• Santushti Raj Thapar

New Delhi’s Changing Perspective on Indian Ocean Introduction

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

Santushti Thapar

Phd Scholar

G.D.Goenka University

Gurugram, Haryana

The Indian Ocean is the third biggest world’s pelagic partitions, addressing roughly 20% of the water on the surface bordered by Asia, Africa, Australia, and Southern Ocean and thus becoming a decisive cardinal node amidst effective nations. It covers one fifth of the world’s total ocean area and encapsulates coastlines of almost 70000 kms. Its major choke points are: Bab El Mandeb, strait of Hormuz, Lombok strait, Palk strait and Malacca strait. Its main seas are: Gulf of Aden, Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Mannar, Mozambique channel, Gulf of Oman, Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The Indian Ocean region has always been useful area for the trade, security, marine resources to the littoral states as well as dominant world powers of the time. Richard Hall declared once that the unity of the Indian Ocean to the age Asia, or indeed to the balance of world power. U.S has predominant position in Indo pacific while new rising players China and India also putting persistent efforts. Thus IOR and its changing strategic dynamics hold crucial importance for its three key players: China, India and the U.S. The challenges for India in the emerging environment are: as the dominant power US and China are already covering geo strategically whip hand position with a rapidly rising economy, a robust military armed with the huge navy in the entire rim region and fast increasing interests, how India does perceive her unfolding enormous interest in the Indian Ocean, and what kind of strategies it seeks to build her position in the region? This is the central strategic problem that India faces: how to secure itself and promote its national interest in a crude unbalanced strategic environment. A balance of power analysis suggests that New Delhi has a number of strategic options and reasons to consider Indian policymakers have been constantly debating these choices. These strategic and their options are:

Huge interest in power projection ambition in the Geo Politics of Indian Ocean

In the global political discourse, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is the most obvious platform and the best hope for further trade, socio economic and cultural cooperation with its members, 7 dialogue partners and two observers. India’s Potential in Indian Ocean is its centre of gravity, which should be a facilitator instead of an obstacle. That needs a smoother movement of goods and people within India but also to cash Modi’s ‘immediate neighbourhood’ policy. Thus stronger connectivity is at the Kaladan transport project leading to Sittwe port in Myanmar; port development in Bangladesh, or in Srilanka; the trilateral highway to Thailand; railway modernisation, inland waterways, coastal shipping; today, better logistic is the dominant theme of India’s neighbourhood outreach. India Afghanistan understanding on Chabhar port project with Iran and both also working on the International North South Transport Corridor. India is also interested in joining the Ashgabat agreement that connects the Indian Ocean to Central Asia. Consequently, India is remarkably keen in working closely with other stakeholders, including China, in tackling multiple non-conventional threats such as piracy. Moreover, a purely internal strategy is infrastructure initiatives with the ‘make in India’ programme, the implications for the Indian Ocean are quite evident. Today India is ambitiously interested working on plans for port and port-led development that would make her 7500 km coastline more relevant and also looking at more aggressively developing some of our 1200 islands to the future in the region. In last two months New Delhi’s renewed focus on the Andaman is also remarkable. Alongside, developing a robust agenda now by escalating cooperation among SAARC members like, disaster management, weather forecasting or satellite capabilities), conceptualised grouping like BBIN and also BIMSTEC with reference to the Bay of Bengal. Also encouraging littoral nations to work together, New Delhi is also pressing to larger maritime logistic cooperation in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. India’s other step in support of this line of thinking is enormous interest escalating relation with Japan on the Mekong – Dawai initiative, on Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM). Strengthening number of bilateral and multilateral partnerships with France, Sri Lanka, Australia others robust are U.S and Japan and also enhancing joint strategic vision for Asia Pacific.

Geo political opportunity US policy of rebalance to Asia

Ashley J Tellis (2012) observes that the US considers Indian Ocean as a ‘global Common’ or as Alfred Mahan terms as ‘great highway’, although India considers it as a coherent sub region or Indian Ocean society with distinct culture and historical linkage and commonness among the littoral states. The U.S has considerable naval presence in Diego Garcia in the form of Naval Support Facility, established in 1977. Kaplan (2014) notes that US interest in the IOR canters around three imperative: securing Indian Ocean for international commerce; avoiding regional conflict on issue of strategic choke points-strait of Hormuz and Malacca Strait; and dealing with Sino-Indian competition in IOR. US pivot and ‘rebalancing’ strategy also seeks to cement strategic partnership with India. Us maritime strategy (2015), Manmohan Singh and Obama, labels the region the ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’, while Prime Minister Narender Modi and President Donald Trump referred to it in their recent joint statement as the ‘Indo-Pacific”.

India has crusaded with the United States to ensue various benefits—the U.S.- India nuclear deal and the NSG waiver for India are only the most important instances of this. A relationship based on balancing would have stressed military cooperation much more, but as the decade-long delay in the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement shows, India continues to remain somewhat wary of being seen as militarily balancing with the United States. Four other factors also make United State an attractive partner: its power, its external balancing strategy and its willingness to partner with India, its self-interest. More importantly, the primary purpose of the strategic choices considered here is the need to tackle the challenge of China’s rise. A closer alignment with Washington likely represents India’s best chance to counter China, while efforts to foster regional partnerships and cultivate domestic military capabilities, although insufficient by themselves, could play a complementary role. Consequently, India has already begun to cultivate a deeper strategic relationship with the United States. The primary purpose of the strategic choices considered here is the need to tackle the challenge of China’s rise. To counter this challenge in recent years, India has already begun to cultivate a deeper strategic relationship with the United States. The United States is the only country in the world that is stronger than China and thus the most attractive potential partner for India to balance China.

Changing strategy from a territorial to a non territorial maritime conception

The Indian Ocean is very ‘active’ ocean, perceived by many as the emerging centre of gravity in the strategic world. In the 19th century an American navy officer and geo-strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan enunciated that the countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact and ability to exercise control over seas and territories and his statement has influenced the naval strategy of many countries in modern times. Among others, the three factors - India’s Act policy leading to India’s close engagements with Chinese neighbours in South East Asia. The ‘Act East Policy’ is an NDA government policy which focuses on the Pacific countries in addition to the South East Asian countries. The recent high level visits in a short span of time, ranging from Myanmar to Fiji were meant to signal this shift from the Look East Policy. Chinese increasing forays in Indian Ocean and Indo - U.S closeness- have deep impact on India’s evolving Indian Maritime strategy.

India has enhanced capability and role of Navy. Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is also another voluntary initiative seeks coordination with littoral states. According to current naval modernization plan India will increase its fleet size to 160 by the year 2020. The maritime doctrine calls for control of maritime choke points, islands and trade routes in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal and further expanded to include the arc from Persian Gulf to Strait of Malacca within legitimate maritime interest by 2025. Indian Ocean Rim association for Regional cooperation and Bay of Bengal was an instrumental formation initiative for Multi-Sectoral technologies and economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The IOR-ARC is an association of 18 littoral states of Indian Ocean with vital stake in the maritime strategy. Bilateral Indo-U.S, trilateral Indo-U.S-Japan, quadrilateral Indo-U.S-Japan-Australia partnerships are have been flourished of forging maritime collaboration.

Maritime mindset strategy on Economic Development in the region

Trade and economic cooperation are useful tools for growing the Indian economy, generating greater wealth, and developing India’s technological capacities. The blue economy is an important ‘over the horizon’ opportunity that is waiting to be tapped. There is a great extension in intra-ocean trade and investment. Over the last two decades, India’s Look East and Act East policies have aimed at closer economic and strategic links with other countries in the region. East policy has placed emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in our trade, skills, manufacturing, infrastructure, smart cities, urban renewal, Make in India and other initiatives. Cooperation in space, people to people exchanges and S&T, Connectivity project strengthening regional integration and prosperity.

Indeed India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and ‘Think West’ can leverage the huge energy assets. Growing awareness extending grants and loans to our immediate neighbours is also strengthening a sense of solidarity and goodwill. But followup has been unsatisfactory, as India is still trading less with members of the Association of South East Asian nations. India’s inability to improve transportation infrastructure to its east is a serious problem. There is even an economic argument today to look at the Indian Ocean in a more composite way. India faces critical strategic choices. In ordinary circumstances, the country’s rapid economic growth might afford it greater control over its external environment, but India’s rise is taking place in the shadow of China’s even more dramatic growth.

Regional rebalancing with such partners could include Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam—although, in the future, Indonesia and Malaysia could potentially be incorporated. Greater trade and cooperation with friendlier countries and blocs, from the United States and the European Union to Japan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, can also help expand India’s wealth and power. We are also enhancing cooperation on coastal and EEZ, participates in arrangements like ReCAAP and SOMS mechanism.

Penetration of Chinese assertiveness and endeavour

China is increasingly demonstrating its assertiveness and employs various strategies to maximize its interest in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). China’s changing strategic dynamics in IOR poses challenges to India’s commercial, economic and political interest. China’s Maritime interest and strategy is to ensure safety of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) to maintain the uninterrupted supply of her trade and energy resources. The ‘string of pearls’ strategy has also generated heat in strategic circle of India. Latest initiative ‘’New 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR),’’ part of the One Belt, One Road is in its ultimate form, and its massive investment and projects in many of the littoral states in India’s neighbourhood also focuses on developing port and other facilities for trade purpose ostensibly. Many of the countries in Asia – Pacific have welcomed and keen to join but New Delhi joining Beijing’s New Maritime Silk Road (MSR) seems far from reality. China has also moved on rapid modernization of People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of her navy in last two decades: necessity and opportunity. Alongside China’s power in international institutions ranging from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) has at times proved to be an obstacle to Indian foreign policy ambitions. China is likely to continue to obstruct India in this manner, and its capacity to do so will only grow as its power increase China tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent India from receiving an exception from the NSG for the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and when that failed, Beijing contravened NSG rules by supplying Islamabad with nuclear power plants.51 China also opposed India’s effort to gain a permanent UNSC seat by supporting a group of countries working to prevent such expansion.

Furthermore increasing strategic deployment of naval forces in IOR to fight piracy strengthens its position and also china has bolstered her naval presence in East China Sea by declaring Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Underlying competition in the Indian Ocean is Beijing’s opposition to India’s strategic aspirations to become the leading power in the region. Their rivalry has perceived due to overlapping interest and conflicting ambitions. Mohan Malik (2012) argues,’ and both remain suspicious of each other’s long-term agenda and intentions.

Beijing on 8 march asked New Delhi to shed “mental inhibition’’ and “mutual suspicion” to improve bilateral relation. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said, “The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant to dance together rather than fight each other. No doubt it is very sensitive time for bilateral relation with China. India is a rising power, but its transformation is occurring in the shadow of China even more impressive ascent. Since China have serious differences on issues like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being part of the One Belt One Road initiative, India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group as already mentioned above and the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a global terrorist at the UN, which have cast a shadow on the ties between the two countries. China, however, took a swipe at India over its presence in the recently revived Quadrilateral – between Australia, the United State, Japan, and India – as part of the US Indo – Pacific strategy to counter China’s assertive and proactive activities in the region. (The Indian Express, March 8, 2018).


Just as importantly, present a sound position in IOR through incremental policy decisions; India must make a robust decision for its choice. To counter China US is the most attractive partner. But on the other hand this is also a thought provoking issue that China is really a threat? Is yet to focus on understanding the MSR from India’s strategic interest perspective and in this context analysis whether the Chinese MSR project is an opportunity or threat or threat to India? Should we not consider Wang’s conciliatory statement? The longer India waits to decide, the harder these decisions become. It is even possible that some choices may no longer be available. For all these reasons, India cannot afford to wait. India must decide timely how to secure its interests in this unbalanced environment by choosing among potential strategic options: staying unaligned, hoping & fencing, building own domestic military power, strengthening regional partnerships, aligning with China, or aligning with the United States. A closer alignment with Washington likely represents India’s best chance to counter China in the present scenario, but in future if China falls India may be only a lynchpin, as a game changer is US in this partnership while efforts to foster regional partnerships and cultivate domestic military capabilities, although insufficient by themselves, could play a complementary role.


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