September 3, 2019

India Steps Up: Securing the Indian Ocean Region

The following article was published for the Indian Ocean Conference 2019 held in the Maldives on September 3-4, 2019. 

The Indian Ocean is important for India and for the world. It remains a major conduit for international trade, particularly energy trade, as well as the exchange of people and ideas. These reflect historical antecedents, including ancient and medieval trading networks that once linked Zanzibar to Muscat, Basra to Gujarat, the Coromandel coast to Aceh, and eastwards to Indochina, China’s Pearl River Delta, and Nagasaki. But in more recent years, regional linkages have assumed modern characteristics as the global economy has developed. The Indian Ocean littoral is now home to some of the fastest growing regions of the world, from South and Southeast Asia to East Africa and the Gulf. Additionally, the Ocean basin is an important source of natural resources, including mineral, energy, and fishing resources.

At the same time, the Indian Ocean is under-governed. It remains vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis. It has several weak and fragile states along its coast. It still witnesses dangerous activities by non-state actors, from smugglers and traffickers to terrorists and pirates. And the region’s institutional architecture, while much improved, is less well-developed than other maritime regions of the world.

It is amid this backdrop that the security of the Indian Ocean is undergoing significant changes to its security. The most significant change is the permanent entry into the Indian Ocean of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As India’s previous Navy Chief Sunil Lanba said earlier this year:

Since 2008, there has been a permanent presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean region in the form of an anti-piracy escort force. The 31st anti-piracy escort force is presently in the Gulf of Aden. So at any given time there are 6 to 8 Chinese navy ships in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. Also, two years ago they commissioned their first overseas facility, or base, in Djibouti.

The stated aim of this deployment is to protect their trade, which is flowing through this area, from piracy. That included deployed submarines for anti-piracy operations, which is the most unlikely platform to be used for this role. There is no doubt they are spending a huge sum of money in developing their military capability. They are modernising their forces, they are modernising the command structure. And in my opinion, no navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese navy. They’ve added 80 new ships in the last five years. So the Chinese navy is a force, and it is a force which is here to stay.

China’s Navy is not the only one to have increased its presence in the region. Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force now also operates actively in the Indian Ocean, as does the U.S. Navy, the maritime forces of several European powers, and Russia. The Indian Ocean is no longer just under-governed, it is increasingly contested. For regional navies, including India’s, this presents new kinds of challenges.

In response to these changes, the Indian Navy – the Indian Ocean’s most capable resident maritime force – has stepped up, especially since 2017. It has been assisted by other elements of India’s defence establishment, including the Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, space and cyber assets, military diplomacy, defence industry, and civilian agencies. Moreover, it has benefited tremendously from partnerships with other countries: both resident Indian Ocean states and partners among the major powers. There are at least five ways in which India – led by the Navy – is attempting to better manage security in the Indian Ocean.

The first is that since 2017, the Indian Navy has stepped up its patrols in the Indian Ocean. Seven zones were identified for permanent patrols by armed surface vessels, submarines, or aircraft: the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the northern Bay of Bengal, the Laccadive islands and the Maldives, the northern Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the exclusive economic zones of Mauritius and the Seychelles. These mission-based deployments are a departure from the past, when the Navy participated in flag waving, port calls, or periodic visits for surveillance or other missions. The current efforts include coordinated patrols with local forces, whether with Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia, or other patrolling and security efforts in conjunction with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Such operations are also bolstered by Indian humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue, and evacuation operations. Over the past decade, India has executed or assisted in such operations in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mozambique, and Yemen, among other places. The operational reach of the Indian Navy has also improved with a host of bilateral agreements signed over the last few years, including with the United States, France, Singapore, and others. From Sabang in Indonesia to Salalah in Oman, the Indian armed forces today have unprecedented access across the Indian Ocean region.

The second area has involved improvements in maritime domain awareness (MDA). India has signed white shipping agreements – for sharing information about known commercial shipping – with over thirty countries. It recently established an information fusion centre – the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) – in Gurgaon, with the intention to link with similar centres in both Singapore and Madagascar. This would give a real-time and all-encompassing picture of the presence of vessels and other developments across the Indian Ocean. MDA coordination mechanisms with other countries – the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles – continue, and India has benefited from the acquisition of new platforms, such as P-8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which bring down the cost and efficiency of MDA activities.

A third major development has involved a host of new strategic coordination mechanisms, as well as the gradual development of new institutions for governing the Indian Ocean region. The evolution of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) are well-known. But these are being buttressed by a network of bilateral and trilateral dialogues. These include configurations such as India-U.S.-Japan, India-Japan-Australia, and India-Indonesia-Australia, as well as quadrilateral conversations. Such coordination mechanisms extend to strategic assessments, working level information sharing, and infrastructure coordination activities.

A fourth development has been growing interoperability between the Indian military and others. This is reflected in a large and growing number of military exercises involving armies, air forces, and navies. Today, India holds regular exercises of different scales and frequencies with almost every Indian Ocean littoral state, as well as the United States, Russia, Japan, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Breakthrough exercises with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia are but some of the new changes reflected in this area. Such exercises have moved beyond basic passing exercises (PASSEX) to more sophisticated anti-submarine warfare and mid-air refuelling. 

The final element of India’s step-up in the Indian Ocean involves capacity building. This is reflected even in an area such as equipment, despite India’s poor capabilities in that department. India has provided coastal radar systems, transport aircraft, and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to a number of smaller countries around the Indian Ocean basin. Training too has increased, particularly for South Asian and African countries; in Southeast Asia this extends to combat aircraft pilots and submarine sailors. And there is also the development of military and civilian infrastructure. Among other projects, India has helped develop a container port in Chabahar in Iran as well as a port in Sittwe in Myanmar, with the objective of linking these ports to north-south connectivity infrastructure. Additional infrastructure projects are being negotiated with other countries in the region, including island nations.

Taken together, these developments reflect a significant change in India’s presence and activity in the Indian Ocean, driven by both the traditional and non-traditional security dynamics that are changing the region’s landscape. These efforts are largely cooperative in nature, based on transparency, sustainability, and consent. They are part of a broader effort to preserve the Indian Ocean as a free, open, and inclusive zone, one that witnesses dampened – rather than heightened – security competition.