India’s maritime interests in the Indo-Pacific


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IN the first fifty years after its independence, India’s prime concerns lay in preserving its territorial integrity. Military preparedness was tied to the threat from the West and the North; counterinsurgency also became, de facto, an army responsibility. Things have changed greatly since then. India is much better prepared to cope with such threats, direct or otherwise. Even if there are spurts of violence, including those sponsored from across the borders, our ability to counter them has increased greatly. In this same period, economic growth has begun to occupy a much more central place in India’s concerns. Just as it has been the focus of China’s rise as a major Asian power in the last thirty years, sustained growth of its economy over the next several years is critical to India’s emergence as a credible nation. There are many constituents of such growth but two essential ingredients are security of energy and trade, both almost entirely dependent on our ability to ensure their safe movement at sea. Therefore, as India grows economically, security concerns at sea are becoming increasingly important.

By 2025 or so, three of the four largest economies in the world will be Asian entities. The Asean group of countries will not be far behind and those of Central Asia, given their present and potential resources of oil and gas, will grow in importance even as those of the Middle East remain major suppliers of energy. In East Asia, conflicting claims on ownership of island territories and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) between China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are potential points of instability. On a different note, most of the problem states, often referred to as ‘rogue, failing or failed’ by the Americans, are Asian entities, be they North Korea and Iran for their nuclear geopolitics or Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for internal instability, the last recognized globally as the epicentre of terrorism. At least in one country, Pakistan, there is a distinct possibility that non-state actors might be able to gain access to some nuclear capability. Finally, there are energy resources which provide sustenance to several major industrial powers, in Asia and beyond. This is a complex brew, much of it in the maritime domains of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean littorals.


The USA is an important player in the region. It has been so for long with substantial political and economic interests and it is unlikely that this position will change anytime soon. Rhetoric of pivoting or rebalancing towards Asia aside, the fact is that for decades after the end of World War II, two of the largest naval and air bases of the US were located in Philippines and one of its most powerful naval fleets continues to be based at Yokosuka in Japan. America’s annual defence expenditure exceeds that of the next fifty countries put together and its military and technological power is unlikely to be matched for several decades. Therefore, the USA will continue to be a major player in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future and nations like ours have to take this fact into account while shaping their strategies.

China, despite having a long history of being a continental power, is fast acquiring capabilities at sea. Its induction of an aircraft carrier along with increasingly assertive postures in the East and South China Seas is an indicator of how it views its future security interests; more such platforms are certain to follow. Its energy life-line running across the Indian Ocean would stand seriously exposed in the event of any hostilities and its efforts to help littorals set up port infrastructures has at least one unstated intent – their military use if and when required. At least some see its Maritime Silk Route Initiative and recent interfaces in Sri Lanka and Maldives as a first step in that direction.

Then, there is Japan. The Japanese Navy, or MSDF as it is called, has more capabilities than any other East Asian littoral, including China. Japan’s energy and trade lifelines stretch across the entire length of the Indo-Pacific and its declared defence posture of the last couple of years now identify the southern seas as an area of core interest with China as a possible adversary. We should expect to see a greater focus of attention towards its surrounding, even distant waters.

India itself is on the road to becoming a major Asian power. With sustained economic growth of over 7% per annum in the last decade despite diminished performance in the last few years, its GDP will overtake that of Japan by 2030 or so, making it the third largest global economy. It has one of the largest armies in the world and its navy and air force rank among the top six. It is a nuclear weapon state. The demographics of its large population, and its democratic ethos, add value to its overall power and its rise is not seen as threatening by others. Geography has also been kind to India. With long coastlines on both sides, open access to the sea and outlying island territories, the country sits astride the important North Indian Ocean shipping routes through which much of the Gulf oil and gas consigned to the Pacific must transit. It is the largest IOR littoral and its position, in the increasingly maritime Indo-Pacific geopolitics, cannot be underestimated.


If the Indo-Pacific is the focus of an emerging security environment, the importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) becomes readily apparent. Nearly half of global seaborne trade, energy topping that list, moves across its waters which host some of the most traversed sea routes. Several countries have vital energy interests in the region – Japan, China and France, being some of them; US imports are declining with the exploitation of shale oil but its geopolitical interests remain undiminished. There are resources in the seabed still to be explored. Not surprisingly, the IOR is a theatre of considerable strategic importance.

