All out at sea: on India’s engagements
in the Indian Ocean (The Hindu)
Mains Paper 2: International Relations
Prelims level: Not much
Mains level: India’s foreign policy
India is setting a high tempo of naval operations in Asia. In recent
weeks, 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.
In April, in their biggest and most complex exercise, Indian and
Australian warships held drills in the Bay of Bengal.
This was followed by a much-publicised anti-submarine exercise with the
U.S. Navy near Diego Garcia.
Last week, the Indian Navy held a joint exercise ‘Varuna’ with the
French Navy off the coast of Goa and Karwar.
Even as 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.
Challenges for India
The 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
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.
Meanwhile, South Asian navies have been making their presence felt in
the seas of the subcontinent. 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
In these circumstances, India has had little option but to intensify its
own naval engagements in South Asia.
Partnerships are key
As the most capable regional maritime force, the Indian Navy has played
a prominent role in the fight against non-traditional challenges in the
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, a paucity of assets and
capacity has forced the Navy to seek partners willing to invest resources in
joint security endeavours.
Partnerships are vital to the Indian Navy’s other key undertaking:
deterring Chinese undersea deployments in South Asia.
For New Delhi, China’s expanding submarine forays in the Indian Ocean
indicate Beijing’s strategic ambitions in India’s neighbourhood.
Experts reckon PLAN has been studying the operating environment in the
Indian Ocean in a larger endeavour to develop capabilities for sustained
operations in the littorals.
As a result, the Indian Navy’s recent bilateral exercises have focussed
on under-sea surveillance and anti-submarine warfare.
The movement of China
To be sure, sightings of Chinese submarine sightings have decreased,
which has led some to conclude that Beijing is moving to scale down its
maritime operations in the Indian Ocean.
After a ‘reset’ of sorts in ties following the Wuhan summit last year,
some observers believe India and China are on a collaborative path.
New Delhi’s silence on China’s continuing aggression in the South China
Sea, and Indian warships being sent for the Chinese fleet review in Qingdao
(in April) do suggest a conciliatory stance.
Yet, reduced visibility of Chinese submarines does not necessarily prove
The truth, as some point out, is that PLAN is on a quest to master
undersea ‘quieting’ technologies and its new submarines are stealthier than
The reason they are not being frequently sighted is because Chinese
submarines are quieter and craftier than earlier.
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.
Even so, Beijing hasn’t indicated any change of plan in West Asia and
the east coast of Africa, where most of China’s energy and resource
Chinese investments in port infrastructure in Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and
Mozambique have grown at a steady pace, even as PLAN has sought to expand
its presence in the western Indian Ocean.
In response, India has moved to deepen its own regional engagement,
seeking naval logistical access to French bases in Reunion and Djibouti,
where the second phase of ‘Varuna’ will be held later this month.
Yet, India’s Indian Ocean focus makes for an essentially defensive
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 latter.
For all its rhetoric surrounding the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, New
Delhi 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.