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India as a Net Security Provider in the Indo-Pacific: Ambitious But Attainable

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India as a Net Security Provider in the Indo-Pacific: Ambitious But Attainable

India can build on its success in becoming a dominant and reliable security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.

India as a Net Security Provider in the Indo-Pacific: Ambitious But Attainable

In this handout photo from the Indian Navy, an Indian destroyer assists the Palau-flagged vessel MV Islander, which caught fire after a suspected drone attack, in the Gulf of Aden, Feb. 22, 2024.

Credit: Indian Navy

In March 2024, the Indian Navy once again successfully intervened in a piracy incident in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), rescuing the crew of a hijacked fishing vessel. The crew, comprising 23 Pakistani nationals, were safely rescued, which is an interesting development considering the downfall in India-Pakistan ties in recent years.

In early January 2024, the Indian Navy, in coordination with Seychelles and Sri Lanka, rescued a hijacked Sri Lankan fishing vessel. Elite commandos also conducted missions freeing the Bulgarian-owned vessel MV Ruen that had been hijacked by Somalian pirates and scaring off the pirates that boarded the Lila Norfolk, a Liberian flagged carrier, in January. In early March, the Indian Navy rescued Filipino seafarers aboard the MV True Confidence and provided them critical care after the merchant ship sustained an attack by a Houthi missile strike while sailing the Gulf of Aden.

All told, since December 2023, the Indian Navy has responded to 18 such incidents in the IOR and has played a vital role as the “first responder” and “preferred security partner” in emergency situations in the Indian Ocean. Also since December, New Delhi has committed over 5,000 personnel and over 20 ships to the area, quietly earning the title of the biggest national naval deployment in the region.

Looking back, the Indian Navy’s response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami marked a significant moment in India’s history. Despite being a victim of the catastrophe, India launched substantial relief efforts toward Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia, showcasing its capability and readiness in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These efforts facilitated India’s inclusion in a core relief group alongside the United States, Japan, and Australia.

The operations underscored the strategic utility and humanitarian potential of naval assets, which was also evident in subsequent missions, including relief operations during Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, the provision of vital water supplies to the Maldives in 2014, and the efforts to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that mysteriously disappeared in 2014.

Such endeavors have not only enhanced India’s diplomatic standing but also demonstrated its commitment and capability as a significant security provider in the region, culminating in leadership roles within international forums like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Projects under the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative highlight India’s commitment to a cooperative regional approach.

India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, while inaugurating a new building at the Naval War College in Goa last month, stated that the Indian Navy is ensuring that no country with overwhelming economic and military power is able to assert dominance over other nations in the IOR or threaten their sovereignty. India is ensuring that all the neighboring countries of the Indian Ocean should be helped in protecting their autonomy and sovereignty, he said. Singh highlighted India’s commitment to supporting neighboring countries, providing full assistance to the littoral countries and preventing any hegemonic dominance in the region.

Through these actions, India has affirmed its position as a reliable net security provider in addressing regional crises and promoting cooperation among neighboring countries. This transition aligns with India’s broader strategic objectives, aiming to ensure regional stability, foster economic development, and counterbalance the influence of other regional powers. Considering India’s success in becoming a dominant and reliable security provider in the IOR, could India advance itself to become a net security provider in the wider Indo-Pacific region?

India’s strategic position and its emerging status as a significant player in the Indo-Pacific, coupled with its evolving naval policy and maritime strategy, and commitment to ensuring regional stability, fostering economic growth, and promoting navigational freedoms, all work to New Delhi’s favor. The quest may be ambitious but not necessarily unattainable. Achieving this status will necessitate a multifaceted approach that includes military capacity, diplomatic competence, financial power, and technological innovation.

India’s key advantage in becoming a net security provider is its military and naval capabilities. The Indian Ocean is the Indian Navy’s backyard, and it plays a crucial role in ensuring the security of sea lines of communication. India can project power and deter potential threats by modernizing its naval forces and acquiring more blue-water assets such as aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and advanced surveillance systems. Collaboration with important partners on joint exercises (such as Malabar with the United States, Japan, and Australia), patrols, and information sharing improves collective security capabilities, resulting in a more stable maritime environment in the Indo-Pacific.

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is crucial for tracking, controlling, and responding to hazards in the broad Indo-Pacific region. To accomplish comprehensive MDA, India needs to invest in both space-based and aerial surveillance technology. This includes launching satellites for real-time monitoring, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for long-term surveillance, and incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) for risk assessment and analyzing trends. Enhanced cooperation with regional partners for the exchange of intel and data in real time may significantly boost the chances of MDA endeavors.

Security and economy are intrinsically linked in the Indo-Pacific area. Through efforts such as the Act East Policy, India may strengthen economic ties, invest in key infrastructure projects, and improve regional connectivity. Projects such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) – a collaborative vision between India and Japan to promote development, connectivity, and cooperation between Africa and Asia – demonstrate the prospects for coordinated economic development while also serving strategic objectives.

India’s role as a net security provider goes beyond the traditional security domains to encompass non-traditional security threats including piracy, terrorism, natural disasters, and climate change. Working with regional partners to strengthen capacity in disaster management, counterterrorism, and marine policing will enable India to strengthen its position as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific region. Initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) facilitate cooperation on several fronts, underscoring the significance of a comprehensive approach to regional security.

Moving forward, India must work toward establishing and strengthening partnerships and alliances in the Indian Ocean region as well as in the wider Indo-Pacific. Participating in multilateral forums such as the Quad, ASEAN Regional Forum, ADMM (ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting) Plus, IONS, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) allow India to influence the regional security architecture and push for a stronger rules-based maritime order. Strategic partnerships with countries such as the U.S., France, Japan, Australia, and major ASEAN members could provide mutual security benefits, promote technology transfer, and improve interoperability among armed forces. India’s emerging minilateral partnerships with France (India-France-Australia), and Japan (India-Japan-Australia) act as deterrence to common maritime threats while emphasizing India’s role as a regional stabilizer.

India’s rise as a global power and successes in the IOR signal India’s readiness to take up greater responsibility as a potential net security provider in the wider Indo-Pacific. However, with the evolving geopolitical landscape, the quest comes with challenges and opportunities. Building stronger naval capabilities for wider operations and creating a long-term coalition of like-minded countries are crucial in that regard.

As such, India’s strategy as a net security provider in the wider Indo-Pacific will revolve around its broader foreign policy and security objectives, reflecting its aspiration to play a pivotal role in shaping the regional order and ensuring an inclusive and peaceful Indo-Pacific region.