Indian perceptions of the Indian Ocean
24 Sep 2012|

In his June 2012 visit to India, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta gave a speech that described India as central to the United States’ Indian Ocean strategy. As he put it:

‘America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing a new defense strategy for the 21st century, a central feature of that strategy is rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Defense cooperation, defense cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy’.

India, however, has a ways to go before it becomes anybody’s linchpin. That’s because Indian perceptions of operations in the Indian Ocean are driven by two factors: an adverse reaction to expeditionary actions; and a real belief in creating multilateral task forces to create order in the region.

Policymakers and defense planners in Delhi consistently point out that the word ‘expeditionary’, for the time being at least, is taboo, thus ruling out any joint operations with the United States that would lead to hostile reactions in the region. On the other hand, the Indians have been proactive in pursuing strategic partnerships with the countries in the Indian Ocean littoral, conducting joint military exercises with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

The Indian Navy has been the lead service in promoting Indian security interests throughout the Indian Ocean region and the service sees its area of responsibility stretching in the west to the Gulf and as far south as South Africa. As early as 2003 the Indian Navy provided maritime security during the African Union’s meeting in Mozambique. In the east the Navy recognizes that its area of operations extends to the Strait of Malacca, but not further south than that.

Indian interests are ruled by immediate threats like piracy, the transit of weapons of mass destruction through the Indian Ocean, and the prevention of sea launched terrorism. In all these cases the Indian government would prefer to work multilaterally with like-minded countries to eliminate these threats. The GCC forces, the ASEAN countries, South Africa, and Australia would be the logical partners in any such endeavor.

Working with regional actors is in India’s interest for two reasons. First, if multilateral forces can effectively work to contain and eliminate threats then it keeps the Indian Ocean region free of great power interventions. This has been a central plank of Indian foreign policy since achieving independence but it is only now that the Indian armed forces are slowly beginning to have the capability to act outside the South Asian region. Second, such multilateral arrangements, by their very nature, would not be formal alliances but instead cases of ‘plug and play’, in which coalitions emerge to counter particular threat scenarios.

Countering China

The long-term challenge for India remains countering the rise of China and its perceived incursion into the Indian Ocean. While the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy now receives less credibility, India remains concerned that China is deploying surveillance assets in the Indian Ocean region, seeking to lock down oil and other energy resources, and to prevent the rise of India to great power status. With these challenges in mind India is building up a naval capability that can counter Chinese naval incursions into the region. The Indian Navy is planning to have four nuclear submarines and four aircraft carriers to extend its maritime reach. In the event of a future conflict with China, Indian naval officers speak of disrupting Chinese oil flows from West Africa and the Gulf as they pass through the Indian Ocean region. India’s Tri-Service Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, if equipped with strike aircraft such as the Su-30 with air to surface missiles, could potentially inflict significant damage on a Chinese naval force breaking out of the Strait of Malacca.

All this is based, however, on a creeping weaponisation process that is incrementally adding to India’s force projection capabilities. While India has leased two nuclear attack submarines from Russia, its own indigenous nuclear submarine program is some ways away from allowing the boat to enter service. The extent to which the China challenge can be countered, therefore, must be questioned.

‘Plug and Play’ with the United States

Given the extent of the China challenge and India’s unique political compulsions it’s likely that India, in the short to medium term, won’t be working as an alliance partner with the United States. On the other hand, resisting Chinese pressure will require a greater commonality of interests with the United States, since Indian forces on their own may have less success in deterring Chinese pressure.

India is likely, therefore, to continue building its relationship with the United States by plugging into specific operations that promote its national interest and allow it to help reduce threats that impact the greater Indian Ocean community. Humanitarian missions, UN operations, and anti-piracy and anti-terrorism measures would be the most likely areas of cooperation with the United States. This would increase cooperation between the two countries and help create uncertainty in Beijing about the true strength of the US–India relationship. At the same time, it would not impinge on India’s autonomy in foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, not antagonise Beijing to the extent that it sought to take active measures against New Delhi.

But in the long run, Indian interests converge with those of the United States—something that is recognised in New Delhi. The Indians, however, would like more time and space to work out how this partnership can be truly beneficial to their country.

Amit Gupta is an associate professor at the USAF Air War College, Montgomery Alabama. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of Defense or the United States Air Force. Image courtesy of Flickr user ussocom_ru.