August 15, 2022
  • add
  • add
India's economic and security policy towards Indian Ocean

Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the Twenty First century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”. This was the prophetic statement made more than a century ago by US Admiral Alfred Mahan, and one of the leading maritime exponents.


The geostrategic location of Indian ocean makes it the lifeline of the world. It is the third largest ocean after Pacific and Atlantic connecting the major regions of the world like, African coast, South West Asia, East Asia and North Asia. It also ties the seven different water ways that are called as ‘seven chokepoints of the Indian ocean’ and links with the thirty-eight states of the world. Indian ocean has one of the busiest trading routes with maximum coastlines dominated by countries like: Indonesia, Australia, India and South Africa. Since the historic times, world superpower nations have always been attracted towards this region where Britishers and Portuguese started their trade and established their colonies. Basically, the RIM region of Indian ocean is important from economic and political perspectives beholding large population agglomerations, abundant raw materials, markets.

India’s Importance in the Indian Ocean

Indian ocean holds strategic importance for the Indian sub-continent as it is geographically located at the ocean’s center, with over 7,500 kilometers of coastline. Geographically it lies at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean with 95 per cent of trade by volume and 68 per cent of trade by value coming from the region. In addition, 80 per cent of India’s crude oil requirement or nearly 3.28 million barrels per day is imported by sea via Indian Ocean. Taking into account India’s offshore oil production and petroleum exports, India’s sea dependence for oil is about 93 per cent. India is also the fourth-largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with about 45 per cent coming by sea.

Moreover, the Indian mainland is heavily dependent on the ocean for its abundant resource potential, like oil, precious stones, minerals, pearls etc. India captured 6.1 million tons of fish in 2018, placing it sixth in the world and its fishing and aquaculture industries employs nearly14 million people. Mineral resource extraction is also important here. The Geological Survey of India acquired a deep-sea exploration ship Samudra Ratnakar from South Korea to boost its capabilities in IOR. Later, the International Seabed Authority issued licenses for the Indian Ocean ridge, opening up new opportunities for deep seabed mining. This region is estimated to have massive reserves of manganese, as well as cobalt, nickel, and copper, all of which are scarce on Indian soil. However, such deep-sea exploration will require further investments in remotely operated vehicles.

Owing to the resource potential, transport connectivity and strategic location of IOR, the geopolitical developments envisage a conspiracy by the major superpowers like, China and the USA who are competitors in the region. India is located exactly in the center of the IOR (Indian ocean region) which is very strategic, however, facing myriad territorial insecurities. During the post-independence period, India was facing many internal as well as external threats from its Western and Northern borders and as a result of which Indian government fully focused on its land boundaries, putting the maritime policies in the backdrop. However, over the years, India began paying attention towards its littoral states and Indian Ocean became an essential component of the national policy initiatives because of the arousing maritime border threats.


India and China in the Indian ocean region (IOR)

It is often said that, ‘domination of sea is necessary for the establishment of a strong nation’. The dragon nation perceives India and Japan as the strongest challengers in the Asian region and thus has started offensive moves, infiltrations and invasive acts trying to counter the Indian influence in the Indian Ocean Region. The ‘String of Pearls Concept’ envisions the Chinese intentions including military, commercial, sea line communication and diplomatic ideas in the Indian ocean. The sea lines or string runs through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Lombok Strait, as well as other strategic maritime centers in  PakistanSri LankaBangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia.

The Pearls here are referred to the strategic ports which are developed by China around the Indian mainland to create geopolitical pressure on the nation. They are Chittagong in Bangladesh, Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota at Colombo, Sittwe in Myanmar and Hainan in China mainly. These ports provides China a strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, although alarming for India and at the unease of U.S. sitting opposite the Strait of Hormoz, through which 80% of the world's energy exports flow. The Gwadar port enables China to monitor its energy shipments from the Persian Gulf, and offers it, in the case of any hostile interruption in such shipments, a safer alternative passage for its energy imports from Central Asia via Kashghar. Both Gwador and Kashghar are crucial nodal connecting points of The CPEC project of China also which happens to pass through the Pak occupied Kashmir. 

The pearls as ports are developed as refueling stations and war posts for China, in case of war in the region. China is providing extensive aid and helping to develop industries and infrastructure and contributing to renovate and expand these seaport. The dragon country is making huge investments in the region as evident in the figure below, offering loans and credit to the military regime, as well as economic aid and investments for the construction of damsbridgesroads and ports as well as for industrial projects.

Chinese unnecessary and offensive intrusions in the IOR is creating tensile conditions in the whole of South Asia. China has also set up a first-ever abroad naval base in Djibouti located in the Horn of Africa at the entrance to the Red Sea on the route to Suez Canal. Half of China's oil imports sail through the Mandeb Strait off Djibouti, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. China envisages that it will use the Djibouti base to support anti-piracy, UN peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief missions. The nation is paying $20 million a year as rent for the Djibouti base, wherein the Chinese banks are major funders of at least 14 projects in Djibouti, valued at $14.4bn. The revival of Silk route, the CPEC project with exponential developmental projects coming up in Pakistan and such permeations in the rim nations of IOR are adding the fuel to the flame. 

India and USA in the Indian ocean region (IOR)

No area seems more promising than maritime cooperation between United States and India. India is increasingly concerned about the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly when observed through the prism of China’s steady escalation of tensions in the South China Sea. Both  United States and India are critical responders and active in counterpiracy initiatives in the Indian Ocean. United States has been supporting India to expand its technological and planning capabilities; deepening this partnership will help the United States share the burden with India, reducing the strain on U.S. forces. But unfortunately, the tug-of-war between the United Kingdom and Mauritius over Chagos archipelago and the US military base on Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean region has heated up with time. Balance of power considerations notwithstanding, the expanding trajectory of the Indo-US strategic partnership also demands New Delhi to weigh the burden of its policies on Diego Garcia issue carefully. Though it is evident to mention that, Diego Garcia allows the US Navy to maintain an active presence in the Indian Ocean, thereby keeping the Chinese naval power at bay.

Since Indian Government lay emphasis on development and good governance opportunities to reinvigorate bilateral ties and enhance cooperation, they have envisaged the motto “Chalein Saathn Saath: Forward Together We Go”, and "Sanjha Prayas, Sab ka Vikas"- Shared Effort, Progress for All. As a result, India-U.S. bilateral relations have developed into a "global strategic partnership", based on shared democratic values and increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues. Today, the India-U.S. bilateral cooperation has a wide array of mutual opportunities, it is broad-based and multi-sectoral, covering trade and investment, defense and security, education, science and technology, cyber security, high-technology, civil nuclear energy, space technology and applications, clean energy, environment, agriculture and health. The summit level joint statement issued in June 2016 called the India-U.S. relationship an “Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century” have paved way to regular exchange of high-level political visits providing sustained momentum to bilateral cooperation.

With the Delhi Declaration of Friendship, both nations have adopted a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. Both sides elevated the Strategic Dialogue to conduct more bilateral exercises with each other than they do with any other country. India has been participating in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises with an Indian Naval Frigate. Bilateral dialogue mechanisms in the field of defense include Defense Policy Group (DPG), Defense Joint Working Group (DJWG), Defense Procurement and Production Group (DPPG), Senior Technology Security Group (STSG), Joint Technical Group (JTG), Military Cooperation Group (MCG), and Service-to-Service Executive Steering Groups (ESGs).Both countries have signed agreements on Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Association (LEMOA), Fuel Exchange Agreement, Technical Agreement (TA) on information sharing on White (merchant) Shipping and the Information Exchange on Aircraft Carrier Technologies. India and the United States have mutually launched a Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) aimed at simplifying technology transfer policies and exploring possibilities of co-development and co-production to invest the defense relationship with strategic value. The DTTI Working Group and its Task Force will expeditiously evaluate and plan unique projects and technologies which would have a transformative impact on bilateral defense relations and enhance their defense industry and military capabilities.

India and Australia in the Indian ocean region (IOR)

The potential benefits for an effective relationship between Australia and India were recognized as early as 1893, after which Australia's most immediate and direct links were with India rather than London, as bureaucrats, merchants, chaplains and judges moved between the two colonies. India was an important source of food and provisions for Australia; by 1840 a ship was leaving Sydney for India roughly every four days, and merchants in Calcutta grew rich from supplying the new outpost. At the beginning of the 19th century, several British colonial families from India made a life for themselves in the new Australian colonies. Presently, India and Australia co-operate in various multilateral fora. Both India and Australia are members of the G-20, Commonwealth, IOR-ARC, ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia Pacific Partnership on Climate and Clean Development, and have participated in the East Asia Summits. Both countries have also been cooperating as members of the Five Interested Parties (FIP) in the WTO context. Australia is an important player in APEC and supports India's membership of the organization.

The Malabar Exercise

Exercise Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan and India as permanent partners which include diverse activities, ranging from fighter combat operations to aircraft carriers through Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercises. 

Besides interception and dissimilar air combat exercises, it featured surface and anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and visit, board, search and seizure operations to counter piracy and other non-state acts at sea. In a naval exercise in 2007, it included 25 vessels from India, the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore in the Bay of Bengal. After China’s strong reaction to the exercise, Australia and Singapore, both reliant on Beijing economically, moved away from this grouping. In 2015, realizing its security benefits, Japan officially joined the bilateral exercise grouping, turning it into a formal tripartite naval exercise despite Chinese reactions. In a recent virtual summit, India and Australia linked an arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support and released the India-Australia “Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. This foresees the chance for Australian participation in Malabar which can help develop a strategic context for more serious maritime cooperation. Australia’s return to the Malabar naval exercises would strengthen not only the maritime perspectives shared by India and Australia but also their cooperative vision in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It would strengthen their biennial naval exercise, AUSINDEX, which began in 2015, and provide impetus to India’s multilateral naval exercise MILAN which intended to have participation of over 30 friendly navies in 2020, including Australia. 

India and France in the Indian ocean region (IOR)

Since early 1980s, France started taking interest in India’s strategic, diplomatic and economic emergence, and steadfastly supported India’s case at several strategic matters: a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, better participation in the decisions taken at international fora, such as the expanded G8 and G2 and access to civil nuclear cooperation. France is the first country with which India initiated a Strategic Dialogue after our 1998 nuclear tests when France refused to impose bilateral sanctions on us and displayed a far greater understanding of India’s security compulsions compared to other countries. France helped India to set up the Sriharikota launch site and assisted in engine development and hosting of payloads. After the Cold War, France decided that its preferred partner in the Indian Ocean Region would be India and the relationship progressed through many landmark agreements like Strategic Partnership agreement and Civil Nuclear agreement. Today, France has emerged as India’s most reliable partner on issues relating to terrorism and Kashmir.

Despite the globally growing fears of corona pandemic, India and France have recently held a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean region sharing broader strategic interests including the implications of China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. France is one of the oldest, most trusted of India’s partners, possibly second only to Russia. India and France collaboration across a number of important sectors such as space, nuclear and defence, with particular focus on Indian Ocean and maritime security are a few significant ones.

India and Japan in the Indian ocean region (IOR)

Both India and Japan have resolved to transform the Japan-India Special Strategic and Global Partnership into a deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership, which reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic goals. They announced “Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity of the Indo-Pacific Region and the World” a joint statement that serves as a guide post for the “new era in Japan-India relations.” Recently, as per the Japan-India Vision Statement two nations reiterated their unwavering commitment to working together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Tokyo and New Delhi’s engagement in joint infrastructure development projects in the Indian Ocean littorals provides an opportunity for maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and the economy. In addition, India and Japan’s collaborative ambitions pave way for an incremental but promising alternative to support India against China’s invasive intensions in the IOR. Both nations are also working on a key project to help Sri Lanka jointly build the East Container Terminal at the Port of Colombo. India and Japan have initiated to explore other joint infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific subregions of the Bay of Bengal and Mekong. Changing geopolitical realities have brought about a renewed attention to the Bay of Bengal and BIMSTEC, which caters to the wider concept of “Indo-Pacific” and an Indian Ocean community that New Delhi espouses.

Quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD) is an informal alliance between India, Japan, US and Australia, which is based on the common interests between them concerning freedom of navigation. Recently, India and Japan have linked a 10 year military pact that will further enhance the cooperation between their armed forces to counter the Chinese assertions in the Indo-Pacific region. It is observed that this this agreement will further strengthen the QUAD.

The Indian government seems to have consolidated its regional maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) specifically in three important Indian Ocean countries, the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka. Indian government’s focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) prioritizing relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand underscores New Delhi’s maritime vision in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific.

The way forward, highlights India’s regional consolidation in the Indian Ocean which depends on the following 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;

·         robust maritime diplomacy with the countries of the IOR, invoking the right spirit of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR);

·         and effective, expansive partnership with external powers of the region.

With its blue economy focus, India intends to promote smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the Indian Ocean region’s maritime economic activities.  To enhance the growth and development of the region, efforts are being laid by the Indian Ocean Rim association. They include a plethora of avenues including fisheries, aquaculture, seafood products, seaport and shipping, maritime connectivity, port management and operations, marine spatial planning, ocean forecasting, blue carbon, and renewable energy.

On the security front, the recent Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) is a grand regional plan to bolster India’s operational capabilities by inducting new warships, submarines, and aircraft besides enhancing New Delhi’s 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 (compared to India’s current levels of just over 130 ships, 220 aircraft, and 15 submarines). Amidst slow inductions, procurement clearance delays, and bureaucratic hurdles, however, there is still a long way to go before realizing the Indian Navy’s MCPP. Beyond just the elements of hard power, a lot will depend on how the Indian Navy will assimilate future technologies into its operational criteria, especially big data analytics and artificial intelligence to deal with a rapidly changing battle space.


(The author, Monika Kannan is Head, Dept of Geography, Sophia Girls' College, Ajmer)