Abhijit Singh head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation talks about India’s engagements in the Indian Ocean

Important Analysis

  • Abhijit Singh observes that a series of bilateral exercises with regional navies in the Indian Ocean have demonstrated the Indian Navy’s resolve to preserve operational leverage in the Indian ocean. For example
    • In April, Indian and Australian warships held drills (AUSINDEX) in the Bay of Bengal
    • Anti-submarine exercise with the U.S. Navy near Diego Garcia.
    • ‘Varuna’ with the French Navy off the coast of Goa and Karwar.
    • Two Indian warships participated in a ‘group sail’ with warships from Japan, the Philippines and the United States on return from a fleet review in Qingdao.
  • A paucity of assets and capacity has forced the Navy to seek partners willing to invest resources in joint security endeavours.
  • Reasons for India’s aggressive engagement in sea is
  1. The rapid expansion of China’s naval footprint in the Indian Ocean.
    • Beyond commercial investments in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, China has established a military outpost in Djibouti, a key link in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Djibouti portends a future where China would control key nodes skirting important shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, allowing the PLA’s Navy (PLAN) to dominate the security dynamic.
    • Reports suggest the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is planning an expansion of its logistics base for non-peacekeeping missions, raising the possibility of an operational overlap with the Indian Navy’s areas of interest
  2. Deterring Chinese undersea deployments in South Asia:
  • China’s expanding submarine forays in the Indian Ocean indicate Beijing’s strategic ambitions in India’s neighbourhood.
  • With China’s assistance, Pakistan is becoming an increasingly potent actor in the northern Indian Ocean.
  • China has also been instrumental in strengthening the navies of Bangladesh and Myanmar, both increasingly active participants in regional security initiatives.
    1. Active engagement of Sri Lanka in Indian Ocean
    • Sri Lanka has positioned itself as a facilitator of joint regional endeavours, expanding engagement with Pacific powers which includes the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy.
    • However, Chinese submarine sightings have decreased in recent time, which has led some to conclude that Beijing is moving to scale down its maritime operations in the Indian Ocean. Reasons are
    1. Improved relation between India and China after Wuhan summit
    2. China’s growing naval power may prove detrimental to the cause of promoting the BRI.
    3. India’s refusal to participate in the BRI may have also prompted China to rethink its economic and military strategies in the Indian Ocean.
    4. Although some point out that PLAN is on a quest to master undersea ‘quieting’ technologies and its new submarines are stealthier than ever. The reason they are not being frequently sighted is because Chinese submarines are quieter and craftier than earlier.
  • China and India in Africa and West Asia
    • China hasn’t indicated any change of plan in West Asia and the east coast of Africa, where most of China’s energy and resource shipments originate. Chinese investments in port infrastructure in Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Mozambique have grown at a steady pace, even as PLAN has sought to expand its presence in the western Indian Ocean
    • In response, India has moved to deepen its own regional engagement, seeking naval logistical access to French bases in Reunion and Djibouti, where the second phase of ‘Varuna’ will be held later this month.
  • Issue Highlighted by author in India’s approach
    • India’s Indian Ocean focus makes for an essentially defensive posture.
    • India’s reluctance to militarise the Quadrilateral grouping or to expand naval operations in the Western Pacific, the power-equation with China remains skewed in favour of the latter.
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