HomeArticlesIndia’s maritime and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region

India’s maritime and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region

Kanwal Sibal

IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
Until very recently we would be talking only about India’s challenges, maritime and others, in the Indian Ocean region and not the Indo-Pacific region. The concept of the Indo-Pacific is a very new one; it did not figure in geopolitical analyses in government, think-tank or academic circles that I know of until Shinzo Abe, during his first term as Prime Minister, sowed the seeds of this concept at political level during his speech in our parliament in August 2007 on the “Confluence of the Two Seas”. In it he spoke of a broader Asia encompassing the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, stretching from the United States to Australia and India in an Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.
The Indo-Pacific concept has quite clearly roots in the new challenges that Japan is confronted with in the East and South China Seas, to meet which it has enlarged the political and security canvas to include the Indian Ocean, which means reaching out to India as a security partner, whereas traditionally Japan has focused on the economic dimension of its relationship with us.
The Indo-Pacific concept addresses the limitations of the Asia-Pacific geopolitical construct that we have been familiar with, one which has excluded India. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) launched in 1989 did not include India, as did the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) launched in 1996, though India was admitted into ASEM in 2006. India still remains outside APEC despite stated US support for its inclusion.
It is anomalous that any forum that purports to cover Asia should exclude India, which is the continent’s second largest country and the only power in a position to rival China. India’s reputation of being a relatively closed economy and a difficult economic partner would explain its exclusion, apart from political factors. This exclusion has meant the lowering of India’s regional profile and greater centrality of China in Asian affairs. With India’s economic rise and the growth of its international stature, the circumstances have been evolving in favour of integrating India into the political and security dimensions of the Asia-Pacific region, and this through the Indo-Pacific concept.
This concept has found political support in India because the source of Japan’s concerns in the western Pacific has been a source of India’s concerns too. By accepting this concept we have come a long way from the time when we politically opposed the presence of foreign powers in the Indian Ocean, saw them as endangering peace and stability there, viewed Diego Garcia as a threat to our security, and strongly backed the concept of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.
With changes in the international situation, our relationship with the United States has been visibly transformed, and especially so after the India-US nuclear deal in 2005 which removed a critical strategic impediment in an all-round improvement of ties. This is reflected in an unprecedented expansion of the defence relationship. The capacity of the Indian Navy for ocean surveillance has been greatly enhanced by the acquisition of the P8I maritime patrol aircraft from the United States. After protracted negotiations India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August 2016 which gives the armed forces of the two countries access to their respective military facilities for logistic support. This agreement would be most relevant to the two Navies. We have also signed a Maritime Domain Awareness agreement with the US.
The LEMOA was a major departure from our past policies of shying away from any arrangement that could be misconstrued as edging towards a military alliance. India has been declared a Major Defence Partner of the United States by Congressional legislation. The Pentagon initiated Defence Trade and Technology Agreement (DTTI) continues to examine joint development and production projects with easier transfer of technology to India, amongst which some advanced naval technologies are involved, including aircraft carrier design.
Even before this all-round progress in India-United States ties, the Indian Navy had begun to open the doors of a positive engagement with the United States at sea with the commencement of the Malabar exercise in 1992. At that time the new challenges that are today emerging in the Indian Ocean had not appeared, and the concept of the Indo-Pacific had not been even imagined.
The Malabar exercise, as I see it, was more in the nature of confidence building at bilateral level, to overcome the legacy of the past- the entry of the USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal in 1971, for example- besides, for us, the learning process involved at the operational level by exercising with the world’s most advanced naval power. For the United States the consideration would also have been to gain political acceptance as an Indian Ocean power and be able to make a continuing assessment of the growing capabilities of our Navy.
The Malabar exercise was suspended after our 1998 nuclear tests, resumed in 2002 and has been held regularly since. The scope of this exercise has been progressively enlarged over the years covering, amongst others, anti-submarine warfare tactics and “war at sea” simulation, and has involved warships, submarines, aircraft carriers, guided missile frigates, destroyers, amphibious ships, carrier-launched aircraft, helicopters, maritime surveillance aircraft, Coast Guard vessels and so on. In 2007, the exercise was held for the first time outside the Indian Ocean, off Okinawa.
The declared purpose of the Malabar exercise is to enhance interoperability for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, as well as issues of maritime security and piracy. Maritime security would include the vital responsibility of safeguarding the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean whose geo-strategic importance cannot be over-emphasised. Its four key choke-points- the Strait of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca, and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal- if closed for any reason can play havoc with global trade and energy flows.
The shipping activity across the Indian Ocean is enormous. According to an Indian Maritime Foundation paper, nearly 100,000 vessels transit through it carrying bulk cargo, oil and gas, grain and containers. Nearly 120,000 ships pass through the Straits of Malacca annually. Over 17,000 ships transited through the Suez Canal in 2015. In 2013, the Strait of Hormuz recorded an oil flow of 17 million barrels per day, which is nearly 30 per cent of all seaborne-traded oil. The Persian Gulf is estimated to contain about 40 per cent of global oil and 35 per cent of global gas. Five major Asian economies- Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea- are dependent on the Persian Gulf and Africa for meeting their energy needs, and a large part is carried in tankers through the Indian Ocean. China is the second largest oil consumer in the world, primarily sourced from the Persian Gulf region. 84% of Japan fossil fuel needs are sourced from the Persian Gulf and so is the case with South Korea. India relies on the Persian Gulf for nearly 58 per cent of its energy imports.
The development of a robust defence relationship with the United States and the practice of holding an elaborate joint naval exercise with that country set the stage for an India-United States Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions announced during former president Obama’s visit to India in January 2015. For India to accept a security linkage between these two regions constituted a huge jump in geo-strategic thinking.
We have, of course, important political and economic interests in East and Southeast Asia. Our Look East Policy encompasses this region, though China looks askance at any Indian activism within it. China is very active in India’s maritime space but takes a different view when it comes to the South China Sea. If Japan is against the South China Sea becoming a “Beijing Lake”, India, as well as the international community in general, would not want it to become a Chinese lake either.
China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea based on past history have no legal basis. Its nine-dash line has been judged without any legal foundation by the Permanent Arbitration Tribunal set up under the UN Convention on the the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In this context, India has repeatedly supported freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the UNCLOS and international law. India and others have to take cognisance of the fact that China has reclaimed seven islands in the South China Sea and militarised them without opposition other than verbal and freedom of navigation operations by the US.
The Malacca Straits connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, and it is through these Straits that over 40% of our sea-borne trade passes. ASEAN is one of India’s largest trade partners, with the total two way trade valued at $ 71 billion in 2016-17. India has energy interests in this region as signified by its involvement in oil exploration in the South China Sea in off-shore blocks in Vietnam’s EEZ, which one of our former naval chiefs expressed readiness to defend against any threat.
The presence of all the Heads of ASEAN countries at our 2018 R-Day celebrations testifies to the deepening of India-ASEAN ties. It is no secret that the ASEAN countries want India to play a larger role in Southeast Asia in order to balance the increasing weight of China. Apart from the political and economic instruments in India’s hands to strengthen ties with ASEAN, there is also the military dimension, and this includes the Indian Navy not only for building maritime bridges through joint naval exercises with these countries but also to protect the sea lanes as well as India’s assets in this broad region. The location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Malacca Straits devolves on the Indian Navy a vital strategic role in the maritime domain.
Having noted India’s major interest in the western Pacific, it should be underlined that India is primarily an Indian Ocean power, with enormous responsibilities for safeguarding its long coast line, its island territories, its off-shore economic assets and its EEZ. The two vital choke points in the Indian Ocean region- the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca- which are critical for unimpeded international energy and trade flows are of operational concern to the Indian Navy. We have had experience of sea-borne terrorist threats which requires our coast guard and our navy to remain geared up to address them. Piracy has surfaced as a serious threat to commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and though controlled as of now it still requires continued attention. Merchant vessels of many countries passing through piracy infested waters in the western Indian Ocean have Indian sea men and rescuing them becomes a task for the India Navy.
The Indian Ocean has its share of natural disasters, as was saw in the case of the tsunami in 2004, and we have seen how rapid and effective the Indian Navy has been in HADR operations. The consequences of Climate Change are likely to increase the frequency and size of such disasters, with that much more responsibility devolving on our Navy. The role of the Indian Navy in evacuating Indian and other nationals from conflict zones far and near has earned plaudits in recent operations. Unfortunately, with conflicts still raging in West Asia and the likelihood of their worsening could put a lot of burden on the Indian Navy by way of such operations in the future. Last but not least, illegal fishing in our waters is a serious issue that our maritime forces have to tackle.
There is much talk of India as a net security provider and of burden sharing, overlooking the fact that the Indian Navy has been playing this role, as partly outlined above, flowing from its own responsibilities and not in response to demands from outside powers. India, to my mind, has an independent responsibility in the maritime domain and will continue to do so in its own interests and as situations develop.
When Mozambique hosted the African Union summit in 2003 and the World Economic Forum meeting in 2004, Indian warships provided coastal security. In 2011 India and Mozambique agreed at the level of Defence Ministers to work together to improve maritime security in the Indian Ocean. India began anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel in 2012. During the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, our Navy kept a watch on the flow of arms to the LTTE by sea. We have maritime security arrangements with Maldives, though the present government there is seeking to whittle away at them contrary to the interests of both countries.
More recently, we have sought to expand our security responsibilities in the Indian Ocean area by jointly developing maritime security facilities in islands belonging to Seychelles and Mauritius, though the agreement with Seychelles has run into difficulty because of internal politics there. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March 2015 was timely and multi-dimensional. In Mauritius, Modi signed an agreement on the development of Agalega Island. He also attended the commissioning of the Barracuda, a 1300 tonne Indian-built patrol vessel ship for the country’s National Coast Guard, with more such vessels to follow. His visit signified heightened attention to our critical interests in the Indian Ocean area.
Looking ahead at the developing challenges and securing a naval foothold in the vital Gulf region, we reached an agreement in February this year with Oman for naval access to their bases, the first such agreement in a region which already has US, French and UK bases and where China is expanding its presence. In 2018 the first ever naval exercise with UAE is being planned. In February 2018 we announced a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean Region with France and signed an agreement on logistics support with it too. France considers itself an Indian Ocean power by virtue of its overseas territories such as Reunion and Comores and has a permanent naval presence in this part of the Indian Ocean. With India and France having a long tradition of close defence ties, including in the naval domain- the Scorpene submarine contract, for instance, and the possibility of other cooperation in the naval domain- civilian nuclear cooperation and the general quality of political ties, the stepped up naval cooperation in the western Indian Ocean makes political and strategic sense.
India has long been active in raising its profile and its responsibilities in the Indian Ocean region as an independent player. We have been holding naval exercise with a host of countries in this region to help create a friendly and tension-free environment. Since 2003 we are holding the joint INDRA bi-annual military exercise with Russia. With France we hold the annual Varuna naval exercise since 2001, either in the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean sea. The 2015 exercise included a French battle-group led by its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle carrying the naval version of the Rafale. India also carries out the Konkan naval exercise with the British Royal Navy, the Simbex with the Singapore Navy, the Slinex with Sri Lanka, the IBSAMAR exercise with the Brazil and South African navies (in 2008), the AUSINDEX with Australian Navy and the Sahyog-Kaijin, which is a joint exercise of Coast Guards of India and Japan.
Since 1995, the Indian navy conducts the biennial Milan exercise with navies of the Indian Ocean region at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The 10th edition of this exercise was held in March this year with the participation of 28 warships including 17 from India, and 11 from Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. 39 delegates from 16 countries participated. This was the largest gathering since 1995 when only 5 navies had taken part.
In 2008 India launched the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) with a view to providing a forum for all the littoral nations of the Indian Ocean to co-operate on mutually agreed areas for better regional security. The naval chiefs of 35 members are represented at this forum. The symposium is intended to generate flow of information between naval professionals to develop a common understanding and cooperative solutions in areas of common interest such as HADR, information security, interoperability and maritime security.
As part of its larger Indian Ocean strategy India played a leading role in developing the concept of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 1997 (then called the IOR-ARC) along with South Africa. The objective was to create a platform for the littoral states of the Indian Ocean to take cognisance of their common interests, including maritime security in the regional context, as well as to meet the many traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including piracy, illegal fishing, human trafficking, drug smuggling, trafficking of weapons, maritime pollution, disaster management and climate change. India as a leading IORA power has an important role to play in this regard. The IORA celebrated its 20th Anniversary when Indonesia, as the current Chair of IORA, hosted the first ever IORA Leaders’ Summit on 7 March 2017 in Jakarta under the theme “Strengthening Maritime Cooperation for a Peaceful, Stable, and Prosperous Indian Ocean”.
Today, the Indian Navy is one of the largest navies in the world. As of 2017, according to available information, it consists of 1 aircraft carrier, 1 amphibious transport dock, 8 Landing ship tanks, 11 destroyers, 14 frigates, 1 nuclear-powered attack submarine,1 Ballistic missile submarine, 13 conventionally-powered attack submarines, 23 corvettes, 6 mine countermeasure vessels, 10 large offshore patrol vessels, 4 fleet tankers and various auxiliary vessels and small patrol boats. The Indian Coast Guard operates around 90 – 100 armed patrol ships of various sizes. The Navy has 41 vessels of various types under construction, including an aircraft carrier, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and conventional-powered and nuclear-powered submarines. The goal is to build a 200 ship navy over a 10-year period. Of all the three armed forces, the Navy has indigenised production the most, with all 41 ships under construction being built in Indian shipyards. But given the challenges that lie ahead the issue of dwindling numbers of our submarine fleet is a matter of concern.
Having emphasised that India’s primary concerns are in the Indian Ocean, even though we have vital interest in the security situation in the western Pacific, I should come back to the rationale behind the concept of the Indo-Pacific which has now replaced the Asia-Pacific concept even in the vocabulary of the United States. From the US point of view this would be logical as the US Pacific Command based in Hawaii also covers the Indian Ocean and for the US there is an organic link between these two oceans in terms of security. India and the US have agreed on a road map for implementing this strategic vision. For the United States and India only China can significantly threaten Indo-Pacific security, given its spectacular rise and the unveiling of its maritime ambitions, including in the Indian Ocean. This joint vision document affirms the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. It envisages extended cooperation amongst regional countries in the form of trilateral arrangements, and potentially even quadrilateral cooperation.
The inclusion of Japan in the Malabar exercise as a permanent participant was a significant development with geopolitical connotations and elicited a negative official comment from China. In October 2015 Japan participated in the trilateral Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal for the first time. The expansion of our naval ties with Japan has arisen from Prime Minister Abe’s decision to bring about changes in the Japanese constitution that would permit Japan to be more active in assuming broader collective defence responsibilities. As part of this new Japanese approach to its defence role, Japan is keen to sell its US- 2 amphibious aircraft to India for use in disaster relief. India and Japan have signed a White Shipping Agreement. Australia has expressed its keen interest to join the Malabar exercise but India remains reticent possibly because of political concerns that this might be construed as India joining a US-led military alliance, as both Japan and Australia are US allies.
The deficiency of the Indo-Pacific concept from our point of view would be that the remit of the US Pacific command is limited to India’s eastern coast and does not cover the Arabian Sea which falls under the jurisdiction of the Africa Command. Our maritime security concerns are not limited to the Bay of Bengal and extend equally importantly to the Arabian Sea in view of threats from the Pakistan navy which is being strengthened by the acquisition of Chinese submarines, critical transfers of technologies from China to Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the development of Gwadar port and another in the region as a logistic hub for the Chinese navy after Djibouti. Chinese experts are now talking about acquisition of foreign bases for the Chinese navy for protecting its overseas interests, contrary to China’s earlier discourse that it would not behave as traditional big powers have done and will not seek foreign bases. For the Indo-Pacific concept to reach its potential equal importance has to be accorded to security in both the oceans so that while we engage with others in the Western Pacific we are left relatively exposed in the Indian Ocean. An integrated view of the the China threat has to be taken as it covers both land and sea. The Belt and Road Initiative is an integrated concept, with a land dimension and a sea dimension with the two corridors, one through Myanmar and the other through Pakistan linking the two geo-strategic thrusts of China.
Notwithstanding all the steps India is taking on its own and jointly with others to promote maritime security, our challenges are set to increase. China’s 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy formalised a new maritime strategy encompassing “open seas protection” for which the country’s naval capacity to protect its overseas interests and sea lanes of communication is slated to increase greatly, including in the Indian Ocean.
China has established a naval base at Djibouti. Apart from its strategic location, by maintaining its naval contingent so far away from home for long periods it is obtaining vital experience in blue water operations. It is developing Gwadar, once again located strategically- at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz- as a commercial port to begin with, but Its evolution as a naval base is a matter of time. The sale of eight submarines to Pakistan will establish the presence of Chinese naval personnel on the Baluchistan coast on a long term basis. A Chinese submarine has already surfaced at Gwadar, and China has supplied two warships to Pakistan for the port’s security. Reports have appeared about China raising the size of its marine corps from about 20,000 to 100,000 personnel to protect the country’s life-lines and its growing interests overseas. Some of them would apparently be stationed at Djibouti and Gwadar. China’s diplomatic strategy is one of camouflaging its intentions; it continually says one thing and then quietly divulges something to the contrary when the time is ripe. It has been denying that it is seeking military bases abroad and claiming that its One Belt One Road initiative is essentially commercial and development oriented in nature, even when its calculations are different and get revealed as in the case of Gwadar at a time of its choosing, and in stages.
China is selling two submarines to Bangladesh, which too will mean a Chinese presence on the Bangladesh coast, albeit limited. As evidence of its increasing naval activity in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines have twice surfaced at the Colombo port. China, seeking a foothold in Maldives, has acquired some islands there, ostensibly for the purpose of tourism development. Once it implants itself there more deeply economically, and should Maldives walk into a debt trap as Sri Lanka has slid into, China will make more strategic demands on it. As it is, the conduct of the Maldives government in creating difficulties for India to continue operating under existing agreements is causing concern. It has begun a “go slow” on the Indian radar installation project and is seeking to push Indian entities away from its southern atolls where China is strongly present. China appears to want unfettered access to the 1.5 degree channel and has interest in the 8-degree channel.
