india-and-indian-ocean-region

Recently India has been approved as an observer state for Indian Ocean Commission. The decision to join the IOC marks a part of the government’s push for greater salience in the whole Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India Ocean Region: The region comprises the ocean itself and the countries that border it. These include Australia, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Somalia, Tanzania, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Strategically, the Indo-Pacific has been seen as a continuum across the two oceans joined together by its main trading channel, the straits of Malacca.

Significance of the Indian Ocean region:

Demographic dividend: The average age of people in the region’s countries is under 30 compared to 38 in the US and 46 in Japan. The countries bordering the Indian Ocean are home to 2.5 billion people, which is one-third of the world’s population.

The economic significance of the region

  • Privileged location at the crossroads of global trade: 80% of the world’s maritime oil trade flows through three narrow passages of water, known as chokepoints, in the Indian Ocean. This includes the Strait of Hormuz – located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – which provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.
  • Attractive Economies: The region includes fastly growing economies. The economies of many Indian Ocean countries are expanding rapidly as investors seek new opportunities.for eg: India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Tanzania.
  • The Indian Ocean is rich in natural resources: Forty percent of the world’s offshore oil production takes place in the Indian Ocean basin.
    • Fishing in the Indian Ocean now accounts for almost 15 percent of the world’s total and has increased some 13-fold between 1950 and 2010 to 11.5 million tonnes. 
    • Mineral resources are equally important, with nodules containing nickel, cobalt, and iron, and massive sulfide deposits of manganese, copper, iron, zinc, silver, and gold present in sizeable quantities on the sea bed. 

Pivotal zone of strategic competition

  • Investment by China: China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across the region as part of its One Belt One Road initiative.
  • Cheque diplomacy: China gave Kenya a US$3.2 billion loan to construct a 470-kilometer railway line. 
  • Infrastructural development: China has also invested in infrastructure and ports in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh.
  • Counterbalancing China: Western Powers like the US and Australia trying to counter China. Such as the US has launched its own infrastructure funds.
  • Significance of the Indian Ocean can be highlighted by the fact that Indian PM has increased the number of visits to African Countries.PM has traveled up and down the east coast of Africa to promote cooperation and strengthen trade and investment ties, and he has articulated strong visions of India-Africa cooperative interest.

Security issues: Countries in the Indian Ocean region face the same kinds of threats like piracy, unregulated migration, and the continued presence of extremist groups.eg:  Somalia, Bangladesh, and parts of Indonesia.

First responder in the crises: India has a proven pan-oceanic capability to tackle humanitarian challenges in the Indian Ocean. Its geographic centrality, the deployment pattern of its navy, and the limited capacity of regional nations enable it to be the first responder in the crises.

The emergence of Groupings and Forums: 

  • BIMSTEC though established in 1997 is now emerging as a platform representing Indian Ocean Countries. (BIMSTEC) works to promote trade links and is currently negotiating a free trade agreement. IORA(Indian Ocean Rim Association) is also gaining ground.
  • Indian Ocean countries may also be divided into a number of sub-regions (Australasia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and Eastern & Southern Africa), each with their own regional groupings (such as ASEAN, SAARC, GCC, and SADC, to name a few). Despite such diversity and differences, these countries are bound together by the Indian Ocean.

Image source: Open Edition Books

Significance of the Indian Ocean region for India:

  • Centrality: India is geographically located at the Ocean’s center, and has over 7,500 kilometers of coastline. 
  • Economic significance: 95 percent of India’s trade by volume and 68 percent of trade by value come via the Indian Ocean. Additionally, 3.28 million barrels per day—or nearly 80 percent of India’s crude oil requirement—is imported by sea via the Indian Ocean.
  • India is heavily dependent on the resources of the Indian Ocean. Fisheries and aquaculture industries are also a major source of exports. India’s maritime exports grew 55 times in volume between 1962 and 2012.
  • Mineral resource extraction: In 1987, India received exclusive rights to explore the Central Indian Ocean and has since explored four million square miles and established two mining sites. In 2014, the International Seabed Authority issued licenses for the Indian Ocean ridge, opening up new opportunities for deep seabed mining.
  • Security dimension to India’s engagement: the 2008 assault on Mumbai in which 164 people were killed which was perpetrated by terrorists arriving by sea. Smuggling, illegal fishing, and human trafficking are all also major concerns.
  • Dependence of the Indian economy on Monsoon: The Indian Ocean has an important role to play in keeping the moderate climate of Southern India and Indian agriculture is mostly dependent on southWest monsoon.
  • Strategic Importance: India is developing chabahar port in Iran that is why stability in the Indian Ocean region is important for India. Recently, India has also has bagged ''infrastructure development rights’’ for two islands in the region – Agalega from Mauritius and Assumption from Seychelles.
    • To keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of Peace free from superpower rivalry and increasing cooperation among littoral countries in the region. It has always been India’s foreign Policy’s goal, for example, Look East policy, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, BIMSTEC, and Ganga-Mekong Cooperation, etc.

Various groupings/initiatives in IOR

The emerging power of the Indian Ocean region 

  • Australian Foreign minister announced initiatives to strengthen Australia’s involvement in the Indian Ocean region.
  • India and Australia’s future intertwined: At Raisina Dialogue, Australia announced $25 million for a four-year infrastructure program in South Asia (The South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative, or SARIC), which will primarily focus on the transport and energy sectors.
  • Notably, India and Australia conducted 38 defense activities in 2018.

Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)

  • SAGAR enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and Its objective is to seek a climate of trust and transparency, respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries, sensitivity to each other’s interests, peaceful resolution of maritime issues and increase in maritime cooperation.

Indian Ocean Rim Association

  • The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is a dynamic inter-governmental organization that was established on 7 March 1997. It is aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the Indian Ocean region through its 22 Member States and 10 Dialogue Partners.
  • It includes a spectrum of issues including fisheries, aquaculture, seafood products, seaport and shipping, maritime connectivity, port management and operations, marine spatial planning, ocean forecasting, blue carbon, and renewable energy.

Indian Ocean Naval Symposium: The ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS) is a voluntary initiative that seeks to increase maritime co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues.

Quad grouping: India continues to cooperate with the Quad countries, having just concluded a meeting in Bangkok between officials of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, who held consultations on their collective efforts for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Countries: IOR-ARC is the only Indian Ocean organization meeting at ministerial level with membership ranging across the entire Indian Ocean region. It has a wide mandate to promote cooperation within this highly diverse region. And has the potential to make a difference.

Indian Ocean Commission: India has been approved as a member of the Indian Ocean Commission, the inter-governmental organization that coordinates maritime governance in the south-western Indian Ocean. It was Set up in 1982, the Indian Ocean Commission comprises Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros, Mauritius, and Reunion island, France’s overseas territory in the region.

Indian Ocean Tuna Commission: The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is an intergovernmental organization responsible for the management of tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean.

Asia Africa Growth Corridor: The AAGC is raised on four pillars of Development and Cooperation Projects, Quality Infrastructure and Institutional Connectivity, Enhancing Capacities and Skills and People-to-People partnership.

  • The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor or AAGC is an economic cooperation agreement between the governments of India, Japan, and multiple African countries.

Rise of Indo Pacific:  the growing footprint of China across the length and breadth of the region and second, the relative decline of the U.S. alliance system and its strive for a resurgence. The acceptance of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic construct linking the contiguous waters of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean has gained currency in the last few years with the shift in the geopolitical center of gravity to this region.

  • In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, the Indian Prime Minister had clearly indicated the geographical reach of India’s idea of the Indo-Pacific starting from Africa to the Americas, which covers both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in tandem with that of Japan.
  • Greater Role in the Region- This concept is a shift from the Asia-Pacific (included North-east Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania), where India did not have a major role to play. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) launched in 1989 did not include India, as did the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) launched in 1996, though India was admitted into ASEM in 2006. 

Initiatives by India in IOR:

India’s maritime vision translates into constructive leadership that not only looks beyond India’s immediate regional interests and great power politics but also provides an alternative to investment strategies led by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

Robust maritime diplomacy 

  • Deployment of four warships for relief operations when Mozambique was hit by Cyclone Idai. Indian naval teams played a stellar role in search and rescue operations and even set up medical camps.
  • Recently the Ministry has included the Vanilla islands as part of the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) desk along with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Incorporation of the Vanilla islands reflected the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Islands within the framework of Indo­Pacific(entire neighborhood from the coast of Africa to the U.S. west coast).
  • The Indian Navy also undertakes Joint EEZ patrols with Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius, which are part of  India’s coastal radar chain network. The network links up with similar systems in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelle to provide a comprehensive live feed of ship movements in the Indian Ocean Region that can be used by friendly navies.
  • Logistics Agreement with France and USA: India got access to important ports like Djibouti near the horn of Africa, Reunion Islands near Madagascar, and Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean.
  • India and Oman Maritime Transport Agreement: Oman has allowed India, including its navy, access to its Duqm port, about 550 km south of the capital Muscat.
  • Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue - The Indian Navy launched this apex level conference in 2018, in recognition of the importance of Indo-Pacific for the region.