At the same time, there are vulnerabilities. All exits and entries out and into the IOR pass through very restricted waters; the Gulf of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel in the western part of the IO and the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits in the South East Asian archipelago fall in this category. Pirates of even limited means are able to attack hapless ships and rob or hijack them with relative ease, as was being done in the Malacca Strait until a few years ago and then with increased violence the hijacking of ships for large sums of money in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia since 2008. Even though the extent of this piracy has decreased in the last couple of years, it continues to remain an issue of serious concern to safe movement at sea.


India is one of the two largest countries in the region and, geographically located as it is, has responsibilities in ensuring security of the commons. In the globalized world of today, East Asia, South Asia, South East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East cannot, any more, be treated as compartments exclusive of one another. India, in particular, is impacted by developments in all of these sub-regions. While its traditional security concerns centre mainly on China and Pakistan, developments which will retard its economic growth or impinge upon internal security and stability are no less important. Tranquility in its immediate neighbourhood and even beyond is an essential prerequisite to the latter. India must also take note of the presence of external powers and their military forces in the IOR which has its own impact on the geopolitics of the theatre. The island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles, sitting astride the southern entries to the northern IOR, are equally important to our strategic concerns.

There is a more proximate dimension to India’s security interests that has acquired significance. The first of these is energy security which involves not just identifying sources but equally its safe movement and handling. The country imports 75% of its oil and gas annually and this figure will rise to over 80% in the next ten years. The number of tankers carrying these supplies to our ports annually is likely to increase from 4000 odd today to nearly 7000 by 2020. India also has offshore oil exploration and exploitation platforms on either coast spread across 50000 square kilometres and it is likely that this area may double in the next decade; platforms in these waters which process oil and gas are valuable assets which need to be safeguarded. A related concern is the security of seaborne trade. The country’s imports and exports have reached $800 billion already and may well touch $2 trillion by 2020. Almost all of this trade moves by sea, about half of it through the waters of the western Pacific, and any adverse effect on the safe movement of this trade will impact on economic growth.


India shares maritime boundaries not just with three South Asian neighbours but also with three nations of South East Asia – Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia; there is close proximity with a fourth, Malaysia. This has its own complexities in terms of poaching or other criminal activity, e.g. illegal movement of people. Smuggling of narcotics is another worrisome reality as it funds terrorism through procurement of illicit arms from the resources so generated. Terrorist organizations located in our neighbourhood have carried out some remarkably successful attacks at sea, one of them being the Al Qaeda attack on the American destroyer, USS Cole, in Aden, and on oil terminals and supporting vessels off the Basra offshore in Iraq. Explosives used in the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai were smuggled in by sea from Pakistan and landed at fishing villages on the west coast. The climax, of course, came with the very daring raid launched by sea on high profile targets in Mumbai on 26 November 2008. Such asymmetric attacks in which the initiative always rests with the attacker pose a serious threat as their impact is widespread.

Finally, there are the Asean and Gulf regions. Bilateral trade between the former and India is expected to cross $100 billion in 2015. As for the Gulf countries, they are not only the largest suppliers of energy but are also home to nearly six million Indian workers who sent back $30 billion in remittances to their home country in 2013. Both regions, separated by the Arabian Sea on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other, are therefore of great importance and instability in either will be detrimental to India’s interests. In the same way, tensions resulting from disputes in the South China Sea would be of concern to India given its joint energy exploration and sharing interests in Vietnam. In short, India’s maritime interests stretch from the Gulf on one side to the Southeast Asian waters and beyond; southwards they extend to the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles.


Pakistan and China have been in military conflict with India, the former as many as four times, and are the two countries which could pose a potential threat to India; no others are on the horizon. Even with these two, the probability that either of them may want to go to war is not high, though it cannot be ruled out. Pakistan may well find a short and sharp conflict advantageous in overall terms as it might serve to unite a country fast fragmenting under sectarian and ethnic pressures complemented by burgeoning fundamental Islamist forces. Till such time as the army remains in control in Pakistan, in particular of India related policy, this possibility must be considered real even though the ‘modus operandi’ of asymmetric operations launched through non-state actors, is seen to be giving more value for money with little risk of retaliation. It is, therefore, essential that India maintain a convincing military deterrent against Pakistan. At sea, our naval power is superior and needs to remain so.


China falls in a different category. Its reasons for initiating military operations against India, if that happens, will be largely strategic, to visibly establish its unchallenged dominance in Asia. It already has possession of that part of India it claims as its own in the western and central sectors of the boundary. In the eastern region, it has laid claim to Arunachal Pradesh and this could well be the excuse that might be used to initiate a future military conflict. It has built road and rail infrastructure right across the border which will facilitate speedy movement of troops and logistics; airfields have also been expanded. Events in Tibet following the demise of the Dalai Lama might also create some tension.

