India And Maritime Security Issues In The Indian Ocean Region

Indian Ocean, that at one time had been described as a ‘British Lake’ became a thoroughfare for maritime trade that crossed through the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits connecting the growing economies of the East and the West by carrying raw materials, oil and finished goods. It had seen a great power rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war years and now has become a major global focal point of a conflict over resources, trade and environmental issues.


India had been a consistent critique of the ‘power vacuum’ theory that had been propounded by the United States to justify its presence in this region after the British ‘withdrawal from East of Suez’ policy. The argument that the littoral states did not have the naval capabilities to replace the British and maintain order in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) was contested by India. Indian call for a Zone of Peace in the Indian Ocean was an attempt to establish an order in this region with the participation of the littoral states. However, these efforts had limited success due to the intra-regional conflicts that persisted in the region amongst the relatively relevant regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. The then South African apartheid regime was not included in the efforts of cooperation and Australia was looked at suspiciously as it had ties with the United States. The post-cold war era has seen the emergence of regional aspirations of littoral states for a greater say in the issues of stability and order in the IOR. Today the littoral players have started to emerge as relatively significant actors willing to have a dialogue both, amongst themselves and with the extra regional powers. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a concept promoted by India, is one such initiative.
One can identify two levels of security challenges that are experienced in the IOR: One is the spillover of issues in the domestic conflicts within the littoral states and the adjoining waters of the IOR and two, are the concerns that are faced in the IOR directly. The former would include such concerns as the conflict in the Middle East including the Gulf region, Afghanistan, South Asia and the South China Sea. The latter includes piracy; illicit trafficking of narcotics, small arms and humans; environmental degradation; maritime boundary disputes; disruption of maritime trade; and linkages with terrorism.
In sharp contrast to the importance that the Indian army has been given in the planning for defence, Indian maritime forces have been given a raw deal throughout. A strong plea for an active maritime policy, as articulated by K.M. Pannikar, and Swatantryaveer Savarkar remained a lone crusade in a land-bound defence perspective. Considerations of defence of land frontiers have for long dominated understanding of India’s security policy. This is partly a product of the long history of aggression or migration from land routes either from the North West or from the North and North Eastern regions of India. Partly, it is a product of the equally long history of a ‘secure’ Indian Ocean due to the British presence and the relatively small and coastal naval presence of Indian rulers. Consequently, much of the work on Indian security policy has focused on the land forces as against the sea power and its utility.
At a popular level, the history of Vasco da Gama landing at Calicut in 1498, conflict with the Zamorin of Calicut; the Dutch entry in 1641; and the subsequent British and French arrival are points of academic curiosity in the history of India. They do not cause the same stirrings as those caused by the various onslaughts of the Afghans, Turks, Mughals through the North West frontiers. This is despite the fact that, perhaps, it was the sea routes that in the long run became the instruments of eventual growth of colonialism in Asia.

Maritime Security

There are certain defining features of the maritime environment that India needs to exploit. Ocean, unlike the land, is not politically controlled. It presents free access to any land mass. Maritime forces, therefore, are the only instruments of power that can be deployed almost anywhere in the world without any accusation of intervention. The importance of navy rests on its ability to influence the events on land through its control over sea. For India, this would imply its ability to ensure safety of trade vessels, the guarding of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defence against ‘State’ and ‘Non-State’ incursions on Indian Territory in terms of its immediate national security concerns. At the regional level, it involves the ability to retain a sphere of influence and establish stability and order in the littoral states of the region on the premise that instability in those areas constitutes a direct threat to Indian national interest. At the global level it presents an opportunity to demand space in the decision making circles of the world.
The unique geopolitical position of India in terms of its peninsular presence in the Indian Ocean and its growing military capability presents an opportunity for India to emerge as a key player that would maintain order in the Indian Ocean region. In geostrategic terms we can identify some important choke points that would be of interest to India. In the west are the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and the Red Sea, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and the Horn of Africa; in the East are Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait, Sunda Strait,; and along the Indian coast line are the Six Degree Channel and the Nine Degree Channel. These choke points represent the tactical level area that India can ‘look after’ in order to maintain order in the region. Various initiatives that seek to create a cooperative perspective about the Indian Ocean Littoral Community and the possible role that India can take in the region also tends to be defined within the space of these choke points.
Indian Navy’s first Maritime Vision was expressed in the Naval Plans Paper of 1948. Indian Navy was to consist of cruisers and destroyers, structured around small aircraft carriers with the objective of protecting India’s sea lanes of communication. The rationale at that time was that of ‘territorial defence’ – a view that continued to dominate India strategic perspectives for over two decades. It was only in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict that the Navy played a significant role. The primary tactical success in 1971 came from the use of missile attacks in the Arabian Sea. The Navy entered the war with five Alize aircraft that were the main source of domain awareness. The limited domain awareness facility was somewhat a handicap during the war, a matter that came to be corrected over the years. Amphibious operations, which can enhance options and opportunities, were not used during the war. Even the knowledge of submarines had been largely undeveloped.
Indian Navy’s Maritime Strategy today speaks of the need to project power as a means of supporting foreign policy objectives. The areas of primary interest that have been identified by the Indian Navy as areas that need attention include: (a) The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, which largely encompass India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Island Territories and their littoral reaches; (b) The choke points leading to and from the Indian Ocean, they being the Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, strait of Bab-elMandeb and the Cape of Good Hope; (c) the island countries; (d) the Persian Gulf as a source of oil supply and (e) principal international sea lanes that cross the Indian Ocean Region. The secondary areas of interest include: (a) The Southern Indian Ocean Region, (b) The Red Sea, (c) The South China Sea and (e) The East Pacific Region.
Over the past years one can cite some examples of Indian Navy’s actions in terms of its strategic mission. India acted in Maldives to restore the democratically elected government in 1998; activities in the context of Sri Lanka both, as rescue missions and tackling threats from across the border; rescue mission to evacuate Indian, Sri Lankan and Nepali citizens from Lebanon in 2006; and the anti-piracy mission taken up since 2008 off the Gulf of Aden. The Indian Navy envisages four types of roles for itself: Military, Diplomatic, Constabulatory and Benign. The military role is the key role that any Navy is expected to play, it may involve deterrence, active engagement, securing territorial integrity, safeguarding sea lanes, etc. The diplomatic role entails use of naval power in support of foreign policy. While the constabulatory tasks are secondary, the increasing incidence of maritime crime has brought this dimension to the forefront. The objectives here are coastal defence including the defence of EEZ. Anti-piracy is one of the key tasks in this context. The benign role is essentially humanitarian in nature, providing rescue and relief operations.
The Vasco da Gama landing had opened up India to the Western world. It was the beginning of a new era in the sense that the earlier sea route trade contacts of the Middle East had only a very limited impact. Unfortunately, the enormity of the entry of a Western Power in this manner did not strike any resonance in the Indian mind. A nation that at one time had seen a glorious maritime history under the Cholas and the Pandyas lost out on its maritime perspective. It is that mindset that needs to be rekindled, and an awareness of the maritime domain to be created.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *