How does India manage competition and cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and why is competition and cooperation necessary now? It wasn’t soHow does India manage competition and cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and why is competition and cooperation necessary now? It wasn’t sosometime back. Therefore, it is probably important to mention the geopolitics of the region in which ocean had hidden role but was hardly being spoken. Ahmed Rashid’s classic book, titled. ‘Oil, Islam and the Great Game’ is very instructive. A Pakistani journalist who got into the bastion of Taliban when it was ruling Afghanistan towards the end of 90s, he was probably the first writer who publicly spoke about Pak Army/ISI’s complicity with the Taliban. Reprimand was swift and for many years he was banished from Pakistan but now he is back in his country, though less active. Linkages of Indian Ocean littorals to the world geopolitics and the great game come out clearly in this book. One would also recall the Cold War era when the US had close relations with Iran and Pakistan, mainly to prevent the Soviet Union from getting access to the warm water ports of the Arabian Sea. Discovery of oil in the gulf and subsequent fall of the Soviet Union changed the international order from bipolarity to unipolarity making US, the single hegemon.
The disruption in this world order probably began post 9/11 which led the US to revisit Indian Ocean more seriously. Possibly this wasn’t the only reason; it was also driven by the arrival of China, which had made tremendous economic and military strides while the US was busy fighting war on terror and was now challenging US unipolarity and pursuing its desire to change the international order. Having made its presence felt in South China Sea, China will-soon emerge in the IOR full scale when it achieves its maritime silk road ambition. We need to see Indian Ocean competition and cooperation in this larger context, otherwise by itself, Ocean is only a facilitator, a medium for transportation and natural resources.
The IOR is important to China since over 60 percent of her oil needs are met from this region. China also always has military objectives embedded in its economic development activities. That is why one finds Hambantota, Male, Djibouti and Gwadar happening. China considers this sea route vital to its economic well being and therefore finds it necessary to secure it militarily. With the presence of 40 navies already in this region, it offers ample opportunity to accidental or unintended face offs. What else would one expect when combatant are face to face with each other?
On the other hand, the discourse of larger Indo-Pacific has become more pronounced after the US renamed its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific command. This commitment is perhaps driven by the reality that its close allies Japan and South Korea access most of their oil from the Gulf. US’s drive for war on terror, its policy towards Iran and support to Sunni kingdoms in the Gulf are issues of the great game. It puts to rest any notion of declining US interest in the area.
One would recall PM Modi’s articulation at Shangri La on 1 June, where he said that India did not wish to make competition to become conflict but cooperation and we must not return to Great Power rivalry. He also mentioned that the Indian Navy has been engaged in cooperation in the IOR for years. Indian Navy’s maritime strategy lays down the role it envisions for itself from Straits of Malacca to Straits of Hormuz in the North Arabian Sea extending down to Bab-el-Mandep and Horn of Africa.
While the Eastern Indian Ocean has been relatively quiet, the Western Indian Ocean, i.e., Arabian Sea, both the gulfs and the African coast has seen much action. The non traditional threats such as piracy, terrorism, transnational crimes, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, illegal fishing, seabed exploration, non combatant evacuation following man made disasters and human suffering have all taken place in this area which remained outside the area of operations of the Indo-Pacific command of the US. Western Indian Ocean and Gulfs are under the charge of Central Command with whom India did not have any institutionalised mechanism of cooperation. But 2+2 talks on 6 September have made some correction and now there is an agreement to position a Naval Liaison Officer at NAVCENT in Bahrain and put in place a formal mechanism to exchange information regarding maritime movements and sharing other maritime issues. India, being the largest country in the region with strong Navy, has been by and large, the first responder in the region.
Global energy trade in the IOR have led to presence of extra regional naval ships in the name of securing SLOCs. Presence of large number of combatants from 40 odd countries provides opportunities of accidental or unintended encounter. To prevent this, cooperation would be necessary.
The development drive in the Eastern Indian Ocean littorals has made them even more energy hungry. Countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and India are largely dependent on their trade traversing through IOR sea lanes. Securing these sea lanes is in the interest of all these countries.
