Rising tensions in the South China Sea over the past few weeks have served to highlight the rancorous nature of strategic competition in Asia. Following its stand-off with Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and a spat with Vietnam over ownership of the Spratly and Paracel islands, Beijing recently announced the setting up of a new military district to assert greater administrative control over the two islands. In a bid to intimidate its adversaries, Beijing sought to populate the contested regions in the South China Sea with its surveillance vessels and fishing boats. Unfazed by the Chinese presence, the Philippines reiterated its resolve to press its claims, announcing the procurement of new attack helicopters and surface ships. Meanwhile, Vietnam declared that it is seeking closer naval collaboration with the United States, with which it held its first naval exercises earlier this year.
The unease over China’s show of strength is not confined to Southeast Asia. Maritime experts in India now worry about Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean. As Chinese anti-piracy maritime contingents deployed off Somalia grow in size, there is concern in India that China may soon establish itself as an Indian Ocean power. India’s fear of being swamped by China in its own backyard is only compounded by the assertive stance adopted by China’s vocal and outspoken strategic community.
China’s maritime policies in the Indian Ocean Region are considerably influenced by its perception of the Indian Navy—the only resident force with the capacity to resist a Chinese naval ‘thrust’ in the Indian Ocean. India’s naval force structure is undergoing a rapid evolution, and the Navy is acquiring a range of ‘top end’ platforms, including power projection assets such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines (see notes below).
For all the clear-eyed focus on capacity creation, however, the navy’s strategic posture appears somewhat moderate. The Indian Navy’s maritime strategy articulates prospective naval operations in benign or even ‘benevolent’—terms. The vision for the future is presented in a focused, yet ‘flexible’ narrative—concrete enough to sound purposeful; diffused amply to preclude being labeled a ‘containment strategy’. The Indian Navy’s future efforts, the official document states, is aimed at ‘tackling the emerging threats in the Indian Ocean Region’. While some believe China is the exogenous catalyst driving the Indian Navy’s growth, others premise the naval build-up on the need to beef up all-round naval defences—a natural ambition for any nation with expanding economic interests.
The mellow tenor of its official maritime strategy notwithstanding, the ‘strategic’ bent in the Indian Navy’s current and future plans is too conspicuous to be missed, both in terms of hardware and its basing arrangements, with several new naval stations providing much more reach and persistence than previously (see notes below).
The most noteworthy shift, however, seems to have come about in India’s diplomatic and maritime-strategic posture. In recent days New Delhi has displayed a greater willingness to send its naval ships into the waters of the Western Pacific and engage with navies of Southeast Asian countries. In June this year, the Indian Navy dispatched a contingent of four warships on a visit to East Asia where they carried out exercises with the Japanese Navy. En-route to the north-eastern Pacific, the ships made port calls in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines—a clear exhibition of India’s intent to remain robustly engaged with Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, India and Australia are seriously exploring prospects of holding a bilateral naval exercise. During a meeting between India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony and his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith in December 2011, regional security issues, maritime cooperation and piracy topped the agenda.
New Delhi, however, is keen to avoid being seen as joining any alliance against China. To ensure that its recent naval exercises in the Eastern Pacific did not provoke Chinese suspicions, the four Indian Naval ships made a stop-over at Shanghai during the return leg of the tour. The bonhomie on display during the five-day visit, served to highlight a less-touted aspect of India’s maritime outreach: a form of inclusive partnership that does not enhance engagement with some partners to the exclusion of others. Still, India is keen to send the message home that it has strategic interests in the Western Pacific and it is determined to defend its assets and safeguard access to the region.
With its influence in the Indian Ocean Region growing, the Indian Navy now aspires to true ‘blue-water’ status. Urged on by regional partners—in particular the US Navy, its biggest exercise partner—the Indian Navy is increasingly demonstrating willingness to shoulder responsibility in undertaking communal security tasks and long-term maritime missions.
India’s naval planners are aware that, ultimately, acquiring dominant maritime power status entails technological self sufficiency, and a readiness to accept a leadership role in providing the public good of maritime security. This would only be possible if the Indian Navy works proactively with like-minded partners to establish a new peace-keeping architecture in the Indo-Pacific—one that is fair, open, inclusive and sustainable.
Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation at New Delhi. He looks at geo-political events in South and West Asia and littoral security in the Indian Ocean.