Naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan once stated, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” Owing to the paradigmatic shift from land to the ocean in general and from Euro-Atlantic to Indo-Pacific in particular, the Indian Ocean has acquired a center stage in the geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic landscape of contending states. Home to a vast reserve of natural resources, busiest sea lanes of communication and seven strategically relevant chokepoints, the Indian Ocean in the 21st century heralds the changing dynamics of international relations.
Mapping India in the Indian Ocean
Occupying a geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean, India with its recalibrated “Island Diplomacy” aims to achieve strategic crucial objectives and attain maritime supremacy. After 50 years of expanding its footprint beyond South Asia at an abysmal pace, the world witnesses a proactive India in the Indian Ocean. Owing to Jawaharlal Nehru’s idealistic pursuance of India’s foreign policy after independence coupled with India’s deplorable economic growth, the development of the Indian security establishment was not paid enough attention with plan papers being the only conceptual element of the Indian Navy. Unequivocal emphasis on socio-economic advancement marginalized the defense sector and relegated its presence to the development of defense industries as part of the overall industrialization process. Nehru’s ideological preference for limited use of military while engaging at the systemic level does not find a parallel in the domestic arena. The annexation of Hyderabad and Junagadh and the military liberation of Goa vindicate the point. This raises a pertinent question if the Indian foreign policy and military strategy were really toeing the line of idealism or was India’s military posturing incumbent upon the whims of Nehru? Was it an outcome of capacity or intention is a matter of debate? Military intervention in the “recalcitrant” Indian princely states and in Pakistan in 1947, purchase of Canberra bombers and India’s maiden nuclear deal with Canada in the 1950s debunked the myth of idealistic undertones of the Indian foreign policy and demonstrated that the Indian military policy oscillated between idealism and realism.
For decades, the Indian Navy was known as the ‘Cinderella of the Indian armed forces.’ During Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, India was quite reluctant to forge relations with major powers. C. Raja Mohan considers this approach to fit with “India’s self-perception as a non-aligned and Third World state, and its desire to be economically self reliant and to distance itself from the British Raj, which had long been the central security provider in the Indian Ocean.”
C. Raja Mohan argues that “lack of coherence, political ambivalence and persistence of a continental mindset in Delhi’s security establishment” were the major factors that hindered India’s maritime aspirations from taking off. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 forced India to come up with its first-ever national maritime doctrine. The terrorist attack of Nov. 26, 2008, revealed the limitations of India’s preparedness and coastal and offshore security. It is not to suggest that India had a complete absence of naval power in the post-independence period but it has amped up its naval posturing only in the last few years. Renowned historian and diplomat, K.M. Panikkar asserted that the “Indian Ocean must remain truly Indian” and develop and expand strategic space for itself in the Indian Ocean. Taking heed of Panikkar’s expression, India has expanded its reach and depth in the waters of the Indian Ocean but definitely short of overreach, thereby silencing all canards of India’s expansionist policy in its vicinity. What has not been focused much is the role of a strong leader in shaping strong narratives.
Leadership: Closing the gap between Ideas and Implementation
Neoclassical realism holds the role of intervening systemic variables and domestic variables such as actors like leaders as central to their theoretical claim. Leadership plays a quintessential role in shaping foreign policy processes and outcomes. What has not been focused much is the role of a strong leader in shaping strong narratives. India’s active involvement and extended engagement can be viewed in part as PM Modi’s personal ambition of creating a personality of his own. Earning repute of international stature not only concretizes his charisma but also helps in reaping electoral gains in domestic politics.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India has accelerated its drive for maritime pre-eminence. In 2015, the Indian Prime Minister visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka to deepen relations with the Indian Ocean island nations. India was granted the right to set up a naval base at the Assumption Islands in Seychelles in return for the hydrographic assistance from India. The visit was historic in the sense that it marked a radical departure from India’s uneasiness with the establishment of military bases in foreign lands. With regard to Prime Minister Modi’s proactive maritime policy, C. Raja Mohan states that “Modi’s visit to Indian Ocean littoral states in 2015 sought to plug the gap between good ideas and their implementation.”
Maritime projects and policies such as Project SAGARMALA, Project Mausam and Vision SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) were launched by New Delhi in 2015. In 2016, India floated its first-ever Maritime India Summit and the following year, a Maritime Capability Perspective Plan was set in motion.
Ripe for Rivalry: China-India in the Indian Ocean
India’s vision of being a leading blue economy and making the most of the global supply chain needs to craft a balancing strategy in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has extended its footprint in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean and has become a cause of concern not only for India but also for major powers such as the US, France, Germany, Australia and Japan. India’s wariness is accentuated on account of the outstanding border dispute with China and the armed clashes in the Galwan Valley in June 2020. India is apprehensive of getting a checkmate with the robust military presence of the People’s Liberation Army on the land and in the sea. In a similar vein, C. Raja Mohan arguably states that the Sino-Indian rivalry will spill-over from land onto the sea in near future. Thus, the conflict between India and China in the Indo-pacific is inevitable, which he believes will drive the two nations into a ‘vicious cycle of competition, arms race and conflict.’ Furthermore, the China-sceptics fear that Beijing’s most ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could soon transform the maritime civilian infrastructure into a storehouse of military assets, thereby threatening India’s security. Securing strategic influence in the neighborhood has gained prominence like never before. China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2016 and this serves as a compelling signal to switch over to sea control strategy if not sea denial. As of now, Sea control seems to be the appropriate strategy over sea denial as China is being strategically assertive rather than being strategically aggressive at least in the Indian Ocean. Thus, India’s adoption of the diamond necklace strategy is an apt rejoinder to Beijing’s string of pearls policy which is aimed at encircling the former in the Indian Ocean.
