Indian Strategic Thinking Vis-à-Vis Indian Ocean – OpEd


By Siraj Nizamani

Military strategist Colin S. Gray once said, ‘Man lives on the land, not on the sea, and conflict at sea has strategic meaning only with reference to what its outcome enables, or implies, for the course of events on land.’ No nation that aspires for great power status can neglect the maritime dimension. Hence, the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Japan, have all developed maritime infrastructure and have robust and technologically advanced navies. The seas have great contribution to economy of the countries worldwide and they are also the foremost medium of transportation of the energy lifelines. Naval power is not only instrument of power projection, but also have the advantage of subtle presence, flexibility and immediate response. Therefore, Indian Navy in the twenty-first century will continue to spread its wings in the Indian Ocean Region.


India’s search for a major player at the global level instigates her to go for an ambitious plan of military modernization, which is considered as one of the major step in this direction. That particular strategic reasoning induces New Delhi to perceive the Indian Ocean as “India’s Ocean”. Being a rising power not only India’s energy needs, but also its reliance on energy imports will increase. For achieving this, India plans to secure its sea-lanes of communication and choke points in the Indian Ocean including: the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique Channel and the Malacca Straits.

The process of navy’s modernization has been accelerated ever since India has begun to focus on projecting its position, strength and presence in the Indian Ocean. Today the Indian Navy is taking every possible measure to establish itself as a blue water navy, a classical definition of a blue water navy is “a maritime force which can operate 320 km away from its shores.”

Indian strategic thinkers view their country as a nation with a large “security deficit,” where resources are put to ensure its territorial integrity: but they believe once it transforms its land environment; India will be in a position to offer security to other regional states; IN’s role will be central in future. They see a close connection between India’s maritime ambitions and its destiny as a great power. As former Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, argues” after nearly a millennia of inward and landward focus, we are once again turning our gaze outwards and seawards, which is the natural direction of view for a nation seeking to re-establish itself, not simply as a continental power, but even more so as a maritime power, and as one that is of significance on the world stage.”Similarly, according to one observer: New Delhi regards the Indian Ocean as its backyard and deems it both natural and desirable that India function as, eventually, the leader and the predominant influence in this region—the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state. This is what the United States set out to do in North America and the Western Hemisphere at an early in America’s “rise to power”.

Indian strategic thinkers have a strong perception that India holds center stage in the only ocean in the world which is named after a country. It’s peninsular configuration juts out 1,500 miles into the sea and places India the focal point of shipping lanes, besides other vital commodities, millions of tons of hydrocarbons travel from the Persian Gulf and Middle East to feed the industrial and economic engines of Southeast Asian countries. Whether India likes it or not, geography has placed a heavy responsibility on India’s shoulders and made her the natural sentinel of these trade routes.

They explain that Indian western coast undertook commercial activity with the countries of Middle East and the Mediterranean, afterwards successive kingdoms in peninsular and eastern India created a powerful maritime vision and tradition. Similarly, dynasties like the Mauryas, Sattavahanas, Pallavas and Cholas sent out fleets that were instrumental in spreading India’s trade, culture, and religions by sea to Southeast Asia and further. It was the decline of Indian maritime power and tradition in the 13th century that coincided with the domination by foreigners for the next 600-700 years.

Another popular view is that “India deserves to aspire to play the role of a regional power in South Asia and a facilitator for regional cooperation. Since independence, India has made substantial progress in establishing its pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region. Its involvement in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka and suppression of the coup in Maldives are some examples of its superior power status in the region.”

Taking into account its power potential, relationship with neighbors and its per-eminence in the region, India is likely to establish itself as a regional power in the Indian Ocean in future. Former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, once said, “A developed and strong India by 2020, or even earlier, is not a dream. It may not even be a mere inspiration in the minds of many Indians. It is a mission we can all take up and accomplish.”

India’s Military expenditure has doubled in the past decade to about $US30 billion ($A36 billion) and if it keeps up with expected economic growth, analysts believe, India will be the third largest military power in two decades. It is speculated that by 2025 India is likely to possess three to four aircraft carrier battle groups, a fleet of nuclear submarines, an air force with 35 squadrons and sophisticated land-based weapon systems to go with its huge army.
Rational behind India’s military and naval build-up is its concern about growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. India believes that eventually, India may emerge as a major force in the Indian Ocean but, for now, it is still constrained by internal security challenges. Because of the so-called perceived threat from nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, India maintains a huge land force-it’s regular army of about 1.3 million troops is supported by a part-time reserve force of 1.2 million and its paramilitary forces number about 1.1 million and India has about 60-70 operational nuclear weapons. India’s military has one of the most skewed army-to-navy ratios in the world: the Indian Navy only gets about 15 per cent of the defence budget; while the army gets about 60 per cent, therefore, India will have to devote far more resources to its navy. This is only one side of the coin several other factors pose threat to Indian security, as one Indian analyst admits, “the Naxalites has been identified as the biggest internal security threat to India by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  The complex and structural causes of the problem support this proposition. The Naxal movement also presents the greatest overall threat to India in the future, as it highlights various underlying weaknesses of India’s governance, political institutions and socio-economic structure. Naxalism is the biggest threat because it affects several areas including the economy, security and foreign affairs, its citizens and rule of law.”

Before it can claim to be the caretaker of the Indian Ocean region, India must overcome some big obstacles. For instances, lot of its military hardware is obsolete and it will be difficult for India to rapidly acquire and manage the sophisticated weapons systems it wants. These problems are considered major motive behind signing Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

One can easily understand the Indian strategic designs having taken into account Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement that “we cannot afford to be weak at sea. History has shown that whoever controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” At the India’s naval build up in the Indian Ocean poses a threat to its Western neighbor Pakistan, which has been witnessing Indian aggression since its inception in 1947.

Siraj Nizamani currently teaches in International Relations Department at University of Sindh, Jamshoro, Pakistan. His areas of interests are: Security issues in South Asia and Indian Ocean region, China’s Strategic policy, nuclear proliferation and Terrorism. Mr. Nizamani is a regular writer of different newspapers and weekly magazines.  He holds M.Phil degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid i Azam University, Islamabad. The author can be reached at [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Indian Strategic Thinking Vis-à-Vis Indian Ocean – OpEd

  • October 31, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    India is a land of Corruption, mockery and barbarianism. Since independence, India’s economy and values have been deteriorated and not improved due to the corrupt Indian Centre leaders.

    Indians are now exporting corruption to other nations and ordinary people are fleeing India as they feel that there is no hope or future for them and their children.

    Was Mohandas Gandhi’s vision to have an Italian woman as the leader of the Congress party? The British rule was a billion times better than the current UPA regime, and the British would have improved the economy and the standard of living of all Indians, maintained law and order, Justice and discipline, and it would have been a win win situation to all Indians.

    India has lost the support of the Eelam Tamils as it has been collaborating with the Sri Lankan regime against the Tamils. The Sinhalese are always pro- West, Pakistani and Chinese. For example, Sri Lanka has allowed the Pakistani war planes to fly to Bangladesh during the Indian war in 1971.

    Indian Ocean is never will become an India’s Ocean and this call has to be made by the Sri Lankan leaders. Sri Lankans will support the Western nations, China and not the Indians.

    • November 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

      The response to the main article is misplaced,out of context and has nothing to do with the real issues. The history of India-Sr Lanka relations has been one of cooperation and good -neighbourliness.Efforts should be made to improve the relationship. Neighbours are more helpful than so-called distant relatives.


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