Some naval experts believe that for the present Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean is not a cause for alarm as the assets it is creating are vulnerable, being too far away from the Chinese mainland and lacking air cover. US naval power, it is argued, rests on the vast network of military bases that America has across the world. Simply having access to ports for replenishment of stores, rest and recreation and for doing exercises is not enough to wield naval power. A proper naval base would require the positioning of ordnance, spares and capacity to service vessels. From providing peaceful passage to foreign naval vessels to allowing base facilities is a strategic step that Indian Ocean countries may refuse in view of a strong Indian response. Pakistan is the only exception. Gwadar can become a veritable naval base as it has hinterland access, meaning that the Chinese can position equipment, ammunition, spares etc. there through the illegal China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Given Pakistan’s declared willingness to offer naval rights to China at Gwadar, the threat to Indian Ocean security from Chinese activities there is not to be dismissed.
China is expanding its naval capacities with the construction of additional aircraft carriers and a sizeable nuclear powered submarine fleet. The immediate objective is to challenge US naval power in the western Pacific. China is, like Russia in a sense, substantially “landlocked” as it does not have unfettered access to the open sea and is largely confined to the seas along its coast. From Taiwan to Japan it is ringed by the so-called first island chain, shored up by a powerful US military presence. China’s major strategic objective would be to break out of this throttling island chain and obtain access more freely to the Pacific and Indian Oceans for its navy.
Chinese energy supply chains are vulnerable as it does not have as yet adequate means to protect them on its own. It is seeking access to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar and to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan so that it can have alternative supply lines to passage through the Malacca Straits. However, in the view of experts, this can only very partially alleviate its Malacca dilemma as the amount of energy that can be transported through these routes is a small proportion of China’s total requirements. We can expect that in the future the PLA Navy will deploy a substantial number of ships in the Indian Ocean to ensure protection of its own SLOCS. The regular presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean will naturally cause us concern because China is seen as a threatening power in view of our outstanding territorial differences and its power projection in our neighbourhood, especially its policy of bolstering Pakistan.
China is increasing its presence in our area, and this will grow as its naval capacities expand and along with it its political ambitions as a rising great power. It is cultivating, and will do so increasingly, those very strategically placed countries in the Indian Ocean that are important for India’s security. Its US $40 billion Maritime Silk Road project, which is economic, political and eventually military in scope, parades its ambitions.
China’s proposition of a maritime silk route connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans is part of its drive to convince the world about the beneficial aspects about its rise as a power.The port facilities China is obtaining or building in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, while justifiable from the Chinese point of view to buttress its huge external trade flowing in large part through the Indian Ocean, raise concerns about China encircling us physically and politically. While India should keep engaging China, manage the relationship and expand ties in areas of mutual advantage, it has to remain watchful about Chinese declared ambitions that the 2018 US National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy documents interpret as a will to dominate Asia and eventually replace the US as the world’s leading power.
China’s conduct in the South China Sea and its belligerent reaction to the award by the UNCLOS established Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on its maritime claims in this sea has to be taken into account by India in the context of Indian Ocean security. While there are no maritime territorial disputes involving China in the Indian Ocean and the problem of creating artificial islands and militarising them is absent in these waters, China’s disregard for international law if it works contrary to its interests carries lessons for us.
India, US and Japan, along with Australia, have therefore a shared interest in maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure peace and stability. Indonesia should be a partner in this because to avoid the Malacca Straits choke point, the Sunda and Lombok Straits passing through the Indonesian archipelago provide a route for Chinese submarines to enter the Indian Ocean. India and the US are already collaborating in tracking the movement of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, as publicly disclosed by the US Pacific fleet commander in New Delhi in January 2017 in a seminar.
China seems to believe that with its economic success, command of huge financial resources and mounting military capacities, it can flex its muscles, and that other countries, including the US, unwilling to risk a conflict, would be prone to accommodate its conduct. The credibility of US security commitments in the region has therefore become a question, with Taiwan being especially nervous. President Donald Trump’s policy remains unclear as he has blown hot and cold over China. While he is threatening a trade war with China, progress on the North Korean issue could work in favour of accommodation. India’s maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region are set to increase in any circumstances. Prime Minister Modi’s recent informal summit with President Xi Jinping will stabilise the relationship at a certain level but the differences with China are structural in nature and therefore as we develop the Indo-Pacific concept in practical terms, the expansion of our naval strength is a strategic necessity.



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