Initiatives take to secure Sea Lane of Communication:

  • The Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) set up last year has started functioning as an information-sharing hub of maritime data and “curing incident responses” to maritime security situations through a collaborative approach.
  • Maritime Capability Perspective Plan: The Indian Navy is aiming to have a 200-ship fleet by 2027 as per a maritime capability perspective plan in order to guard the interests and assets of the nation in waters around them.
    • MCPP is a grand regional plan to bolster India’s operational capabilities by inducting new warships, submarines, and aircraft besides enhancing New Delhi’s influence in the strategic maritime zones. It aims at a comprehensive enhancement of naval capabilities.
  • India's mission-based deployments: the P8I surveillance planes of the Indian Navy have been carrying out anti-piracy patrol sorties in Salalah in the Gulf of Aden and other piracy prone areas.

Concerns: 

  • India playing it safe: India continues to practice strategic ambivalence in the Indian Ocean. This is more evident in its Indo-Pacific strategy. India continues to term its strategy in the Indo-Pacific as “inclusive,” without defining the limits of inclusivity. 
    • In its strategy of not antagonizing China, it is keeping Australia away.for instance, Keeping Australia out of the Malabar series of naval exercises.
  • Ambiguity on Indo Pacific: India continues to perceive the Indo-Pacific as extending from the Persian Gulf to ASEAN countries and Japan in the east, there is increasing pressure from Washington to clip the Persian Gulf out of that vision through sanctions on India’s energy imports from Iran.
  • India’s stated aspiration to become “Net Security Provider”: India does not have the capability to provide security to the whole region.
  • Chinese challenge: People’s Liberation Army-Navy presence in the Indian Ocean is increasing and China will acquire additional bases to add to Djibouti.
  • Naval Nationalism of China: China has increased its military activities in the Indian Ocean Region, expanding the range of its navy westward. It has invested in port facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Burma(String of Pearls). Beijing’s economic initiatives have raised concerns about China’s long-term geopolitical strategy.
  • China and West rivalry: China might be subtly restructuring IOR relationships with the aim of gaining long-term advantages over the West. The PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) is implementing an impressive program of expansion that might make it one-third larger than the US Navy by 2020.
  • A clear mismatch between India’s ambitions and Spending: Figures from FY 2017-2018 indicate that India spends only 15 percent of its total military expenditure on its navy, far lower than its peers in the Quad. China spends nearly three times as much as India on its military overall.
  • No coherent Indo pacific strategy: 
  • For Australia, a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ means establishing a regional architecture with fellow democratic countries to help maintain the ‘rules-based order’ as China becomes the most powerful actor in the region.
  • India’s preferred formulation of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ refers to a multipolar regional order within which Delhi can maintain its strategic autonomy, project its own leadership ambitions and follow a path of ‘multi-alignment’ or ‘issue-based alignment’.
  • Implications of India’s exit  from RCEP on India’s vision of Indian Ocean:

Losing a foothold in Asia-Pacific: 

  • RCEP countries (barring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are members of the APEC and are participants in its various initiatives. RCEP could have boosted India’s position in the Asia-pacific.

Missing Act-East policy: 

  • Joining the RCEP would have given more substance to our Act East policy. 
  • The economic pillar of this policy has remained weak compared to those pertaining to political ties, strategic and security aspects and people to people relations.

What lies ahead:

  • Consolidating IOR vision: As New Delhi continues to search for a balance between its “Act East” and “Look West” visions, the consolidation of its IOR vision will be crucial for straddling its two subtly variants visions for the two ends of the Indo-Pacific seaboard.
  • Development of common understanding and comprehensive strategy: India must enlist other stakeholders’ cooperation in order to create this critical foundation for the region’s prosperity.
  • Prompt responses during humanitarian crises help generate political goodwill in the neighborhood. However, India should not let the underlying intent of a mission appear geopolitical. For that India should use dedicated disaster-relief platforms instead of warships for medical aid.
  • India must take necessary steps to increase investments in its navy as it looks to counter growing Chinese influence in the IOR. Without the necessary investments in its hard-power capabilities, India’s vision of a “safe, free, and open Indo-Pacific” will remain unfulfilled.
  • Multipolarity: Security & peace and law-abiding nature of the countries around the region is crucial. This will also allow multipolarity in the region.
    • The smaller states in the region expect India to step up to the plate and help them widen their options, both economically as well as militarily. India should try to fulfill their aspirations.
  • Ensure Freedom of Navigation- as the region includes some vital trade routes and the world’s vital choke points for global commerce, including the Straits of Malacca. Around 95% of India’s foreign trade comes by the Indian Ocean.
  • Securing Shared Interests
  1. preserving freedom of navigation for commercial shipping, 
  2. sustainably and equitably harnessing the Indian Ocean’s natural resources, 
  3. establishing protocols for enhancing disaster prevention and relief as well as search and rescue operations,
  4. Countering piracy, terrorism, smuggling, and illegal weapons proliferation, and 
  5. managing international naval competition.

Countries in the region need to collaborate to build economic strength and address geopolitical risks, and there is a logical leadership role for India, being the largest player in the region.

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