The Indian Ocean Region: A Theatre of Opportunity

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is considered by India as a key strategic area for diplomatic and defence engagement. India’s accession as a ‘net security provider’ was an American thought brought forward in 2009, but one that gained traction when China began to assert itself in the region. Historically, India has been indifferent to its neighbourhood, evidenced by the lack of economic trade and partnerships within South Asia. The growing importance of the region and a changing security environment, however, has triggered India to transform her foreign policy objectives and take on leadership roles in the IOR. While India is keen to keep her commitments as a security provider to the region, the challenge remains to create confidence and strengthen bilateral ties with member nations.

A secure IOR is vital to India’s core interests so it comes as no surprise that India is referred to as ‘the inevitable centrifugal force’ in the region. For major powers, the Indian Ocean acts as a ‘rimland’ that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific and is thus, essential for meeting strategic interests. India’s capabilities are unmatched in the region. Having said this, India’s approach has been passive in the post-Cold War era, primarily due to a lack of interest in its neighbourhood and a lack of competition. The significance of the region has grown in the recent past with China’s economic and strategic dominance, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has made India wary of China’s influence in the region.

Presently, India manages a balancing act by exerting strategic influence in the region whilst exercising a cautioned approach with defence cooperation pacts. India’s maritime security agenda has been undergoing transformations since 2005, with enhanced naval capabilities, increased number of defence deals with neighbours like Indonesia and Singapore, and Indo-French partnerships. In addition, India has shown resourcefulness by engaging on multilateral fora, like the QUAD and SCO, and through initiatives like, SAGAR. Furthermore, India has addressed maritime security threats, such as piracy and terrorism, through cooperative efforts with Somalia. Recently, India and Kenya strengthened efforts to address other illegal activities, including human trafficking and illegal fishing, through increased military exercises and greater intelligence sharing. Furthermore, India is making strides by becoming a member of the Colombo Security Conclave, and plans to set up an intelligence monitoring grid in the form of a National Maritime Domain Awareness (NDMA). Improvements can still be made, however, by ordering new conventional submarines, and by covering the western part of the IOR, which is currently not covered by the IPDMA (Indo-Pacific DMA).

Despite these efforts, nations, including, the Maldives and Bangladesh that are grappling with resource shortages, continue to display anti-India sentiments, where Indian military presence is misconstrued as political interference. In addition, another challenge India faces is in establishing and maintaining bilateral ties with its neighbours through defence and security cooperation agreements, where India traditionally takes a cautioned approach, as it is at odds with India’s ‘strategic autonomy.’

In this tumultuous climate, China has been welcomed into the IOR, where, unlike the South China Sea, it does not have any maritime disputes. China has spent considerable energy investing in diplomatic, economic, and military engagements in the region, particularly with the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles. In this changing security environment, the US has clearly signalled that India is the ‘preferred’ security provider in the region. While India has provided security in the past, in form of HDAR and by addressing marine environmental concerns, the purview of island nations and littoral states will shape the forthcoming security challenges of the region. In addition, their engagements with China suggest that they view China distinctly from the way New Delhi perceives China. A key deciding factor would be how India and China respond to the growing threat of climate change on these nations. This indicates that while India is considered as a net security provider of the IOR, it needs to engage bilaterally with IOR nations to strengthen ties and look beyond the region as a theatre for competition with China.

Collectively this demonstrates that the maritime domain in the IOR is a geopolitical stage for the 21st century and is an opportunity for India to demonstrate its role as a security provider. Taking into consideration the non-traditional threats, such as climate change, that endanger the region, and the dynamics of the region, India’s strategy as a net security provider must not be to contain China, but to balance it. This can be achieved by renewing existing partnerships, by rebuilding new ones, and by accommodating the needs of the IOR to make it secure.

[Photo by Indian Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan recently earned her MA in International Relations from King’s College London. In addition to her MA, Lakshmy holds a BSc and an MSc in Biomedical Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Manipal University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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