India’s new role in the Indian Ocean


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THE Indian Ocean is back in fashion in the international geopolitical discourse. As a major source of raw materials, the home to some of the world’s most volatile regions, the incubator of violent extremism, the main theatre for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the location for a large number of failed and failing states, the littoral’s importance for the global economy and great power relations has never been in doubt. The current strategic excitement about the Indian Ocean is similar to the one more than four decades ago when Great Britain announced the withdrawal of its forces from the East of the Suez. Then and now, the big question is about the meaning and consequences of a power transition in the Indian Ocean.

In the late 1960s, there was no doubt on who might replace Great Britain as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. The only issue then was how the United States would organize itself to manage the affairs of the Indian Ocean. Some of us in the newly independent nations of the littoral, quite innocent those days, had rejected the very notion of a power vacuum. We had insisted that a collective security mechanism would be preferable to the replacement of one hegemonic power by another. In spite of our preferences, the baton passed from London to Washington. The change of guard four and a half decades ago was a relatively smooth one for it shifted the burden of securing the Indian Ocean from one Anglo-Saxon power to another. The current power transition could take longer and be hobbled by great uncertainty.

Changes in the distribution of power, historians hold, are the main source of systemic conflict in world politics. The rise of new powers and the decline of the old sets up the context for destabilizing struggles for rebalancing the world. Either preventing the power transition from one great power to another or facilitating it involves much bloodletting.

One of the big debates in international politics today is whether we are on the cusp of a power transition in the Indian Ocean, the Asia Pacific and the world at large. Some argue that the relative decline of the United States is inevitable and a reorganization of the balance of power in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is necessary amidst the rise of China and the emergence of India. Others argue that structural change in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean may be inevitable, but not imminent. They insist that the United States will remain the pre-eminent power in the world and in our own littoral.


Either way there is no denying the new imperatives for some structural adjustment in the region amidst the unfolding change in the regional and global distribution of power. For China is about to become the second largest economy in the world. India is inching its way to become the third largest in the next couple of decades, if not earlier. The rapid accretion of economic power means Beijing and Delhi will be able to devote a part of it to acquiring a stronger military muscle. For a long time to come China and India will be countries with low per capita incomes. Yet given the large size of their population, Beijing and Delhi can become major military powers by spending a small portion of their GDP on defence in a sustained and purposeful manner. Put another way, China and India can become powerful without being rich in the traditional per capita sense. Despite their many limitations, the rise of China and India is bound to have a lasting effect on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. Three themes stand out.

First, an increase in the economic mass of China and India will intensify their gravitational pull and most certainly reconfigure the geopolitical space in the littoral of the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific. This would mean a restructuring of the relationships among major powers and regional actors. The most important ‘strategic triangle’ in our littoral and the maritime world will be that between the United States, China and India. While other major powers like Russia, Japan, France and medium powers like Korea, Indonesia, Australia and Iran, to name a few, will indeed have a bearing on the maritime structures of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, it is the triangular dynamic between Washington, Beijing and Delhi that will be the most consequential.

There are many ways in which the triangular relationship could unfold. Some Americans see the importance of accommodating the rise of China through the construction of a condominium; some others see India as a natural balancer against China’s rise. Yet other Americans argue that Washington must balance against both Beijing and Delhi. Some in Beijing worry that India’s naval power, acting in collaboration with the United States and Japan, could hit at the vital maritime interests of China. There are others in Beijing who speculate that the rise of Indian naval power is a threat to the United States rather than to China. Delhi is itself quite coy about identifying the hierarchy of its threats. Standing with Chinese leaders, we talk about the promotion of a multi-polar world; shaking hands with the Americans, we proclaim a natural alliance with the United States.


