Altered national interests in the Indian Ocean are rapidly transforming the region into an arena of reoriented strategic disposition for traditional powers like the United States, France, Russia, and the U.K., as well as an area of emerging interests for China, Australia, and Japan. Since the Cold War, India has remained a peninsular witness to this pivotal shift in the region’s importance, but its recent policy reformulations vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean region and the larger Indo-Pacific are signs of growing awareness to the changes underway. However, despite the gains made, challenges remain in this important maritime domain of remerging Asian geopolitics.
The new government in India starts on the back of quite a few gains, which seem to have consolidated its regional maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Early in his last term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi significantly visited three important Indian Ocean countries, the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka, in 2015. In the following year, he visited Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya, four littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. Besides these, in the last five years India has partly undone the damage to relations with its critical IOR neighbor, the Maldives; ties had suffered under the previous pro-China government in Male under Abdulla Yameen. As for strategic steps in the IOR, securing port access in Duqm, Oman for military use; India’s decision to develop its maiden deep-sea port in Indonesia’s Sabang; furthering talks for a possible military base at Assumption Island in the Seychelles; and securing logistics agreements with the U.S., France, and Singapore have been critical decisions for consolidating India’s regional naval presence as well as deterring external power dominance.
Modi’s decision to visit the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country, on his first visit to any country in his second term ties in with India’s desire to consolidate its Indian Ocean vision. The new government’s focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — prioritizing relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand — underscores New Delhi’s maritime vision in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific. Going forward, India’s regional consolidation in the Indian Ocean will depend on at least four factors: steps taken to harness the potential of the country’s coastlines and oceans to power a blue economy; the speed and efficiency with which its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) is implemented; robust maritime diplomacy with the countries of the IOR, invoking the right spirit of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR); and effective, expansive partnership with external powers of the region.
With its blue economy focus, India intends to promote smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the Indian Ocean region’s maritime economic activities. The effort is being led by the Indian Ocean Rim Association and includes a spectrum of issues including fisheries, aquaculture, seafood products, seaport and shipping, maritime connectivity, port management and operations, marine spatial planning, ocean forecasting, blue carbon, and renewable energy.
On the security front, the MCPP is a grand regional plan to bolster India’s operational capabilities by inducting new warships, submarines, and aircraft besides enhancing New Delhi’s influence in the strategic maritime zones. It aims at a comprehensive enhancement of naval capabilities by inducting 200 ships, 500 aircraft, and 24 attack submarines (compared to India’s current levels of just over 130 ships, 220 aircraft, and 15 submarines). Amid slow inductions, procurement clearance delays, and bureaucratic hurdles, however, there is still a long way to go before realizing the Indian Navy’s MCPP. Beyond just the elements of hard power, a lot will depend on how the Indian Navy will assimilate future technologies into its operational criteria, especially big data analytics and artificial intelligence to deal with a rapidly changing battle space.
Diplomatically, India’s SAGAR approach remains limited to a grand vision that ties India’s IOR aspirations with those of the Indo-Pacific. Littoral countries of the IOR, including those in Southeast Asia, are keen to see India’s maritime vision translate into constructive leadership that not only looks beyond India’s immediate regional interests and great power politics but also provides an alternative to investment strategies led by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Although the Indo-Pacific vision, in its emphasis on ASEAN centrality together with its focus on the African coast, does underscore India’s SAGAR spirit, a lot remains to be done on in the area of security cooperation with India’s maritime neighbors and assisting them in building their maritime security capabilities.
Finally, a consequential aspect of India’s emerging regional maritime strategy is the way its partnerships with external powers in the IOR are shaping up. The role of external powers has become critical to the evolving maritime order in the IOR. The region had witnessed great power competition during the Cold War and continues to see competitive coexistence, if not outright rivalry, among major players. However, as opposed to the Cold War, smaller nations have gained strategic importance due to their positioning, leading to a subtle one-upmanship among competing powers for strategic leverage. While China’s BRI has weaved together a host of countries along crucial nodes in the IOR, generating unprecedented debt influence in countries like the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, other external powers like Australia, France, Japan , the U.K., and the U.S. have sought to repurpose their strategic presence in the IOR to counter any domination by China. Within this mix, India continues to play it safe. While its logistics agreements with France and the United States potentially give it access to important ports like Djibouti near the horn of Africa, Reunion Islands near Madagascar, and Diego Garcia in southern Indian Ocean — beside other benefits like joint training and refueling with strategic partner navies — India continues to practice strategic ambivalence in the Indian Ocean. This is more evident in its Indo-Pacific strategy than anywhere else. India continues to term its strategy in the Indo-Pacific as “inclusive,” without defining the limits of inclusivity. Does it include China? To be sure, India has taken subtle steps not to antagonize China in this part of the world. For instance, it continues to keep Australia out of the Malabar series of naval exercises, which already includes Japan and the United States. India has also pussyfooted on its Quad policies, clearly negating any need for security polarization in the Indo-Pacific. Whether this approach needs to change will depend on how India consolidates its Indian Ocean strategy going forward.
However, the single outstanding challenge for India’s new government will be to distinguish its maritime vision from that of its leading strategic partner in the region, the United States. While India continues to perceive the Indo-Pacific as extending from the Persian Gulf to ASEAN countries and Japan in the east, there is increasing pressure from Washington to clip the Persian Gulf out of that vision through sanctions on India’s energy imports from Iran. Although the Indian government stopped oil imports from Iran amidst political uncertainty in New Delhi, the Modi government has hinted at plans to resume purchases of Iranian oil, skirting U.S. sanctions. Besides enunciating the gravity of India’s dependence on oil imports, the decision to flout U.S. sanctions is telling of a subtle line of difference that New Delhi has drawn while constructing its own Indo-Pacific vision. India’s mission-based deployments have brought the Gulf region under the direct strategic focus of its Navy. In the same regard, the P8I surveillance planes of Indian Navy have been carrying out anti-piracy patrol sorties in Salalah in the Gulf of Aden and other piracy prone areas.
On its eastern seaboard, India continues to cooperate with the Quad countries, having just concluded a meeting in Bangkok between officials of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, who held consultations on their collective efforts for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. As New Delhi continues to search for balance between its “Act East” and “Look West” visions, the consolidation of its IOR vision will be crucial for straddling its two subtly variant visions for the two ends of the Indo-Pacific seaboard.
Vivek Mishra is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata.