials] had no interest in how they play out outside of it,” a senior Indonesian diplomat isaid n a seminar recently in Bengaluru.

Need “Acting” East Policy

India needs to counter Chinese dominance; developments in the South China Sea will definitely have significant repercussions in the Indian Ocean as well. In this regard, India needs to be more proactive in its maritime diplomacy toward the Southeast Asian region.

First, maritime subregionalism in the Indian Ocean region is critically lacking. Subregionalism builds confidence among member countries because only limited countries with shared interests participate. India needs to build a strong cooperative regional mechanism, bringing the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal into one fold. BIMSTEC, launched in 1997, has not moved beyond changing its initials. India must take the initiative in creating a Bay of Bengal security community comprising the eastern Indian Ocean littoral states for enhanced security cooperation, which will ensure a bulwark against China’s approach to the Indian Ocean.

Second, India could expand maritime exercises to include Southeast Asian partners. The currently annual trilateral Malabar naval exercise, comprising India, the United States, and Japan, takes place in alternate years in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Southeast Asian countries that are connected with the Indian Ocean could be invited to the Malabar exercise when it is held in the Indian Ocean and others can join in the Pacific. This will enhance naval cooperation as well as boost confidence in participating Southeast Asian countries.

Third, India should offer to build custom-made naval systems for Southeast Asian countries. India has successfully indigenized naval platforms and most of its ships, both small and large, are being built in Indian shipyards. India needs to capitalize on its leverage in naval systems by providing it as aid to Southeast Asian countries. These new systems could help Southeast Asian countries effectively counter illegal fishing and other nefarious activities in their territorial waters.

In these ways, India can become a reliable and trusted partner for Southeast Asia, which would help create more confidence that ASEAN could thwart China’s intention of  achieving dominance in Southeast Asia.

Joshy M. Paul is an assistant professor in the department of International Studies and History, School of Law, Christ Deemed University, Bengaluru.

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