Second, the logic of globalization and trade means China and India are today more reliant on the seas than ever before in their history. Nearly 90 per cent of world trade in commodities and goods continues to flow by the seas. China’s per capita income today is around 4000 USD and India’s in the region of 1200. As their per capita incomes continue to grow rapidly, it is not difficult to see that the scale and scope of Chinese and Indian interaction with the rest of the world will be breathtaking. The more integrated China and India become with the world economy, greater are their stakes at sea. If oceans are the lifelines for the economic well-being of nearly two and a half billion people, Beijing and Delhi are bound to invest heavily – in diplomatic and military terms – in the management of the order in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Third, unlike in the past when China and India emphasized their autarky, their growing interdependence with the rest of the world now demands more supple and complex military strategies to realize their transformed national interests. As the most versatile of the military instruments, the navies will become increasingly weighty in the strategic calculus of China and India. Both Beijing and Delhi have begun to increase the share of resources devoted to their navies. This would mean a steady expansion of the size and quality of Chinese and Indian naval forces. It is also clear that both Beijing and Delhi will move towards building blue water navies. That Chinese and Indian security interests go beyond the local and regional is underlined by the fact that the economic prospects of their large populations are dependent on access to vital natural resources and markets in distant lands. Powerful blue water navies, then, become inevitable adjuncts to the globalizing economies of China and India.

That brings us to the kind of new challenges that India might face as it become a major power with significant maritime interests and substantive naval capabilities. The emphasis here is not on the technical details of India’s maritime strategy. Instead, the focus is on the difficult policy transitions that India has to complete. This involves the resolution of tensions between the old principles that have been held dear by three generations of Indians and the new imperatives that confront Delhi’s decision makers.


Most analysts of Indian foreign and security policy, whether at home or abroad, would argue that the organizing principle of India’s international relations is the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’. But how credible is the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ at a time when the Indian economy is globalizing and is becoming one of the world’s largest? Just as the mantra of ‘self-reliance’ is no longer a hallowed concept in our economic strategy, ‘autonomy’ can no longer be the organizing principle of our foreign and security policy.

Today India’s economic growth and prosperity are tied very deeply to resources and markets outside its borders. As a result, India’s own security perimeter has widened rapidly and its interests are more widely dispersed around the world. Autonomy is for weak powers who are trying to insulate themselves from the regimen defined for them by the great powers. For many decades, India has seen itself as a weak developing state that must protect its territory, interests and freedom of choice from being trampled upon by the great powers. If India itself were to emerge as a great power, it is not impossible to see that Delhi’s task will be to contribute to the management of the international order and not seeking autonomy from it.

The mental leap from being a ‘rule-taker’ to a ‘rule-maker’ will not come easily to Delhi’s decision makers. But the international pressure on India to take a larger role in the region and the world will be relentless. As in the case of China, so in the case of India, the compulsion will be to act as a ‘stakeholder’ rather than a ‘free rider’. This will be especially true of the maritime domain where the weight of growing naval power is now consequential for the ordering of the security complexes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.


Since independence, India’s traditional impulse was to protect its own territory and the waters around it. The Partition of the subcontinent and the creation of new borders made internal conflict in the subcontinent a perennial one; the emergence of China as a new land neighbour after its control of Tibet added to India’s security burdens. If India’s land forces were weighed down by the defence of its borders, India’s naval strategy too was guided by the imperative of protecting the territorial waters and its large exclusive economic zone. As the logic of economic globalization unfolded over the last two decades, the Indian naval leadership began to invent a new maritime strategy that is in tune with its new circumstances.


Not surprisingly since the late 1990s, the two prime ministers we have had – Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh – repeatedly underlined the expanded geographic scope of India’s maritime interests. The phrases from ‘Aden to Malacca’ or ‘the Suez to the South China Sea’ were re-injected into the national security discourse. That this is not an empty talk is reflected in the operations of the Indian Navy that has frequently shown the Tricolour in waters as far apart as the North Atlantic and the South Pacific and from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. More importantly, anti-piracy activity in the Gulf of Aden (since 2008) and relief operations in the Mediterranean (2006) and the Indian Ocean (2004-05) have underlined the growing capacity of the Indian Navy and the new political will in Delhi to act far from its shores.

Like India, China too is following the logic of what it calls ‘far sea defence’. The difference, however, is in the level of political and policy commitment to the construction of a maritime grand strategy. In China, President Hu Jintao underscored the relationship between Beijing’s expanding global interests and the ‘historic missions’ of the PLA Navy amidst China’s rise on the world stage.


What is missing in Delhi is that passion for maritime strategy among its political leadership and the business-as-usual approach by the bureaucratic leadership of the government. For example, building a blue water navy needs a policy framework to expand capabilities for design, development and production of naval equipment. Unlike China which has dramatically expanded the indigenous naval production base, India is yet to promote a sustainable one. Successful power projection also depends on reorienting the armed forces to develop expeditionary capabilities.

