In recent years, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has significantly become a bone of contention between India and China. India considers the Indian Ocean as its backyard and aspires to become the dominant power in the region. This appears to be one of the reasons behind India-China growing tensions in this region. Moreover, the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is countering the Indian ambitions of hegemony in the region. This has also put various littoral states under a dilemma vis-à-vis their defense and security relationships with these two countries. Since India believes the Indian Ocean as its backyard, this equation has put it in confrontation with China and the countries that support the Chinese presence in the region for economic and security interests. The clash of interests and competition among the major stakeholders has made the IOR a highly volatile region. This, in turn, would affect the major economic and trade activities conducted in or through the Indian Ocean.
In wake of this confrontation, India has negotiated several agreements with different littoral states of the Indian Ocean. This is primarily aimed at obtaining military access to their bases. Like for instance, very recently India’s National Security Advisor Mr. Ajit Doval went to a trilateral Maritime Security Meeting between India-Sri-Lanka and Maldives. The trilateral maritime security meeting was in-line to discuss issues relating to the security situation in the IOR. The meeting is quite significant since India holds a massive influence on both of these South Asian island states. However, the nature of this relationship has been full of ups and downs for a long time. India intends to develop a stable relationship with both these island states in pursuit of successfully asserting its strategy of naval dominance. As opposed to this, in the past, both Sri-Lanka and Maldives had maritime security relations with China, which paved the way for Chinese naval presence in the region. Since India is not in a position to counter China on its own therefore it is following two kinds of strategies; one alliance and security partnerships with countries of the IOR and the second is with extra-regional powers that hold significant influence in the Indian Ocean most notably the US.
In this regard, India has made agreements with Indonesia to access strategically located (deep-sea) Sabang Port, Oman’s Damuq Port and in the same vein is in negotiations with Bahrain to formalize maritime security partnership. Recently, the Indian Minister of External Affairs has visited Bahrain and both sides agreed to elevate strategic partnership within the domains of defense and maritime security. Moreover, India has significantly enhanced its strategic partnership with extra-regional powers as well. In this regard, its partnership with the US, Australia, and Japan under “Quad” is quite notable. India has signed various logistic cooperation agreements with France and the US separately. These agreements allow the Indian naval forces to access the US military base in Diego Gracia and the French base in the Reunion Island. Since the western countries and the US in particular consider the growing Chinese influence in the world a threat to their shared common interests. Therefore, India has been designated as a balancer by the US that would serve their mutually beneficial interests. In this vein, the US has signed several strategic agreements such as LEMOA, COMCASA, and BECA with India that would significantly enhance their military cooperation. Also, France has proposed the “Paris-New Delhi-Canberra Axis” in the newly created “Indo-Pacific” region.
To implement these partnerships into something physical and concrete India has been rapidly modernizing its naval forces. For the next decade, India has planned to invest an additional 51 billion USD to build surface ships and submarines for its Navy. This announcement was made recently by the Indian Minister of State for Defence in his address to the local ship-making industry. Furthermore, India intends to expand its indigenous ship industry to a worth of 5 trillion USD by 2025. Though the progress is quite slow, in reality, the Indian Navy has built nearly 140 naval warships. These include; an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable submarines, attack submarines. Other than these, some 240 aircraft and UAVs have also been built. Recently, the Indian Navy has acquired two predatory drones on lease from the US. These drones would be used for surveillance in the Indian Ocean and the Ladakh Border. India is also investing heavily in anti-submarine warfare. It has recently bought weaponry worth 155 million USD from the US. These include; AGM-84L Harpoon Block II air-launched missiles, MK 54 lightweight torpedoes, and P-81 maritime patrol aircraft. These developments indicate the Indian pursuit of a naval dominance strategy. Furthermore, this also comprehends how India is exploring new options for naval dominance.
Summarizing it all, India is in pursuit of dominating the Indian Ocean in the pretext of enhancing its strategic collaboration with the regional and extra-regional players. In this regard, it has signed various bilateral and multilateral agreements and has developed indigenous programs of weapons build-up. This Indian attitude that the Indian Ocean is only its backyard is quite dangerous for the future peace and stability in the IOR. Moreover, the approach of global powers specifically the US to empower India as a balancer against China would likely amplify an arms race in the region. This would ultimately affect the economic and security interests of small powers in the region. It would become more difficult for the regional states to accept India as the sole security guarantor vis-à-vis China in the IOR because of the adverse relations. Therefore, the growing arms race and competition in IOR would ultimately become a boiling point for future conflicts. This would ultimately have long-lasting implications for regional security and stability.
*Ahyousha Khan is a Research Associate at Islamabad based think-tank Strategic Vision Institute.