According to Indian media reports, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh will host all the defense ministers of the Indian Ocean region on February 4, 2021. The meeting will take place during India’s biennial Aero India air show, to be held in Bangalore from February 3-5. The meeting comes against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward many of its neighbors, including India, and its growing military presence in the Indian Ocean region. Meanwhile, the conflict between India and China in Ladakh that started in the summer of 2020 is ongoing and there appears to be no resolution, as yet. There was fresh violence just last week in Sikkim, more than a thousand kilometers away from the initial flashpoint in Ladakh.
According to officials who spoke to the media, the defense ministers’ meeting, titled “Enhanced Peace, Security, and Cooperation in the Indian Ocean,” is meant to shore up “India’s commitment and continued engagement in the Indian Ocean both for defense diplomacy as also for economic prosperity through sustained engagement, dialogue, experience sharing and exchange of best practices.” The meeting, in addition, is an effort to bring about greater synergy to share resources and efforts among partners in the region. That India is hosting the meeting clearly reflects its intent to institutionalize its leadership role in the Indian Ocean region by calling for dialogue among like-minded partners in order to advance peace, security, and stability in the region.
For more than a decade, India has remained concerned about the growing Chinese military power. China’s creeping presence in the Indian Ocean has been a source of worry for New Delhi. Experts argue that China’s efforts at seeking greater influence in the Indian Ocean are not merely about challenging India’s strategic role in the region but also aimed at consolidating its own key role in the Indian Ocean and as a global maritime power. While the Indian Ocean is seen by New Delhi as India’s own backyard, the safety and security of sea lanes of communications (SLOCS) are vital to all global powers. These are lifelines for transportation of oil and gas and important trade corridors, making countries concerned about any possible disruptions. India has adapted itself quite well to the changing security contours of the region. In older Indian security conceptualizations, India would have been wary of speaking to others about securing the Indian Ocean. The Indira Gandhi approach of the 1970s, for instance, did not see any role for extra-regional powers. But, increasingly perturbed by Beijing’s growing influence and footprint, New Delhi is ready to embrace all forms of partnerships in Indian Ocean and in the broader Indo-Pacific.
The immediate imperative for India to convene a defense ministers meeting is possibly China’s growing activities in the Indian exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In January 2020, commenting on the Chinese naval presence, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said that New Delhi has been monitoring the Chinese research vessels and fishing boats that have been seen in the Indian Ocean, including in the Indian EEZ. Reportedly, in August 2020, amid the current conflict in Ladakh, the Chinese navy had sent a Yuan Wang class research vessel into the Indian Ocean. Government officials claim that there are around 600 Chinese fishing boats present in the Indian Ocean region every year from 2015 onward. While these numbers are concerning, a larger worry is Chinese research vessels possibly studying the features of the sea water, including currents, as well as surveying the Indian Ocean floor. Such data could be useful in improving Beijing’s submarine warfare capabilities.
China’s maritime outreach was boosted when it first started deploying warships to the Gulf of Aden as part of international anti-piracy efforts in 2008. Even though the threat of piracy has abated, China has continued to maintain its presence. In fact, only a few days ago, China sent out its 37th escort task force of the PLA Navy to the Gulf of Aden and waters off of Somalia. The 37th task force consisted of missile destroyer Changsha, guided-missile frigate Yulin, and comprehensive supply ship Honghu.
India worries that China’s naval presence is here to stay, and as a result New Delhi has to step up both military and diplomatic maneuvering to confront it. Thus, India has been beefing up its naval presence in the region, including through strengthened deployment of warships, submarines, and other naval assets in the region. However, India faces significant limitations in terms of its maritime capacity. This is one reason India has signed logistics agreements with a number of like-minded partners to help expand its naval presence beyond its immediate maritime neighborhood. The United States, France, and Australia are particularly significant in the Indian Ocean context. While these big naval powers are important, Darshana Baruah of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that smaller island nations such as Mauritius, Seychelles, and Madagascar should also be in India’s maritime security calculations. Sri Lanka and the Maldives also occupy critical importance both as South Asian and Indian Ocean neighbors.
While there are a few platforms such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in the Indian Ocean context for policy conversations and security dialogues, these do have some gaps. For instance, David Brewster says that though IORA is “the only pan-regional multilateral political grouping . . . it doesn’t include all Indian Ocean states in the IORA.” More importantly, with many minilaterals in the broader Indo-Pacific gaining traction, it might be worthwhile to start engagements on a smaller scale with like-minded partners rather than looking for “pan-regional” institutions. India being a resident naval power in the Indian Ocean, it already has the credentials to kick off a new minilateral for the Indian Ocean region.