Despite two centuries of expeditionary operations under the Raj and half a century of international peacekeeping operations, the word ‘expeditionary’ remains a taboo in Delhi’s discourse. The notion of ‘power projection’ continues to sit uneasily with our political classes who feel more comfortable with the old verities of third worldism. Power projection also needs a more vigorous military diplomacy that can reinforce the navy’s capability to operate far from our shores. This would mean creation of arrangements for friendly ports and turnaround facilities in other nations that will increase the range, flexibility and sustainability of Indian naval operations.

No great power has built a blue water navy capable of projecting force without physical access and political arrangements for ‘forward presence’. Having long rejected ‘foreign bases’ in the Indian Ocean, it is somewhat discomforting for our political and strategic communities to even contemplate the new imperatives. The proposition that China is building a ‘string of pearls’ along vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean has had the merit of forcing open a whole new debate. Some analysts outside India are beginning to talk, somewhat prematurely, of a ‘necklace of diamonds’ emerging in India’s own plans for power projection.

The idea of such a necklace is not new. Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who remains an inspiration for Indian naval thinking, emphasized the need for a ring of bases in the Indian Ocean to secure the nation. It is not clear if there is the political will and bureaucratic capacity in Delhi today to think clearly about the logic of power projection and the imperatives of forward presence.


The idea that India must look beyond its own security and provide it to others is beginning to re-emerge in Delhi. From the late 18th century to the mid-20th, it was British power radiating, first out of Calcutta and then Delhi that kept peace in the Indian Ocean. It was commonplace then to call the Indian Ocean a British lake. Although Britain was the sole superpower then, it could not have exercised hegemony without the extraordinary resources of an undivided subcontinent and its geographical location at the heart of the Indian Ocean. In the decades after independence, India abandoned this tradition and adopted military isolationism as it turned inward economically and coped with the pressures for territorial defence.

Despite the division of the subcontinent, India did retain a measure of the past legacy in terms of its ability to contribute troops to international peacekeeping under the auspices of the United Nations. While India’s territorial conflicts with its neighbours have not disappeared, the nuclearization of the subcontinent has muted them into very different tensions, especially at the sub-conventional level. As India’s economic power and military prowess grow, it is but natural that other powers have begun to see Delhi as a ‘net security provider in the Indian Ocean.’


But is the Indian political and bureaucratic leadership capable of internalizing the notion of India becoming a security provider? The Indian Naval Headquarters has begun to emphasize the importance of assisting the weaker states of the Indian Ocean littoral in building their own capacities. As a result we have seen the navy provide training, advisers, and equipment to some of the smaller countries in the Indian Ocean. Whether it was helping Mauritius operate a coast guard, strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to control its waters, or improving the ability of Mozambique, Madagascar and Maldives to monitor their maritime domain, India has taken a number of steps. This somewhat ad hoc policy has included the recent transfer of ships to Seychelles, Maldives and Mauritius.

To realize its true potential as a security provider in the Indian Ocean, Delhi needs to develop a comprehensive programme for security assistance. This involves the development of a range of policy instruments including transfer of arms, financial resources and production capacities to match the growing demand for military cooperation with India, and devising frameworks for intelligence sharing, and stationing of Indian military personnel in significant numbers.

This, in turn, calls for the national security apex to bring synergy and coordination to the activities of the navy, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Delhi’s failure to respond to the demands for maritime cooperation will result in our neighbours and friends turning to someone else. We saw that happen in Sri Lanka. When Delhi slept over Colombo’s invitation to build a new port at Hambantota, China stepped in. That brings us back to the notion of a ‘power vacuum’ that we used to reject so vehemently. While we have begun to recognize its meaning now, Delhi is still some distance away from fully internalizing its implications for our national security.


After it escorted the 1000th ship to safety from pirates in the Gulf of Aden last month, the Indian Navy reaffirmed its commitment to secure the maritime commons in the Indian Ocean in cooperation with other major naval powers. The ‘global commons’ refers to various realms – like oceans, air, outer space and cyber-space – that are not under the control of any one state but are critical for the functioning of contemporary international life. The commons are a consequence of technological evolution and form the connective tissues of our globalized world.

