As the third-largest water body in the world, the Indian Ocean has been witness to some of the greatest trading routes through history. Ancient civilisations, rich in culture and tradition, resplendent in their glory because of their economy and their love for adventure, spawned some of the earliest seafarers in the world. Trade, in the inherent form of barter and exchange, allowed for extensive movement of silks and condiments, not to mention pottery and baubles, through these waters.
The fact that some of the civilisations surrounding the Indian Ocean were the most advanced, it stood to reason that they also possessed the richest economies of those periods. It was not all smooth sailing because it was but a matter of time for the evil elements to manifest themselves on the high seas, in the form of pirates and marauders, who plundered the merchant ships for their own personal gains.
The extensive trading on these seas was soon supplemented by the European seafarers who ventured around the Cape of Good Hope to cross over from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. While the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the British, in their colonising bid entered into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the trade routes that existed not only flourished but rather volumetrically increased to include the additional movement necessitated by the presence of the colonial powers.
Colonisation did not permit industrial growth in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but rather it gave rise to countries that provided cheap labor and resources to the industrialised West. Post the Second World War, as Japan recovered and developed, expanding its area of influence, the oil-rich countries of the Middle East were supplying the energy resources to the Japanese industry. The shortest and most economic route to and fro was naturally through the Indian Ocean, snaking through a couple of choke points around Malaysia, to the South China Sea, and to Japan.
As China emerged from its Maoist culture and recognised the need for development through an open economy, the trade routes just became more fertile and important.This importance was further enhanced as it was discovered that the Indian Ocean holds 17% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 28% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves. Given that Indian Ocean countries account for 35.5% of global iron production and 18% of world gold production, preservation and security of this region is a matter of necessity.
The Status Quo
While the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean have had localised issues and undergone political changes, internal turmoil has never overflowed and affected others in the IOR. The Indian Ocean and the sea lanes of communication have prevailed in their serenity but for sporadic incidents of piracy which continue to date. Because of the nature of these piracy attacks and their intermittent occurrence, they had to be dealt with piecemeal.
However, the world is witnessing turbulence and upheaval and the flashpoints seem to be concentrated in the areas around the Indian Ocean. The middle east has been on the boil for many decades and the temperatures are unlikely to ebb in the foreseeable future. Tensions between India and Pakistan continue to follow the perennial tidal pattern with no end in sight either.
The sudden appearance of a hitherto unknown player, one who does not really belong to the region, has seemingly disturbed, if not altered, the balance or the status quo. China’s appearance in the Indian Ocean has not come as a surprise to most. In fact, it was a matter of time and opportunity. China’s reason for its presence may be justified since more than 80% of its energy requirements course through the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean.
China made a well thought out move as it ventured into the Indian Ocean, borne out by its steady, calculated soft power diplomacy infiltrating into the region, reshaping the Indian Ocean’s strategic environment and morphing upon the existing dynamics of the IOR. China does not have any aggressive designs (as yet?) but rather it claims its presence provides a defence quotient and comfort to its essential energy resources in their transit through this region.
Chinese Designs on the Indian Ocean
In the last two decades, China has made concerted efforts to step out of its cloistered existence and display its growing strength to the world. Initiated by Hu Jintao at the turn of the millennium, Xi Jinping has stepped up the process and made his moves to impact the geostrategy, the economy and international geopolitics around the globe. Supported by its amazing economic growth, China has chosen the path of spreading its influence through soft power diplomacy. Creation of educational institutions, cultural centres, development of infrastructure have all contributed to establishing a foothold in seemingly insignificant places. But a holistic look at their influence gives rise to suspicion of their intentions.
In a steady and premeditated sequence, China has acquired footholds in the Indian Ocean Region in various countries along the rim. This has been for the primary purpose of creating logistics and supply hubs for its naval ships operating in the Indian Ocean because there is no Navy that can operate over extended periods far away from its country’s mainland.
Starting with Myanmar, China created the deep-water port at Kyaukpu, on the Bay of Bengal and established an oil pipeline from there to mainland China. The Coco Islands, a littoral of Malaysia and located NE of the Andaman Islands, have seen Chinese presence possibly for surveillance purposes. Bangladesh offered Chittagong port to the Chinese to be developed for increased traffic and tonnage. Sri Lanka offering Hambantota port on the southeast of the island country was a big blow to India.
The infrastructural development there has been to such a scale as to put the port under the total control of a Chinese company with a lease extending for 99 years. The Maldives accepted the development of Marao port, putting it under debt and obligation to China.
Gwadar, a deep water port located to the west of Karachi, was taken over for development by the Chinese to provide the conduit and link to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a tentacle of the BRI which traverses through the Central Asian region. Reaching westwards, China has used its soft power to establish its foothold in Djibouti, at the mouth of the strategic Gulf of Aden and in Kenya, with Mombasa as the key node.
In 2004, U.S. defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton very aptly coined the term “String of Pearls” in a report submitted to the Office of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense to describe China’s strategy in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
While China’s appearance in the Indian Ocean has altered the dynamics of the region, its military presence has certainly caused more than a ripple. Military presence in the garb of anti-piracy and protection of energy assets certainly does not find the necessity, especially when the elements involved are submarines or aircraft carriers.
This is ominous, to say the least. The ‘String of Pearls’ policy will certainly develop into the establishment of naval bases which, if it is to be surmised, will form the logistical hubs for PLA(Navy) escapades. Sustaining naval ships for long durations at high seas, far from home shores, is always a major problem and the stated logistics hubs are expected to fill this void. Could there be more devious designs than meets the eye?
The fact that the Chinese PLA (Navy) moved in nuclear-powered attack submarines on routine patrols and the future likely deployment of its Liaoning class aircraft carrier for exercises in the Indian Ocean clearly indicates China’s intentions of expanding its military operations to match its areas of interest. Having had problems operating the J-15 (SU-33 variant) fighter aircraft from its aircraft carriers, China has developed the twin-engine J-31 for carrier operations. A fifth-generation stealth fighter with performance similar to the USA’s F-35 and armed with long-range missiles, it will form a formidable addition to the armoury of any Carrier Battle Group (CBG).
The development of the CPEC, a tentacle of the BRI snaking through Pakistan, will have the capability to support Chinese military traffic if the need so arises (with the assistance of Pakistan, no doubt). The painting on the canvas comes into focus for India’s security strategists—China to the North of us, China to the West of us (CPEC), and China to the south of us, in the Indian Ocean. The encirclement does not need elaboration.
Countries that do not operate expeditionary forces tend to be obsessed with their ground armies and India is no exception. Countering Pakistan and its activities and China’s constant presence on and across our northern borders necessitates a counter that only an Army can provide. The long borders on both the western and northern frontiers, extending over 5000 km cannot be overseen by anything, other than the man on the ground.
The resultant effect of such large areas that have to be necessarily protected is that the concentration of the Army and in fact, the Indian Armed Forces’ entire threat perception is projected westwards and northwards. Given this perspective and historical data, the peninsula is devoid of any military, save for the Indian Navy, and a few IAF and IA training facilities.
Notwithstanding the 7000 km long coastline, the Indian Navy was never developed into a credible maritime arm and virtually remained a coastal defence force till the 1980s. Bluewater capability has been made a prime thrust area since the early 1990s only. Building ships and capability is a long drawn out process with large gestation periods. In its present capacity, the Indian Navy is hard-pressed to patrol the waters of the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal, let alone the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy had a decent Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) capability in its TU-142 aircraft over the years. Plagued with spares and maintenance issues and redundancy, the legacy aircraft has finally been replaced by the versatile and well-appointed Boeing P-8 I Maritime Patrol aircraft. Designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW), intelligence gathering, maritime patrol, surveillance, and reconnaissance, the multi-mission P-8 I is a force multiplier and a state-of-the-art platform. Notwithstanding any Navy’s capability, the oceans are just too vast to do any sustained patrolling or surveillance.
The answer is to provide the deterrence and the means to affect offensive action, should the need so arise. In such vast spaces, occupied by the steady passage of merchant shipping through the SLOCs, the requirement for impeccable intelligence inputs cannot be overemphasised. Satellite coverage, to oversee the large tracts of ocean, becomes an absolute necessity.
Maritime Strike capability has always been shore-based and is the responsibility of the Indian Air Force, which provides a dedicated Jaguar Squadron as well as a SU-30 MKI Squadron in the role. Controlled by the Maritime Air Operations (MAO) HQ in Mumbai, it is the responsibility of this organisation to liaise with both the Eastern and Western Fleets of the IN and meet their offensive strike missions. In a concerted effort to oversee the IOR, the Indian Air Force has developed a couple of strategic air bases in the recent past.
The international airport at Thiruvananthapuram is already able to accept the “heavies” like the IL-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and the Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS), as is the international airport at Chennai. Both have, in the past, been host to IAF and IN joint exercises and are familiar with fighter operations. The extension and strengthening of the Sulur runway near Coimbatore have added meat to the bones. But the pivot and the permanency is going to be provided by Thanjavur.
Recently established and equipped with a squadron of SU-30 MKI, the aircraft are to be dedicated to the Maritime Strike role. With an operational range of almost 5000 Kms and a flying time of 10 hours with aerial refueling, the SU-30 MKI covers an arc stretching from the Straits of Malacca to the western fringes of the Indian Ocean, truly converting ‘India’s area of interest’ to ‘India’s area of influence’.
Armed with state-of-the-art missiles and reconnaissance equipment, it is a formidable deterrent for anybody operating in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Given the SU-30 MKI’s inherent capability as a multi-faceted swing-role fighter, with the dedicated SU-30 MKI squadron in Thanjavur, the scope and responsibility of the IAF have been enhanced and the Indian Ocean has been brought into sharper focus.
India, for the next two decades, does not have the capability or the means to fully secure itself from any threat emanating from the Indian Ocean. It also needs to establish its prominence, if not eminence, in the IOR. Economic and military shortfalls highlight the need for hand-holding and strategic partnerships. But as the largest and economically most viable nation in the IOR, the responsibility of creating partnerships also devolves on India.
In a bid to provide assurance to the IOR rim countries for the safety and security of the region, India has proposed a collective security umbrella, with contribution from all countries in the IOR. For this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) doctrine and invited the rim countries to adopt this cooperative idea. The environment of friendship and trust needs to be enhanced by extending a supportive hand which is best done through soft power diplomacy in the form of assistance and subsidy in development of infrastructure in the area.
Having had the initiative wrested by China, India can only follow in their footsteps to offer even better infrastructure for a more competitive cost—a tough call by any standards, given China’s sheer ability to build infrastructure at an enviable pace and cost. Whatever be the case, the SAGAR initiative must be accelerated and capitalised upon. The bilateral and multi-lateral relationships will go a long way to provide stability in the region and may (in a worst-case scenario) help in allowing military operations from their respective mainland. This is a contingency that must be contained in the understanding that develops over time.
The United States renaming its Pacific Command (PACOM) as the Indo-Pacific Command has come as a major shot in the arm, strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries. The Indian Ocean has, for long been in the US strategic bore-sight. Development of Diego Garcia as a major military base for its expeditionary forces has paid rich dividends in the US’s war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Will the strategic relationship and the security agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum Of Agreement (LEMOA), which provides both countries access to designated military facilities in specified areas and the Communications Capability And Security Agreement (COMCASA), metamorphose into something more? While no military alliance exists, the implied bonding will have far reaching consequences, should power play become necessary.
Dominating the ‘High Ground’ over the Indian Ocean
This is the opportune moment for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force to put up an integrated team to provide the necessary security in the theatre. While naval ships do have the necessary firepower for the purposes expected in the region, they remain constrained in reaction and reach. AirPower, under the circumstances, is the element of choice, the AWACS, the FRA, the MR and the SU-30 MKI in its long-range configuration, all make up a composite force of some reckoning.
This force will be able to project its capabilities over vast tracts of ocean and, in fact, is able to straddle the SLOCs that traverse the Indian Ocean. Elements of the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force would be able to extend their influence even farther if relationships through SAGAR take on a defined direction. The security of the region is paramount. All players, except China, belong there and thus effective cooperation will go a long way to ensure peace.
Naval vessel access and IAF aircraft operations from IOR countries will ensure the region is secure and satisfied. There is a strong case to provide the IN and the IAF with more assets to undertake operations in the Indian Ocean, with intra-regional capability and support. Thus, suitable naval ships, MR aircraft, AWACS, FRA, HALE UAVs and such strategic assets will need to be enhanced, given the vastness of the environment.
There is no better time to amalgamate the Southern Naval Command and the Southern Air Command into an Integrated Indian Ocean Command, with an element of the Indian Army, specialised in Air Assault and Amphibious Operations (maybe a Division strength). The Integrated Command will be responsible for the security of the two coastlines and beyond. The sheer presence of such a formidable force structure, adequately equipped and conducting regular surveillance, both by surface ships and airborne assets, will send a strong message to China and a strong assurance to the rim countries of the IOR.
The Indian Ocean occupies the most strategic space in the coming decades. With a major part of the world’s energy resources traversing these waters, it also becomes necessary that recipient countries have the assurance of the steady and undisrupted flow to support their economies. The relative calm and safety of the Indian Ocean have been disturbed by China’s entry into the region. While China has established its presence, rather diabolically if it may be said, through its soft power diplomacy, its military presence has created ripples among the rim countries of the IOR.
As relatively small and peace-loving nations, the need for security and assurance of the rim countries well-being cannot be denied. India’s offer of creating an umbrella arrangement through its SAGAR program has found favour. India needs to make the strategic move to capture the opportunity and make the hand-holding a permanent structure. While HADR support is guaranteed, there is no better way than military assurance to provide the right climate of security.
Dominating the Indian Ocean will send a strong signal of both authority and peace. The opportunity to create an Integrated Indian Ocean Command will not only signal progress in our reorganisation efforts, but it will also send a clear message across a vast spectrum. We must not miss the boat.