Insights into Editorial: All out at sea: on India’s engagements in the Indian Ocean
The Indian Ocean covers at least one fifth of the world’s total ocean area.
It is bounded by Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (known as the western Indian Ocean), India’s coastal waters (the central Indian Ocean), and the Bay of Bengal near Myanmar and Indonesia (the eastern Indian Ocean).
The Indian Ocean matters today, arguably more than ever. It is a major conduit for international trade, especially energy.
Its littoral is vast, densely populated, and comprised of some of the world’s fastest growing regions.
The Ocean is also a valuable source of fishing and mineral resources. The Indian Ocean basin is of particular importance for India, as the region’s most populous country and geopolitical keystone.
Importance of Indian Ocean Region (IOR):
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has become the hub of intense global activity over the decades for various reasons.
The most important trade routes of the world pass through this region. The Indian Ocean provides the predominant outlet for oil from the Persian Gulf to various destinations all over the world.
The Malacca Strait is a critical choke point through which the oil bound for the West coast of USA, China, Japan, Australia and other countries of South-East Asia must pass Oil being of vital interest to most nations, major powers, especially the USA, maintain a visible and credible presence in the region.
The IOR is a critical waterway for global trade and commerce. This strategic expanse hosts heavy international maritime traffic that includes half of the world’s containerized cargo, one third of its bulk cargo and two third of its oil shipment.
Its waters carry heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oilfields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia, and contain an estimated 40% of the world’s offshore oil production.
Since dependence on oil will continue to increase in the future and exports from the Central Asian Republics by sea would also have to be routed through the ports of this region, the Indian Ocean is likely to witness clashes of economic interests and a turbulent security environment.
India’s Naval operations with other countries:
India is setting a high tempo of naval operations in Asia.
In recent, a series of bilateral exercises with regional navies in the Indian Ocean have demonstrated the Indian Navy’s resolve to preserve operational leverage in India’s near seas. For example:
- In April, Indian and Australian warships held drills (AUSINDEX) in the Bay of Bengal.
- Anti-submarine exercise with the U.S. Navy near Diego Garcia.
- ‘Varuna’ with the French Navy off the coast of Goa and Karwar.
- Two Indian warships participated in a ‘group sail’ with warships from Japan, the Philippines and the United States on return from a fleet review in Qingdao.
- In April, in their biggest and most complex exercise, Indian and Australian warships held drills in the Bay of Bengal.
- Widely acknowledged as the most capable regional maritime force, the Indian Navy has played a prominent role in the fight against non-traditional challenges in the Indian Ocean.
- While its contribution to the counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (including in cyclone-hit Mozambique) has been substantial.
South Asian countries making their presence in Indian Ocean Region:
South Asian navies have been making their presence felt in the seas of the subcontinent.
- Many observe that trigger for India’s newfound zeal at sea is the rapid expansion of China’s naval footprint in the Indian Ocean.
- Beyond commercial investments in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, China has established a military outpost in Djibouti, a key link in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- Reports suggest the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is planning an expansion of its logistics base for non-peacekeeping missions, raising the possibility of an operational overlap with the Indian Navy’s areas of interest.
- As some see it, Djibouti portends a future where China would control key nodes skirting important shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, allowing the PLA’s Navy (PLAN) to dominate the security dynamic.
- In a quest for regional prominence, Sri Lanka has positioned itself as a facilitator of joint regional endeavours, expanding engagement with Pacific powers which includes the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy.
- With China’s assistance, Pakistan too is becoming an increasingly potent actor in the northern Indian Ocean, a key region of Indian interest.
- Beijing has also been instrumental in strengthening the navies of Bangladesh and Myanmar, both increasingly active participants in regional security initiatives.
- In these circumstances, India has had little option but to intensify its own naval engagements in South Asia.
Economic Importance to India:
- The Indian peninsula juts 1,980 km into the Indian Ocean with 50% of the Indian Ocean basin lying within a 1500 km radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications.
- India is one of very few (06) countries in the world to have developed the technology to extract minerals from the deep sea bed.
- An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 320 km, India has exclusive rights to explore mineral wealth in an area of 150,000 square km in the Indian Ocean.
- India imports 70 % of its oil requirements, 4000 tankers come to Indian ports annually and almost 95 % of Indian trade moves by sea.
- Almost 5 million Indians work in Gulf countries and it is in India’s interest to ensure that the environment in Gulf remains stable.
- In addition to providing precious minerals and energy source, the ocean’s fish are of great importance to the bordering countries for domestic consumption and export.
India’s Defensive posture:
On other hand, India’s Indian Ocean focus makes for an essentially defensive posture.
Notwithstanding improvements in bilateral and trilateral naval engagements, it hasn’t succeeded in leveraging partnerships for strategic gains.
With India’s political leadership reluctant to militarise the Quadrilateral grouping or to expand naval operations in the Western Pacific, the power-equation with China remains skewed in favour of the Western pacific.
China has been downplaying its strategic interests in South Asia. It is concerned that too much talk about its growing naval power could prove detrimental to the cause of promoting the BRI.
Alarm at the recent BRI summit over Chinese ‘debt traps’ has led Beijing to revise some infrastructure projects.
India’s refusal to participate in the BRI may have also prompted China to rethink its economic and military strategies in the Indian Ocean.
Indian Ocean is an “ocean of economic opportunities” for India. The security threats posed by State and non-state actors are impeding the progress.
Any interference to our sea lanes, coastal offshore areas and ports, will have a crippling impact on the country’s economic growth.
For all its rhetoric surrounding the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, India is yet to take a stand on a ‘rules-based order’ in littoral-Asia.
A wariness for sustained operations in China’s Pacific backyard has rendered the Indian Navy’s regional strategy a mere ‘risk management’ tactic, with limited approach to shape events in littoral-Asia.