India and the Indian Ocean
This is a guest blog by Digvijay.
Indian Ocean as the name suggests has always been an Indian stronghold but lack of capability and will of successive Indian governments has left a vacuum ripe for the Chinese to occupy and exploit to forward their agenda of a new bipolar world order.
The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry, with various powers jousting for influence and advantage in the Indian Ocean, which serves as a vital transit route. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade, and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through choke-points such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits.
It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific region. The declining influence of USA in recent years has only made China bolder and rather aggressive in dealing with lesser powers.
China’s Aggressive advances
- Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean and similar drills were conducted earlier in the Eastern Indian Ocean by a Chinese fleet that also included a destroyer. China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests.
- The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has opened its first official overseas base at Djibouti in the strategically located Horn of Africa. According to them ‘base will be conducive for overseas tasks, including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as for jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.’ This language is a primary sign of the new rising superpower in the region. Satellite images analyzed by an expert, indicate that a massive fortress is being constructed that can easily accommodate over a brigade strength force, has an unprecedented four-layered security ring and can handle a dozen helicopters.
- After setting up the Djibouti base and investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar (which sits strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz), in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. There are also unverified reports of a hidden military base in the Coco islands of Myanmar constructed to counter the Andaman and Nicobar base.
- China’s submarine fleet which is one of the fastest-growing in the world is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area during Malabar 2017.
India’s Response so far
- India is beefing up the Andaman and Nicobar command which is next to the Strait of Malacca. Andaman and Nicobar islands offer control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquid production that moves on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports. This makes the Strait of Malacca chokepoint a critical defense area for Indian security.
- US has finally woken up and the recent visit of Secretary Mattis has offered a slew of weapon systems to India, including 22 unarmed MQ-9 “Reaper” unmanned aerial vehicles to aid naval intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strikes which are critical for Indian defense.
- Aggressive posturing by China has made many countries insecure and ripe for an alliance with India. Japan will be the friend for the next generation of India with multiple projects such as Asia Africa Growth Corridor, Cooperation on Chabahar port and sharing of amphibious planes in the pipeline. According to reports India has also accepted the offer of supplying Brahmos missiles to Vietnam to counter China. There are also talks of accepting Australia in the next Malabar exercise.
- To counter the Chinese Gwadar base and expand the reach of India to Central Asia, India is constructing Chabahar port in Iran, though at a very slow pace.
What India needs to do?
- The namesake foreign policy of Act East needs to be aggressive. India needs to engage with Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam to counter China.
- The condition of Indian submarine fleet is poor, with only 1 nuclear submarine in use we are way behind China. India should up the ante and induct more Arihant class (Nuclear) stealth submarines to project its power in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
- India should solve all its issues with Maldives and Sri Lanka which are nations of critical importance for India to maintain dominance in the Indian Ocean region.
- India should not shy away from building foreign military bases and the recent visit of President Kovind to Dijibouti and other African countries should be followed by diplomatic embassies, trade visits and military cooperation in that particular order.