There are many good reasons to believe that India could become the predominant power in the Indian Ocean region, at least in the long run. Geographically, it dominates the area. It has a massive population, a huge military, and is on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest economies. Importantly, many in India’s elite see the domination of the Indian Ocean as part of India’s destiny: they see it as natural that India should be the leading power in the ocean that bears its name.
But one should be careful about drawing straight-line projections from all of this. While India may in the future acquire the material capabilities to dominate the Indian Ocean, there are still real questions as to whether the ocean will become India’s Ocean. India will need to overcome many constraints, both internal and external, that limit its strategic role in the region.
For one thing, India will need to learn to work cooperatively with the United States. Although its defence resources are under strain, the US will likely have the capability to be the predominant Indian Ocean power for decades to come. The more important question, though, is how long will the US choose to commit the necessary resources to dominate the Indian Ocean? Washington seems willing to cede—and indeed encourage—a major security role for India in the Indian Ocean. But there’ll be limits to US support for India, particularly if Washington perceives New Delhi to be acting in a manner inconsistent with US interests.
A further constraint is India’s weak relationships with the region’s middle powers of the region. New Delhi has successfully developed security relationships with several smaller countries, and indeed India’s National Security Advisor recently announced a maritime security ‘arrangement’ among India and the island states of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius. But India has been slow to develop cooperative relations with larger or more powerful regional players such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Australia. Several middle powers see benefits in developing strategic partnerships with India, but would expect such arrangements to give proper recognition to their own interests.
Nor does China accept that the Indian Ocean should become India’s Ocean. China is becoming a major economic player in the region and is tentatively demonstrating its naval reach. Unless India can mitigate the growing regional rivalry with China, this will become an increasingly important constraint on India’s role in the region.
Another limitation arises from India’s aversion to security cooperation with other states. India’s devotion to the idea of strategic autonomy feeds fears that cooperation with the US—and even with lesser powers—will undermine India’s destiny to become a great power. Ironically, an insistence on strategic autonomy now acts as a significant constraint on India’s influence in the Indian Ocean. The provision of security on a unilateral basis is becoming increasingly untenable even for great powers such as the US, and India will be expected by others to demonstrate cooperative regional leadership.
There are also questions as to how India might exercise leadership in the Indian Ocean. Many in the Indian elite believe that India will achieve a dominant strategic role in the Indian Ocean through demonstrating benign and principled leadership as what New Delhi is now calling the region’s ‘main resident power.’
But India’s dominant world view also places considerable emphasis on hierarchy. Indeed, to outsiders, India sometimes appears preoccupied with the recognition of its status as a great power. This includes the acquisition of major power status symbols such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Considerations of hierarchy also underlie India’s caution in engaging with middle powers such as Australia. And of course China’s refusal to recognise India’s leading status in the Indian Ocean is particularly incomprehensible and infuriating to New Delhi.
It’s India’s instinct to try to exclude extra-regional powers from the Indian Ocean, previously the US, and now China. But if India is to play a leadership role, it’ll need to come to terms with the fact that many Indian Ocean states may see the presence of such powers (primarily the US, but in the case of Pakistan, also China) as enhancing their security.
Although India’s position as an Indian Ocean power will almost inevitably grow in coming years, there’s no obvious path as to how its role will develop. As with other areas of Indian policy there’s a good chance that India will continue along at its own pace without any overarching or coordinated strategic plan, seeking to expand its power and influence here and there on an ad hoc basis as and when opportunities present themselves. That may seem a low risk approach for New Delhi, but a failure of India to properly come to terms with China’s interests in the Indian Ocean or to properly co-opt the middle powers of the region may restrict India from fully achieving its ambitions. There’s likely to be a new balance of power in the Indian Ocean in coming years, but the transition is unlikely to be a smooth or simple one for the region—or for India.
David Brewster is a former international corporate lawyer. He is currently a Fellow with the Australia India Institute and a Visiting Fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of India’s Ocean: the story of India’s bid for regional leadership. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.