Indian Navy has created a web of surveillance network to improve maritime domain awareness and share it with IOR countries. In the absence of a formal regional security architecture, it has established bilateral and few multilateral arrangements by way of joint EEZ surveillance, patrolling, electronic monitoring, exchanging white shipping data and intelligence. On 4 Dec 2017 the Indian CNS stated that naval ships, submarines and aircraft are on mission based deployment 24×7 at the choke points in the IOR where non traditional security risks to shipping are high. It also provides flexibility to our combatants to respond to natural disasters in the area. These warships also carry HADR stores every time they leave harbour. The countries in the IOR having bilateral agreements with India have developed SOPs to operate together. These agreements also serve as confidence building mechanism amongst participating countries and provide transparency to operations. One of the prime reasons for absence of any formal security architecture in the Indian Ocean is lack of confidence amongst the littorals because of big power rivalries. Recently, for the first time, IONS is discussing enabling mechanisms to establish common security framework.
India’s own North Eastern states’ development is closely linked to Act East Foreign Policy. The trade and maritime security cooperation with ASEAN is witnessing exponential rise. Joint development of ports, logistics support agreements for each other’s ships and aircraft is an effort in the direction of shared security. India’s recent agreements with UAE and other gulf countries, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar has provided opportunity for larger participation and quicker response mechanisms to traditional and non traditional maritime threats.
At the Shangri La dialogue, Prime Minister Modi emphasised the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), clearly establishing relationship between economy and security. The Indian Navy deploys in that spirit of protection. The visit of PM Modi to Wuhan also demonstrates initiative and effort to bring China in the fold for stability and peace in the region to ensure free movement of legal commerce in accordance with rule based international order. The Indo-Pacific is a vast area and therefore, number of mini and multilateral arrangements for adequate assets must be seen as subtext in the larger context of shared security. Creating any new organisation would only add to dysfunction. There is need to strengthen the existing organisations such as IONS or IORA and redefine shared responsibilities. The capacity building in those countries will have to commensurate with own threat perceptions.
India and Africa along with Japan are in the process of setting up cooperative mechanisms. Countries with larger assets will need to commit greater support to this framework. Although the littorals have not yet come on a single platform, Indian Navy and navies of these countries have established bilateral arrangements for security in the areas where their own assets are inadequate.
One question which is asked often is “does India see any maritime cooperation with China in the near future?” There would be no doubt in believing that every country with energy and trade interests in the IOR will need to ensure security of the sea lanes which is imprudent to achieve singly, but in a cooperative manner. One has to build trust with each other to avoid each nation creating a chain of military bases across the world over for its own security. In 2007, the then CNO of the US Navy, Admiral Mike Mullen had suggested 1000 ship world Navy for maritime security.
India has intensified Bay of Bengal initiative BIMSTEC wherein decision making would be participative. The focus remains on connectivity for free movement of legal commerce following rule based international order.
Much of Cooperation and competition in the IOR will depend on US-China, US-India and US-Iran relationship in near future. On the US- China front, the US needs China since it is its largest trading partner but yet it wishes to restrict China’s rapid rise. Though China has some distance to travel on this account, its GDP being around 58% of the US. As far as technology is concerned, opinions are divided; the gap between the two could be two to three decades. US would like to delay narrowing of this gap. It is in this context that US-India relations need to be seen. India being Special Strategic Partner, US expects India to play larger role in achieving its objectives. India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific is reflected in the outcomes of 2+2 dialogue. Signing of COMCASA, and earlier LEMOA speak for themselves. However, if US imposes restrictions on India’s oil imports from Iran and buying defence equipment from Russia, then US achieving its strategic objectives in the Indo Pacific could become restrictive. US-Iran relations are also important. Any harsh actions against Iran has the risk of increased Taliban offensives against US troops in Afghanistan, apart from nuclear weapon proliferation. The present downtrend in US-Pakistan relations has a limit. US needs Pakistan for counter terror operations in Af-Pak region as also for logistics support to US troops. It wouldn’t like to abandon Pakistan altogether, much to India’s discomfort. India’s investment in development and operationalisation of Chabahar port is important and could be an alternate route for the US, should it need to abandon Pakistan.
We are at a critical juncture of developing geopolitics with the arrival of President Trump. There has been visible disruption in established US strategy in the IOR. Will the strong institutions of the US prevail over tweeting desires of the President is something that we need to watch. The nervousness amongst US allies operating in IOR emanates from this uncertainty.
India, so far, has walked the tight rope rather well. It has maintained a balanced foreign policy among US, Russia and China. PM Modi’s visit to Wuhan and Sochi are reflective. Continuation of current policy will call for stability in governance if Security And Growth for All in the Region is to be taken to logical conclusions.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is now Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.