Nevertheless, in the last decade, despite some minor situations of confrontation, including the one during President Xi Jinping’s visit in September 2014, relations with China have been tranquil. Bilateral trade between the two countries, despite some slowdown in 2013, is nearing $70 billion, even if presently skewed to China’s advantage, making it India’s second largest trading partner. While it is necessary for both sides, particularly China, to rectify the mismatch in this trade, its continuing growth is a positive in the relationship. The two countries interact at many multilateral forums, e.g. BASIC, BRICS, EAS and at climate change and WTO negotiations. Meetings between leaders of the two countries over the last few years have been positive. An Indian warship was present at Qingdao at the 60th anniversary of the PLA Navy in April 2014. Maritime cooperation is the easiest and least problematic and will contribute in toning down the suspicion and deficit of trust that has plagued relations between the two countries.


At sea, China is modernizing its naval forces by building ships and submarines at a fast rate and the induction of another aircraft carrier by 2020 is likely. The urge to have and exploit maritime power as an adjunct of national power consistent with its growing stature is visible and it can be expected to seek a more comprehensive presence in the IOR with the proposed Maritime Silk Route being a step in that direction. However, sustained deployment and credible operations far from home is not easily achieved.

China is building ports in two South Asian countries and creating political space in a third; there is apprehension that facilities thus created might be made available by the hosts for military use. This will not be easy, even if the possibility cannot be ruled out, as nations are not comfortable having foreign forces and associated infrastructure on their soil. They have also to take into account the concerns of other countries, littoral as well as extra-regional. This notwithstanding, we must engage closely with those who are uncomfortable with foreign military bases in the IOR littoral. India is also not without its own influence in some of the neighbouring countries and this must be used proactively to prevent that eventuality.


With economic growth being a vital national interest and security of energy and trade being its two prime ingredients, safety of the IO commons has become critical. Piracy and maritime terrorism have become increasingly threatening to safe movement at sea in recent years and quite apart from safeguarding its own interests against both, India, as the largest and most capable regional maritime power, also has a responsibility in ensuring freedom of movement at sea. As highlighted earlier, entries and exits to and from the IO are dominated by restricted channels where pirates can operate with relative ease. Piracy requires sanctuaries ashore from where the pirates can make swift raids. Coastal villages in Indonesia provided them with these bases and with police authorities being either supportive or ineffective, piracy flourished in the Malacca Strait.

It is only after deterrent measures against the criminals were taken ashore that piracy could be controlled. Cooperative measures between the littoral countries viz. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand in surveillance of the waters have also contributed in neutralizing piracy. Safe movement of shipping in this very important water space is of vital national interest. Similar measures are needed to eradicate threats by pirates off the East Africa coast and in the Gulf of Aden. Faced with this threat to the safety of the commons, several countries have come together to patrol the affected waters as part of Task Force 151. India and China are not formally part of this force but coordinate their own presence with that of others to help counter this threat.

The world of merchant shipping is truly transnational. Ships are owned in one country but registered in another. Crews are mostly from many countries and the vessels carry cargo to dozens of ports. In this scenario, ‘stand alone’ capabilities are only of limited use and cooperation is essential. India has made an early beginning by concluding agreements with many countries to facilitate the required interaction. These are to promote cooperation in a non-traditional threat environment where the adversaries are pirates, terrorists, smugglers and the like. Without mutual trust and confidence which facilitate sharing of information, these new threats cannot be tackled. In the IOR, India must play the lead role in promoting cooperation at sea. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) for Heads of Navies, initiated by India in 2008, and followed by Oman in 2010 and South Africa in 2012, is a step in that direction. India also hosts Milan, a biennial gathering of ships from nations eastwards of India and this initiative should be replicated in the western seaboard. Cooperation with countries which have similar interests must be an essential prong of our maritime strategy.


India’s maritime security interests stretch across a broad spectrum which covers geo-strategic considerations arising from the country’s size and location, its energy and trade security, traditional threats posed by nation state adversaries, and those that are of a different but equally threatening kind. We must safeguard our interests across this wide spread. To this menu should be added the ability to respond to natural disasters which visit the Indo-Pacific region more often than they do elsewhere. A mix of capabilities and strategies, essentially maritime, is needed, supported by a comprehensive and networked information, intelligence and command and control mechanisms. There are both opportunities for cooperation as well as challenges to be faced.