Lately, assertive posturing, armed clashes on land, strategic balancing, and increasing bonhomie with each other’s neighbors and projection of power in each other’s maritime peripheries have been the determining characteristic of Sino-India relations. Does that mean that the clouds of adversity have rendered the scope of cooperation between the two bleak? Will China and India be able to preclude ramifications of its continental rivalry to unfold in the Indian Ocean? Hitherto, the two nations have collaborated and conducted anti-piracy control in the Gulf of Aden in the aftermath of a piracy attack off the coast of Somalia in 2008. The China optimists point to the visit of INS Shivalik to Qingdao in 2014 for a multilateral naval exercise and an invitation to PLAN to participate in the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in 2016 as an example of possible military cooperation in the sea. Former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon alludes towards establishing a ‘Maritime Global Concert’ with a prominent role for India, China and other naval powers. It is no denying the fact that the Indian Ocean has become a new theatre for global geopolitics to play out and both India and China are tactically performing their roles. The probability of continental conflict to escalate and overrun onto the waters of the Indian Ocean are high, given the unbending attitude of both the nations. However, taking a cue from a series of cooperative activities in the past, the two may also cooperate in areas of shared interest.
Great Power Rivalry in the Indian Ocean
Any analysis cannot be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. The Indian Ocean is not a new playground only for India and China but for a relatively declining hegemon, the US as well. Robert Kaplan in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the future of American Power (2010) argues “It is in the Indian Ocean that the interests and influence of India, China and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect.”
It is here, Kaplan says, that the 21st century’s “global power dynamics will be revealed.” The US finds the Indian Ocean to be a strategic space to make an effective comeback in Asia and contain the rising China. In pursuance of this objective, the US set afloat its ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘rebalancing strategy’ in 2010. Of late, the nomenclature ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been doing rounds in the policy circles and the marked departure from ‘Asia pacific to Indo-Pacific has become the ‘new normal’ both literally and figuratively.
The introduction of an Indo-Pacific strategy and renaming of Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command demonstrates the relevance that the region has for the US and its willingness to be an active participant and perhaps a driver of the region. The US is well aware of the fact that it cannot share the responsibility of building an ‘Indo-Pacific’ system single-handedly. Moreover, its isolationist tendencies appear to obstruct its aim of developing the Indo-Pacific framework. Thus, it requires the support of its allies and benign partner countries, specifically India. India with the preconceived notion of its centrality in the term Indo-Pacific has taken over a flagship position in the Indian Ocean waters. To enhance its footprint in the Indian Ocean, India has concluded logistical agreements such as LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with the US in 2016, Agreement for the Provision of Reciprocal Logistics support between the Armed Forces with France in 2018.
The axis of convenience between India and the US raises qualms about India’s strategic autonomy. However, such fears are misbegotten as India has forged strategic partnerships with the major regional and global powers. Strategic partnerships should not be considered as tantamount to alliances as the former requires a much lower level of commitment than the latter does. Owing to the adoption of Non-Alignment as the core of its foreign policy, India has always strived towards preserving its strategic autonomy. Furthermore, India’s quest for self-reliance and self-sufficiency will provide it with an opportunity to not always rely back on its partner’s assistance.
Galvanizing strengths and axing weaknesses
The relative power of potential adversaries has grown considerably, so India needs to build adequate deterrent warfighting capabilities. Cooperation from global players may help India in the short and medium-term, but to be in for a long haul, indigenized capability building and enhancement is the key. Identifying the deficient sections within the armed forces and corroborating R&D with the manufacturing sector will aid in realizing the dream of ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ (Self-Reliant India). The mismatch between ambitions and capabilities will bridge only when adequate financing is available. Past practices of low budgetary allocation despite repeated requests of higher financial support must be put to an end. With the Indian Ocean being the new battleground, obtaining foreknowledge about it will definitely give an edge over the adversary. India’s steps towards bolstering maritime domain awareness (MDA) will render it victorious in information warfare with its rivals. Undeniable is the relevance of technological, logistical, financial and political support in attaining maritime supremacy; nonetheless, the thought and approach in the rear end of the policy measures is the soul of India’s maritime diplomacy.
India has been nimble-footed and reluctant in embracing Mahanian identity in its true sense. It is conspicuous that India is all in the game and is tactically maneuvering and bargaining its position in the Ocean. Even so, Abhijit, naval analyst underlines that “India’s engagement in the Indian Ocean reveals a tactically proactive but strategically defensive mindset” while Vivek Mishra contends that “India is practicing strategic ambivalence in the Indian Ocean.” While the perception of India as an ambiguous player held by the strategic rivals on the battlefield may be in its best interest, each step towards victory will be determined by the clarity of thought and the right approach. Prime Minister Modi’s personality cult in directing foreign policy has given impetus to New Delhi’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. With the escalations of non-traditional threats, India must amp up its coastal and offshore defense adeptness. Not only will it aid in sustaining a positive maritime environment, it will raise India’s stature to that of a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region.
Zahoor Ahmad Dar is a research scholar based in New Delhi. He is working as a Commissioning Editor in E-International Relations. He has a master’s in International Relations from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Aakarshika Saxena has completed her master’s in International Relations from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.