The dominant powers of each age had undertaken the responsibility to keep the maritime commons open for use by all and contribute to the maintenance of good order at sea. The new emphasis on the protection of the commons underlines two important evolutions in India’s maritime thinking. One is that as a rising naval power, India is taking a much broader view of its responsibility than the mere pursuit of its narrowly defined national interests. Contributing to the public goods – such as keeping the sea lines of communication open – has become one of the stated objectives of the Indian Navy.

The other is the shift away from the territorial approach to the maritime commons that India had taken in the past. When the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was being drafted in the 1970s, India sided with those seeking to extend the territorial jurisdiction of the coastal states. India, like many other developing states sought to restrict the rights of great powers to conduct naval operations near their waters. Today as a maritime power in the making, India needs open seas rather than waters that are enclosed in the name of national sovereignty. Given the rapid expansion of our security perimeter and the need to protect our vital interests far from the national shores, we can ill afford constraints on the mobility of our naval forces in the maritime commons. No wonder the 2007 maritime military strategy of the Indian Navy is now titled ‘freedom to use the seas’. Spoken in the true tradition of maritime powers!

India’s new non-territorial conception of the seas stands in contrast to the maritime philosophy of China. Beijing is not only asserting its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea but has declared that these waters which connect the Indian Ocean to the Pacific form a ‘core national interest’ of China. The PLA Navy is also focused on developing anti-access and area-denial strategies that could constrain the operations of the United States and other maritime powers like India. One would presume at some point in the future, Chinese naval strategists would come to appreciate, much like India, the importance of keeping the maritime commons open. For both China and India will need the freedom to use the seas to sustain their rapidly globalizing economies.


One enduring feature of Indian maritime thinking has been the opposition to the presence of extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian debate that followed the announcement of the East of Suez policy by Great Britain in 1967, the Indian strategic community rallied around Sri Lanka’s proposal for making the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOZP). Arguing that the great power naval presence in the Indian Ocean will exacerbate regional insecurity, Delhi opposed the entry of the United States and Russia into the Indian Ocean after the British withdrawal.


India’s chattering classes believed in the moral superiority of their position in favour of a collective security mechanism in the Indian Ocean. Yet, India’s campaign for an IOZP was seen by some as part of the Soviet propaganda against the West and an attempt to limit the naval options of the United States. Meanwhile within the littoral states, many of whom were dependent on either the United States or the Soviet Union had little commitment to the notion of collective security. India’s own neighbours including Pakistan projected India’s support to the IOZP and demand for the withdrawal of ‘extra-regional navies’ as a thinly disguised plot to make the Indian Ocean ‘India’s Ocean’.

India’s lack of realism was unsustainable after the end of the Cold War two decades ago. Along with its economic reforms, India began to engage all great powers, including the United States, which had a presence in the Indian Ocean. Yet, when India took the initiative for convening the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in 2008, it insisted that the membership must be limited to ‘regional’ states of the littoral. India’s support for the IOZP in the 1970s was probably rooted in the fear about the United States (recall 1971 and the Enterprise incident!) and opposition to Washington’s alliances with China and Pakistan. India’s rejection of ‘extra-regional’ powers in the current phase appears to be a reflection of Delhi’s concerns about the new Chinese profile in the Indian Ocean. As a rising maritime power, India must now begin to move away from the unproductive divide it has set up between the ‘regional’ and the ‘extra-regional’.

For one, India itself has often becomes a target of these artificial divisions. For example in the Malacca Straits, the theme of ‘regional versus extra-regional’ is playing itself out often to India’s disadvantage. Nor would India want to be treated as an extra-regional power in the western Pacific where it has significant interests. While the very definition of a region means drawing the line somewhere, it is reasonable to suggest that no regional mechanism will work if it is seen as keeping out an interested great power. From a practical perspective, then, India cannot either wish away the extra-regional presence of the United States or prevent the significant rise in Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Instead of proclaiming a Monroe Doctrine that it can’t enforce, India must find a way to deal with the reality of American and Chinese interests and presence in the Indian Ocean.


This is not the moment to address the questions that follow from this proposition. Should India balance either the U.S. or China or both of them? Can Delhi work with Washington and Beijing to create a great power concert for the Indian Ocean? Or is it possible to construct a collective security framework for the waters along the littorals of Asia, Africa and the Oceania? Whatever the eventual course that India might adopt, Delhi needs much strategic imagination to deal with the consequences of its own rise and the changing geopolitics of the Indian Ocean amidst the reordering of the global power hierarchy.