Altered interests of nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) are rapidly transforming the region into an arena of reoriented strategic disposition for the world’s major powers like the US, France, Russia and the UK, and an area of emerging interest for China, Australia and Japan. India remains a peninsular witness since the Cold War to this pivotal shift in the region’s importance, and its recent policy reformulations vis-à-vis the IOR and the larger Indo-Pacific reflects that. Challenges remain in this important maritime domain of Asian geopolitics.
The Modi government starts on the back of quite a few gains in its regional maritime strategy in the IOR. Early in his first term, PM Modi had significantly visited three important Indian Ocean countries — Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka — in 2015. In the following year, he visited Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya, four littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. Besides these, in the last five years, India has partly undone the damage to goodwill with Maldives that had suffered under the erstwhile pro-China government in Male under Abdulla Yameen.
As for strategic steps in the IOR, securing port access in Duqm, Oman, for military use, the decision to develop a deep sea port in Indonesia’s Sabang, furthering talks for a possible military base at Assumption Island in Seychelles, and logistics agreements with the US, France and Singapore were critical decisions for consolidating India’s naval presence and deterring bids for external power dominance.
Going forward, India’s consolidation in the IOR will depend on at least four factors — steps taken to harness the potential of the country’s coastlines and oceans to power a blue economy; the speed and efficiency with which its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) is implemented; a robust maritime diplomacy with IOR countries, invoking the spirit of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR); and an effective and expansive partnership in the region with friendly external powers.
With its ‘blue economy’ focus, India intends to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the IOR’s maritime economic activities. The effort is being led by the Indian Ocean Rim Association and includes a spectrum of issues including fisheries, aquaculture, seafood products, seaport and shipping, maritime connectivity, port management and operations, marine spatial planning, ocean forecasting, blue carbon and renewable energy.
The MCPP is a grand regional plan to bolster its operational capabilities by inducting new warships, submarines and aircraft, enhancing its influence in the strategic maritime zones. It aims at a comprehensive enhancement of naval capabilities by inducting 200 ships, 500 aircraft and 24 attack submarines from the current 130 ships, 220 aircraft and 15 submarines. Amidst slow induction, procurement clearance and bureaucratic hurdles, it is still a long way to realising the MCPP. Beyond the elements of hard power, a lot will depend on how the Indian Navy will assimilate future technologies into its operational criteria to deal with a rapidly changing battlespace.
Furthermore, India’s SAGAR approach remains limited to a grand vision that ties India’s IOR aspirations with that of the Indo-Pacific. Littoral countries of the IOR, including those in Southeast Asia, are keen to see it translate into constructive leadership which not only looks beyond its immediate regional interests and great power politics but also provides alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although the Indo-Pacific vision in its emphasis on ASEAN-centrality, together with its focus on the African coast, does underscore India’s SAGAR spirit, a lot remains to be done on security cooperation with its maritime neighbours and assisting them to build their capabilities.
Finally, a consequential aspect of India’s emerging regional maritime strategy is the way its partnerships with external powers in the IOR are shaping up. The role of external powers has become critical to the evolving maritime order in the IOR. The region had witnessed great power competition during the Cold War and continues to see competitive co-existence, if not outright rivalry, among the major powers.
However, as opposed to the Cold War era, smaller nations have gained strategic importance due to their positioning, leading to a subtle one-upmanship among competing powers for strategic leverage. While China’s BRI has woven together many countries along crucial nodes in the IOR, generating unprecedented debt influence in countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, other external powers like Australia, France, Japan , the UK and the US have sought to repurpose their strategic presence in the IOR to counter domination by China.
In this mix, India continues to play safe. While its logistics agreements with France and the US potentially give it access to important ports like Djibouti near the horn of Africa, Reunion Islands near Madagascar and the US’ Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean — besides other benefits like joint training and refuelling with strategic partner navies — India continues to practice strategic ambivalence in the Indian Ocean. This is more evident in its Indo-Pacific strategy than anywhere else.
India continues to term its strategy in the Indo-Pacific as ‘inclusive’, without defining the limits of inclusivity. Does it include China? To be sure, India has taken subtle steps not to antagonise China in this part of the world. For instance, it continues to keep Australia out of the Malabar series of naval exercises that includes Japan and the US. India has also been pussyfooting on its Quad policies, clearly negating any need for security polarisation in the Indo-Pacific. Whether this approach needs to change will depend on how India consolidates its Indian Ocean strategy going forward.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Maldives on his first foreign trip of his second term tied in with India’s desire to consolidate its Indian Ocean vision.
(The writer is Assistant Professor of International Relations, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata)