India’s security relationships in Indian Ocean region

By Sambit Dash

A growing India cannot afford to lose out to proactive Chinese maritime policies.

With 70 percent of the world’s petroleum shipment, 50 percent of world’s container traffic and dependence on energy routes of world’s two most populous nations, the Indian Ocean Region has emerged to be the centre of geopolitical fluxes. In this important Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) China has been pursuing strategic manoeuvres encircling India and building its ambitious Maritime Silk Route or more fancifully called “String of Pearls”. India with a geographical advantage in the region needs a foreign policy that would thwart China’s perilous designs, a “reverse string of pearls“, signs of which the current dispensation has shown. India’s security relationships in Indian Ocean Region will play a crucial role in stability of the region.

Bolstering economic and political ties with countries on shared objectives even with countries that otherwise receive huge Chinese aid should be in India’s immediate foreign policy focus. The key players in this foreign policy dynamics with stake in IOR are:

Africa: Africa, on a path of colonisation by China, is crucial in India’s policy in the Indian Ocean Region. Set in the western end of IOR, Africa’s allegiance to China, riding on about 222 billlion dollar investment in 2014 by latter (which is three times that of China-US trade) should be a matter of concern for India. Setting up the India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in 2008, ushering summit level relationship, has enhanced relation between both regions. However in terms of trade, economic and energy cooperation India needs to catch up with China. The forthcoming India-Africa Summit in October which has seen invitation to all 54 heads of state of Africa, is an apt opportunity for strengthening ties banking on the presence of a huge Indian diaspora and a mutual worldview.

Pakistan: In May of 2015, China docked a Yuan 335 class submarine, having capability of staying under water for a longer time, in Karachi. China is incidentally also selling eight such submarines to Pakistan, while talks for four frigates, six missile boats are on. This development, particularly the docking, which caught India unaware should prompt Indian Navy to bolster its capacity in the western seafront. The strategic location of Gwadar port should also prompt succesful seeing through the Chabahar Port development in Iran which would open India to Central Asia bypassing Pakistan and act as a deterrent to Chinese presence in the neighborhood.

United States of America: India is poised to play a key role in US designs of rebalancing of Asia Pacific. In lieu of Indian Ocean strategy pursuing aircraft carrier technology under India-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) is a welcome step. India has carried anti-piracy operations in Indian Ocean under Combined Task Force–151 led by the US and has proved its mettle in thwarting pirate attacks. US sees India as a ‘lynchpin’ in the ‘pivot’ strategy of strenghening its position in the Asia-Pacific.

The 19th edition of Indo-US joint naval exercise off India’s eastern seaboard is to be held in October this year which involved Japan in the previous edition. Such exercises in the Indian Ocean, where the 6th fleet of US is stationed, which involves other like-minded nations like Australia and Japan should be carried out regularly to send appropriate signals to the People’s Liberation Army – Navy.

Sri Lanka: Recently being touted as a country that has the potential to become Cuba of India, Sri Lanka is being seen being closer to China than its immediate neighbour India. There has suddenly been a spurt of interest shown by the West in Sri Lanka too given the fact that the post Cold-war lull is getting over and in the small power-big power equations, it is poised to play a strategic role.

The docking of nuclear powered attack submarine in Colombo ruffled feathers of the Indian establishment. This however has not been an isolated incident. The Chinese have been building infrastructure, considered to be of “dual use”, both military and civilian. A change in the overtly pro-Chinese Rajapaksa regime, which had ensured loans of 2.1 billion USD in 2012-14, in the recently concluded elections, should be leveraged by India to gain stronger foothold in this island nation.

Indian Ocean countries: India and Mauritius inked a deal during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to develop Agalega Island north-east of Madagascar for use by Indian military. India’s agreement with Seychelles to build capacity on Assumption Island at northern end of Mozambique Channel will also give Indian Navy much needed strategic advantage. The couple of summits of Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC), with its members India and 14 Pacific island countries held in Fiji in November last year and in Jaipur in August this are welcome especially in the backdrop of huge Chinese aid and presence in these countries.

Geopolitics of the Seas
Other countries that are major players in the game of energy, security and seas are Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh. India’s growing dependence on import of energy will require India to play game with various regimes, of different hues, in these countries. A buzz of activities like diplomatic visits and courtesy calls have occurred under the Modi regime and these should be carried forward to meaningful conclusion. Incidences like cancellation of Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline and instead China replacing India in that axis must be avoided.

To counter China’s uneasy experiments in South China Sea India should create a buzz in international forums for China to adhere to UNCLOS, as Indian minister V K Singh did at East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. India should also take leadership position in drawing up a CoC (Code of Conduct) which would include risk reduction and conflict resolution in Indian Ocean Region.

Economic growth shall address many of the security relationships issues and it should be relentlessly pursued. Ties with countries having a stake in Indian Ocean Region need to be bolstered keeping Indian national interest paramount. A growing India cannot afford to lose out to proactive Chinese maritime policies.

Sambit Dash is a faculty member in Melaka Manipal Medical College at Manipal University, is an alumnus of Takshashila’s public policy course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy and writes on public policy, social issues and geopolitics.