Competition in the Indo-Pacific is heating up and China is challenging India’s historical dominance in the Indian Ocean region. Chinese submarines have been spotted in the Indian Ocean and recently, a Chinese research vessel had to be expelled from India’s exclusive economic zone.
It is therefore crucial for India to finally walk the talk on its self-declared role as a net security provider in the Indian ocean region or see its influence steadily wane. Nonetheless, it does seem like India is finally gearing up for this challenge. Enhanced defense cooperation and partnerships between India and other Indo-Pacific nations suggest that New Delhi is seeking to strengthen its foothold and expand its operational reach in the region.
India has emphasized that its idea of Indo-Pacific stands for a free, open, and inclusive region — one that includes all nations within this geography as well as others beyond with a stake in it. India’s External Affairs Minister recently laid out his case for why India should stitch new partnerships based on common interests rather than ideological constructs. He further outlined the geographic expanse of the Indo-Pacific – from the east coast of Africa to the island nations in the Pacific Ocean and everything else in between, including the Middle East, Arabian Sea, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.
Indian partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region can be broadly classified into three groups: the Quad, ASEAN, and Western Indian Ocean.
The Quad refers to an ad hoc group including Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that facilitates informal discussions on areas of mutual cooperation in the region. India has historically resisted calls to upgrade the level of Quad consultations to allay Chinese fears. China perceives Quad as an anti-China group that seeks to contain its rise. It is therefore interesting that Quad countries met at the ministerial level for the first time in September 2019, signaling a shift in India’s accommodative stance towards China. In another significant departure from the past, India may also invite Australia to participate in the annual Malabar Exercises in 2020, which are trilateral naval exercises involving the United States, Japan, and India. China had protested strongly when Australia participated in Malabar Exercises in 2007.
Bilateral strategic and defense relationships between India and the Quad countries have witnessed increased action. India and the United States conducted their first-ever tri-service military exercises in November 2019, improving defense cooperation between them. India also operationalized a mutual support logistics agreement with the United States that provides both countries reciprocal access to each other’s military bases in the region. Similar agreements with Japan and Australia are expected to be signed within the next year. Furthermore, India has institutionalized a bilateral “2+2” mechanism with the United States, and Japan that involves discussions between their respective defense and foreign ministers. India has a similar “2+2” mechanism with Australia at the secretary level.
Along with the Quad, India has also renewed its focus on enhancing its relationship with ASEAN countries. India has emphasized the centrality of ASEAN in its Indo-Pacific framework and India’s ‘Act East’ policy provides strategic direction to several initiatives aimed at increasing its cooperation with ASEAN members:
- India upgraded its bilateral relationship to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Vietnam in 2016 and with Indonesia in 2018.
- India conducted joint military exercises with ASEAN Plus nations in the field of humanitarian mine action and peacekeeping operations in 2018.
- India and Indonesia recently agreed on a plan of action to develop and manage the Sabang Port located close to the strategic Malacca Strait.
- India has concluded a logistics support agreement with Singapore and provided the city-state access to its missile testing facility in Odisha.
India has been trying to enhance its defense partnerships with its ASEAN partners as well. India sold Myanmar its first ever submarine and is in active negotiations to sell its BrahMos cruise missiles to the Philippines by next year. Several other ASEAN countries have also expressed interest in acquiring Brahmos cruise missiles, Aakash surface-to-air missiles and Indian light combat aircraft Tejas from India.
In addition to working with ASEAN, India has also begun to focus on its strategic partners in the Western Indian ocean. India has a growing defense relationship with France and has decided to conduct joint patrols in the Indian ocean. India has also operationalized a mutual support logistics agreement with France that would allow it to access French military bases in Djibouti, UAE, and French Réunion. Furthermore, India has been interested in building a naval facility in Seychelles’ Assumption Island and entered into a bilateral agreement for the same in 2018, but the plan has faced some local resistance due to militarization fears. It is noteworthy that an ex-army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag (Retd.), was appointed as Indian High Commissioner to Seychelles in 2019.
India also upgraded its relationship with the United Arab Emirates to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and both nations held their first ever joint naval exercises in 2018. In addition, India conducted its maiden military drills focusing on demining and peacekeeping operations with 17 African countries in March 2019. India is also expected to conduct its first joint naval drills with Saudi Arabia in 2020.
In addition to building bilateral relationships in the region, India is also enhancing its own capabilities to extend its operational reach in the Indian Ocean. India is upgrading its Coastal Surveillance Network which is a chain of radars that provide comprehensive live monitoring of ship movements in the Indian ocean region and connect Indian radars to similar systems in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. In addition, the Indian Navy recently launched its Information Fusion Centre (IFC) that allows sharing of information on vessels of interest with other friendly nations. India is also slated to host its biggest ever multilateral naval exercise near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Exercise Milan, in March next year. About 41 Indo-Pacific nations have been invited, with a notable exception of China.
India’s vision of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific is praiseworthy, but it can only be taken seriously if India shows initiative and resolve to walk the talk. After years of being lethargic in action and being unsure about its vision for the Indo-Pacific, India seems to be finally getting ready to be the net security provider in the Indian ocean – in real terms.
Saurabh Todi is a graduate student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and Graduate Research Assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.