Written by P K Ghosh.

The Indian Ocean is perceived to be the current centre of the strategic world by many  geo-strategists, fulfilling the prophetic words that have erroneously been attributed to AT Mahan, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia; the destiny of the world would be decided on its waters”. Often regarded by historians as the womb of maritime civilization, globalization has accentuated the maritime security challenges affecting maritime trade in the region.

With increased density of maritime commerce through the sea lines of communication, associated maritime crime and threats like piracy, terrorism etc. have assumed considerable salience in the region.

The seminal visit also heralded India’s readiness to assume greater responsibility and leadership of the region, as well as to reduce the growing Chinese influence.

Strategically the region is in a state of dynamic flux: similar to the 1960s when the British were vacating their prime position in the Indian Ocean Region only to be replaced by the  United States. However, today other powers are seeking primacy alongside the US. The ensuing subterraneous jostle for strategic space and the power struggle is more nebulous: there are many aspirants for primacy and the contours of the emerging architecture and hierarchy are still nascent and evolving.

This transitional process has intensified because of the “imperial overstretch” of US forces resulting in a commonly perceived erosion of US influence globally and the growing influence of an out-of-region power i.e. China. In addition, with the efficacy of the US initiatives to engage with Asia under the “pivot to Asia” initiative and subsequently the more neutral-sounding “rebalance strategy” – open to debate and with an uncertain future under the Trump administration, the strategic jostle in the Indian Ocean Region appears to have reached a crescendo.

India, one of the largest powers in the region is naturally in the fray, seeking primacy. Its efforts have received an impetus as the country has undergone a strategic transition from its earlier reluctance to assume greater responsibilities as a “net security provider”. However, despite this transition, which has become prominent under the current Modi administration, New Delhi continues to be sensitive to being branded as a “big brother” or a hegemon. Instead, it is intent on cooperating with other littorals for a mutually beneficial relationship.  It is under these circumstances that India’s maritime security multilateralism has come to the fore. This is a focused attempt to get all its friendly neighbouring island states and littorals into a common maritime security grid.

In the process, a more cooperative approach in overcoming maritime challenges collectively while building interoperability and capacity-building have assumed salience. For the Indians the Indian Ocean is perceived as the nation’s backyard, while for Beijing and Washington, the region is regarded as a domain for protecting commerce, national security objectives, and for projecting power. Thus, therein lies a divergence in the basic approaches towards the region as a whole.

The Chinese presence in the IOR has undoubtedly created a sense of unease and apprehension, not only within some littorals but also within the security establishment in India. Admittedly, many of the littorals have often played one against the other and the resulting China-card against India – but at a deeper level each of them are wary of Chinese hegemonistic tendencies, even though they are at the receiving end of Chinese economic and at times military largesse.  This is probably another rationale behind the Indians’ non-committal attitude towards the Chinese economic initiative of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) and its maritime manifestation in the Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

Since the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) passes through disputed territory claimed by India, hopes of New Delhi ever supporting the OBOR have receded considerably. On the other hand, as far as the Maritime Silk Road is concerned, there is still some debate about the benefits of this initiative, as the move may economically benefit both countries. Despite this, the dominant perception within India is that the risk of compromising security (for India) would far outweigh the economic benefits. Hence the stalemate continues.

With New Delhi’s influence in its own strategic backyard – the Indian Ocean – steadily on the wane, a focused multi-pronged effort to negate the growing Chinese influence has been in the offing. As part of a charm offensive, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to three island nations – Sri Lanka Seychelles and Mauritius – in March 2015.   The seminal visit also heralded India’s readiness to assume greater responsibility and leadership of the region, as well as to reduce the growing Chinese influence. This initiative was aimed at building a maritime arrangement with Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives. The Indian Ocean outreach was termed ‘SAGAR’- Security and Growth for All in the Region.

Apart from these efforts, India has been keen to assist the friendly littorals in maritime capacity building. This would not only increase interoperability between maritime agencies but would eventually result in reducing the Chinese influence. Thus, a large number of bilateral naval exercises like MALABAR, and INDRA, are held regularly with the Indian Navy along with multilateral ones like MILAN, which have created a conducive atmosphere for fostering this engagement.

The sharing of maritime related-technology, expertise and experience have endeared India to the littorals. Thus, issues like MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness), LRIT (Long Range Information and Tracking), Automatic Identification System (AIS), Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS), Search and Rescue (SAR), Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), etc. are important aspects of this security cooperation. These have been shared with friendly littorals without any strings and hence the response to such cooperation is favourable as it enhances maritime security multilateralism.

In conclusion, it may be stated that the Indian Ocean region is at the cusp of a power transition. In that context, New Delhi’s efforts to emerge as the “balancer of power” and a “net security provider” along with a readiness to assume more responsibilities in the Indian Ocean, has found its manifestation in maritime multilateralism. While it is debatable if it will reduce the Chinese influence in the region in any significant way, the jostle for power and primacy will only get more intense. Unless both the countries realize that it is in their benefit to cooperate, the famous saying that “the land divides while the sea unites” will never be fulfilled.

Dr P K Ghosh is currently a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He was the co-Chairman and India representative to two consecutive CSCAP international Study Groups on Maritime Security. He was also the convener of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) 2008 – an Indian maritime initiative that he helped in conceiving from scratch. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia


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