Can India become an Indian Ocean power?
By Manish Tewari
With the induction of INS Vikrant as its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, India seems all set to further augment its naval prowess. While, undoubtedly, Vikrant would be a considerable force multiplier insofar as our maritime power projection capabilities are concerned, with the Chinese aggressively pushing for expansive influence globally through both the Belt and Road initiative and a blue water navy, in their efforts to exercise greater dominance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it is apposite to ask — how ready is India to counter this threat that could potentially diminish its ability to secure its strategic, economic and, most especially, trade interests?
India sits astride critical sea lines of communication, a position that uniquely empowers it to become a truly regional naval power. To achieve this objective, it needs to do two things. First, India needs to develop the capacities that would enable it to become the linchpin security provider to nations that inhabit the IOR rim. This would enable India to play a stabilising role in the region by ensuring the security of sea-lanes and providing humanitarian assistance when required.
Second, the Indian navy would require to have substantive tactical presence in the West Indian Ocean Region that consists of, among others countries, such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, Kenya, Somalia, the French overseas Island of Réunion, the British Indian Ocean Territory and Diego Garcia, the latter two being colonial vestiges transformed into Western military bases. These two goals are, of course, interrelated. India cannot hope to achieve this with just an aircraft carrier or even two, no matter how significant an achievement it may seem at first blush. Two carrier battle groups do not really make for a blue water navy until and unless you have overseas military and maritime facilities where the navy can be forward deployed.
The West Indian Ocean Region is, therefore, of critical import. Indeed, India’s maritime security strategy of 2015 recognises that for India to have a true blue water navy, there is absolutely no option but to have a naval presence in the region. Thus the worm-eaten strut of “no bases abroad” is a non-sequitur. Creating a blue water navy is a gargantuan task but simply building more carrier battle groups without the support infrastructure where they have to operate to play a meaningful role can be a self-defeating enterprise. A more conceptual approach is required to make the navy a player in the Indian Ocean region.
The Chinese are on the ball with despatch. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is far ahead of us in terms of having a substantial presence in the Indian Ocean region. While the commissioning of its newest aircraft carrier, Fujian, in June this year, Beijing is eyeing overseas facilities that would help sustain and support its blue water naval presence with even greater urgency.
This search for overseas bases has even the US worried. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US military’s Africa Command, referred to China’s attempts at creating naval bases around Africa as the “most significant threat”.
China is focussing on the Indian Ocean with laser intensity. It has invested in ports in multiple countries to augment its maritime presence. In 2017, it built a naval base in Djibouti that lies on the Horn of Africa adjacent to the Gulf of Aden. With Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and a surveillance station on Coco Islands in Myanmar, the Chinese have gradually enhanced their maritime footprint and are now looking beyond the String of Pearls at other partners in the western Indian Ocean — Madagascar being one among myriad other potential candidates. With two decades of debt diplomacy in Africa to boot the Chinese have developed the equities and IOUs to move from a commercial to a military presence on that continent.
The Chinese naval base in Djibouti houses helicopter pads and is big enough to host aircraft carriers and submarines. The Chinese even attempted to develop a facility in the United Arab Emirates, which was nipped in the bud after the US intervened. With China’s Ream naval base in Cambodia coming to fruition, its ability to dominate the Gulf of Thailand and, by extension, both the mouth of the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea, as well as surmount the Malacca dilemma, would get further enhanced.
China’s 2019 defence white paper is instructive in outlining its naval strategy going forward. It is explicit in stating — the PLA must develop “overseas logistics facilities” and “safeguard China’s overseas interests”. The Chinese have long spoken of the String of Pearls paradigm which posits that China needs a string of bases across the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese resources and shipping lanes. Through their basing strategy, the Chinese hope to achieve two things — first, they seek to project their military might; and second, they aim to sustain their military power at longer distances from their own coastline. However, now their aspirations have gone far beyond the String of Pearls. Both these aspects must lead India to think of newer ways to counter China’s influence in the Indian Ocean.
Last, as the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean grows, it is bound to negatively affect India’s ability to both manoeuvre and protect its interests. It is well understood that the String of Pearls Plus and China’s Belt and Road Initiative considerably heighten India’s strategic vulnerability. While the British, the Americans, and the French have multiple bases all around the world — partly the legacies of empire and partly due to the Cold War — India needs to assert its own dominance in the region through a carefully calibrated approach that takes the apprehensions of the West Indian Ocean Region countries into consideration. There has been an increase in maritime and security cooperation with the West Indian Ocean Region countries but much more needs to be done.
India needs to leverage its goodwill it enjoys in these countries to enhance naval cooperation and commercial activity. Its basing initiatives, both in Mauritius and Seychelles, seem to have stalled substantively because of domestic opposition fermented by both ‘friends’ and adversaries who do not want India to acquire a foothold in the playground of the great powers. This undermines our strategic and tactical presence considerably. India must be cognisant of Themistocles’s old adage that “he who commands the sea, commands everything”. It is as true today as it was then.
(The author is a former I & B Minister and currently a Lok Sabha MP and lawyer)