Written by Gurpreet Khurana.
India’s latest maritime-military strategy titled Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (Strategy-2015) released in 2015 has come at a crucial time in its relations with the major powers of the West. Never before in recent history has India’s geopolitical and security environment been so tenuous and uncertain, leading to a strong strategic convergence with the West. However, translating such convergence into substantive collaboration in the maritime-configured Indo-Pacific region would necessitate an understanding of each other’s strategies. This article examines Strategy-2015, with the aim of extrapolating its key facets, including the nature of cooperation that India seeks with the West.
The impressive trajectory of India’s naval cooperation with the West in recent years notwithstanding, a ‘glass ceiling’ remains to be breached. Developments in India’s west – West Asia and East Africa – impinge strongly upon its vital interests.
The 2008 Mumbai attack undertaken by Pakistan-based sea-borne terrorists led to a fundamental change in India’s maritime security environment. Following the incident, the Indian Navy – a ‘blue water’ force – was entrusted with an additional ‘brown-water’ responsibility. Strategy-2015 factors this in a major way, including in its title itself. However, the document does not seem to be duly encumbered by this, and expands the areas of India’s maritime interest. In the west, it adds western Africa and the Mediterranean. In the east, it covers the entire Western Pacific. It is largely driven by the geographic dilation of India’s vital interests, but the geopolitical factor cannot be ignored. The expansion of India’s areas of interest is in tandem with New Delhi’s acceptance of the role of a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond”. However, Strategy-2015 treads with caution. It defines ‘net security’ as “the state of actual maritime security in an area, upon balancing prevailing threats, risks, and challenges, against the ability to counter these.” By doing so, it implicitly portrays India as a provider of ‘net security’ rather than a ‘net provider’ of security; and thereby obviates any perception of its role of a ‘regional policeman’.
However, even ensuring ‘net security’ in the region would not be easy for the Indian Navy, which is concurrently engaged in littoral operations to counter the hybrid threats from Pakistan. This makes it essential for the Indian Navy to intensify cooperation with the West; as emphatically stated in Strategy-2015. In this direction, the Indian Navy has taken major strides, including establishing information-sharing agreements on ‘white shipping’ with the United States (US) and France, and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US. Also notable are the Malabar series of combined naval exercises with the US.
Given India’s national policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ however, there are limits to cooperation. Notwithstanding strong reasons to graduate beyond ‘joint exercises’, India may not be comfortable in undertaking ‘joint operations’ under foreign Command and Control (C-2), given the long-standing policy to conduct such operations only under United Nations mandate. Nonetheless, India would be amenable to conduct ‘coordinated’ operations with any foreign military with each side retaining its respective C-2.
The impressive trajectory of India’s naval cooperation with the West in recent years notwithstanding, a ‘glass ceiling’ remains to be breached. Developments in India’s west – West Asia and East Africa – impinge strongly upon its vital interests. However, since this area falls in the area of responsibility of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), India is constrained in influencing developments here due to the lack of adequate coordination with CENTCOM. On the other hand, the US is bereft of the Indian Navy’s security role in this area. Nonetheless, there lies immense potential for the Indian Navy to partner with the naval forces of France and other European powers in the Indian Ocean.
Since 2009, China has been increasingly assertive against its immediate neighbours, including India. China refused to accept the decision of the international tribunal’s July 2016 award in the maritime dispute tabled by the Philippines. Strategy-2015 specifically mentions the need for countries to abide by established norms and tenets of international law. It says, “Resolution of jurisdiction promotes peace, by reduction of the scope for disputes, and facilitates maritime governance, investments in maritime economic activities, legitimate use of the seas, and cooperation for maritime security.” This principle is best exemplified by India’s own acceptance of the arbitration award in July 2014 over a maritime dispute with Bangladesh; an approach that is based on preserving status quo in the global order.
Without an explicit reference to Pakistan or China, Strategy-2015 says, “There has been no reduction in the potential threat from traditional sources, necessitating continued focus on appropriate military preparedness…”. For a long time, India has adopted a stance of passive deterrence against Pakistan, which flows from its civilizational ethos and mantra of ‘Ahimsa’. This, however, does not imply that India, if pushed, cannot resort to ‘active deterrence’ through punitive surgical military strikes. This is best exemplified by the Indian surgical strikes against Pakistani terrorist camps in September 2016 within 10 days of a terrorist attack against an Indian Army camp at Uri (Kashmir). The West supported India’s military action. In the epic Mahabharata of ancient Hindu mythology too, the mentor Lord Krishna urges the Pandavas kings to resort to arms whenever it becomes inescapable.
Strategy-2015 does not explicitly name China as a threat since New Delhi seeks engagement with Beijing. As an instrument of India’s diplomacy, the Indian Navy plays an important role in engaging China. Nonetheless, the Indian Navy is also a valuable tool in deterring China’s possible aggression across the land border. Its sea-control strategy could choke China’s strategic crude oil imports in the Indian Ocean if required. Accordingly, Strategy-2015 devotes much attention to the interdiction of sea lines of communication (SLOC). Notably, Strategy-2015 expands India’s area of maritime interest to West Africa, which is a major source of China’s oil imports.
The induction of INS Arihant – India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) – represents a quantum leap in its nuclear second-strike capability. Strategy-2015 dwells upon the need of SSBNs for ‘survivability’ of deterrence. However, the Arihant brings with it a critical issue of securing India’s nuclear bastion against the submarines of inimical powers like China. This requires the Indian Navy to enhance its anti-submarine capabilities, including in conjunction with the West.
Strategy-2015 emphasizes the Indian Navy’s continued commitment to self-reliance – especially in the light of the government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative – that makes defence industrial cooperation with the West exigent. While the propensity of western countries to seek ‘business opportunities’ may be understandable, any substantive collaboration would need to address India’s dire need for raising the level of its own defence-industrial base.
Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and a serving officer (Captain) in the Indian Navy. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at email@example.com. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia.