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The geopolitical imperatives surrounding India’s maritime security have undergone substantial change over the last decade or so, in turn prompting unavoidable shifts in its engagements, strategies and maritime expanse through its areas of operation. As the Indian Ocean and increasingly the Indo-Pacific have reoriented their strategic significance for major powers and powers-to-be, through rising trade transit, number of strategic nodes and return of competitive rivalry between major stakeholders, India’s maritime strategy has felt the need to evolve from a benign strength to assertive force projection and at best, a combination of both. The strategic alterations in the maritime domain have varied from creating a seamless expanse of security architecture extending from its coasts up to the high seas, capacity building through procurement, manufacturing and a focus on enhanced upkeep. This transformation is subtle in its straddling of adaptive restructuring of its wherewithal with a future international standard of ‘distributed lethality’ to attain both above and subsurface presence and control.




The historical deficit in strategic thought has affected India’s regional maritime security architecture building. However, in a commensurate transformation, challenges to India’s consolidation as a regional maritime power have grown almost simultaneously with its desire to have a sound regional maritime strategy. Even as India has moved to solidify its position in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, there is an unremitting adversarial dynamic accompanying the endeavour. One of the main challenges facing the Indian maritime strategy of late is the renewed Chinese desire to enhance its presence in the Indian Ocean. To further fortify its strong presence in the Indian Ocean weaved around the ‘String of Pearls’ conception, China is about to construct a naval and air base near Gwadar, in West Pakistan. This would mark China’s second base in the Indian Ocean after Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti with its naval port, a large helicopter base and a capacity for 10,000 troops, repositions China in the security mix of the northern Indian Ocean. If materialized, a naval and air base at Gwadar along with a strong Chinese presence in Djibouti could mark out the Arabian Sea as an experimental domain for Chinese Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) well experimented in the Asia-Pacific. China’s presence at Djibouti and Gwadar in future would form crucial nodes in its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) that anticipates a strategic trans-oceanic linkage extending westward from China.


The China-Pakistan nexus, which is most astoundingly represented by the conceptualization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is only waiting to be replicated in parts of maritime Asia. A functional MSR with increasing strategic nodes for China in the Indian Ocean compounds India’s problems, especially as it would present opportunities of combined lethality in above and subsurface presence to both China and Pakistan. Pakistan for itself has also acquired significant nuclear capabilities that threaten the strategic stability of the Indian Ocean.


Strategic Shift


Growing extra regional leverage and induced insecurities have altered India’s policy priorities in regional and extended maritime domains. As such, changing geostrategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific have necessitated counter-strategies by India in these regions. In the recent past, India has focused on rehashed maritime engagements with partners at the unilateral, bilateral and multilateral levels. At the unilateral level, India has focused on developing a coherent oceans strategy with a combined focus on the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific regions. Taking a leaf from the Chinese strategic manual, islands have attained a unique place in India’s maritime calculus. Prime Minister Modi’s visits to a string of Indian Ocean islands in 2015 marked a new beginning. Such thinking seems to be in consonance with the nodal-remapping of the maritime continuum extending from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and comprises a crucial component of its much-cherished regional net security provider role. India’s focus on port-led modernization, industrialization and development, port connectivity enhancement and development of the coastal community through its Sagar Mala project hopes to bridge the gap between extended capability on high seas and internal resources with ports as hinges.


India has also focused on consolidating extended influence on high seas either through unilateral force projection or partnerships based on mutual interests. Its perception of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as its strategic outpost, the Andaman Sea as the maritime checkpoint for Chinese submarines en route the Indian Ocean and use of maritime surveillance aircraft in the Indo-Pacific have been reformulations. The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal have gained new strategic focus owing to increasing Chinese activities and concentration. India’s focus on islands and realization of their importance in creating a regional bulwark has been a welcome new dimension in its maritime strategy. It was in 2015 that talks of India’s first leased surveillance and radar outpost on Assumption Islands of Seychelles seemed to give a new direction. India’s strategic partnerships with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia, France, Indonesia, Singapore, Oman, Iran, Seychelles, Vietnam and the United States comprise tellingly strategic choices in its regional maritime strategy. Some recent moves by India bilaterally with specific countries seem to highlight India’s shifting maritime strategy.


India’s bid to possibly buy one of the loneliest airports in Sri Lanka just to mitigate its strategic deficit with China in an important node in the Indian Ocean reflects a completely new priority for India. Similarly, reassertion of its relationship with Vietnam and tethered interests in the South China Sea, its partnerships with the Singapore, US and France to be able to use their Indian Ocean bases and form strategic maritime partnerships reflect new beginnings. On the back of these moves, a host of Indian Ocean bases will be open to Indian Navy extending from Guam in the Pacific, Singapore Diego Garcia (US), Reunion Islands near Madagascar (France), Assumption Islands (Seychelles), Djibouti (France and US) and Oman at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. These connectivity linkages throw open seamlessly unprecedented opportunity for expanding India’s maritime strategic outlook. Besides, these also bring about a balance in India’s hitherto asymmetric eastward maritime focus which has traditionally been compounded by the Look East and now by the Act East policies.


The latest arsenal in India’s maritime strategy that has gained currency is its Indo-Pacific strategy adopts a multilateral approach to solving a trans-regional balance of power problem, caused primarily by the asymmetric rise of China. The Indo-Pacific consensus with ‘the Quad’ as its core comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US seeks to strategically curb Chinese assertiveness in maritime Asia. India’s interests behind bandwagoning the Indo-Pacific consensus are at least two-pronged – a delegitimization of China’s flouting of internationally accepted laws of sea, and in turn, also preserving freedom of navigation, and more importantly to gradually increase the circumference of its own maritime interests. Riding on multilateral consensus, India’s other multi-modal engagements like the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) with Russia and the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) with Japan carry huge potential but very little progress on ground.


The Indian Navy’s increasing ability to straddle military force projection with soft power outreach in the region has substantially reduced the odds against its regional net security provider abilities. Countries like Australia, Japan, Singapore, France and the US are increasingly anticipatory of India’s larger regional maritime role. Indian Navy’s HA/DR activities especially since 2005 have depicted India’s genuine belief in what has been later rechristened as Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). India’s Project Mausam and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposiums (IONS) have been other initiatives that stand for inclusive regional growth as opposed to confrontational naval build up. In the same spirit, India has reoriented its engagement with the IORA based on a vision to ‘promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the Indian Ocean region maritime economic activities’.


India’s evolving maritime strategy is inextricably linked to the changing balance of power in Asia. As the US, China, France, Australia, Japan and Russia relocate their strategic anchors in the Asian maritime domain, it is important that India navigates a balanced maritime strategy. As India evolves from being a country that punches below its weight in the regional waters to being the region’s largest navy in pursuit of its rightful spot, multilateral engagements in Asian waters have to be balanced with unilateral assertions. The interesting mix that is generated through India’s coyness about its South China Sea interests yet strong ties with Vietnam, its mutual base use agreements with a host of countries obliquely directed against China and its outrightly assertive mission based deployments together symbolize the quest for the aforementioned balance. Besides these, a sound maritime strategy for India should most significantly mean rapid manufacturing at home, procurement without red-tape, safe upkeep, joint exercises and above all the development of a formidable undersea capability which could prove to be the ultimate decider in the unravelling maritime great game of Asia underway.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.