India and the Emerging Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region

(August 17-19, 2003)


Executive Summary: On August 19-21, 2003, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference on the evolving strategic order in the Indian Ocean region and on India’s role in that environment.  The conference brought together senior diplomats, military officers and leading scholars from 13 nations as well as the Chairman of the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean.  Key judgments about the region and noteworthy differences of view are summarized below.


The Indian Ocean and the states on its littoral are of significant and growing importance. The region contains 1/3 of the world’s population, 25% of its landmass, 40% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It is the locus of important international sea lines of communication (SLOCs). The region is home to most of the world's Muslim population as well as India, one of the world's likely "rising powers." The Indian Ocean also is home to the world’s two newest nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran, which most observers believe has a robust program to acquire nuclear weapons.


In addition, the region constitutes one of the key centers of gravity of international terrorism - - "the broad incubator of terrorism" in the words of one conference participant. While India and some a few of the other littoral states appear to be on a path of sustained economic progress, most of the region is characterized by high levels of poverty.  The Indian Ocean region suffers from a high level of international and internal conflict and is a key venue for international piracy.  It also is the locus of some 70% of the world’s natural disasters.


The regional strategic environment is volatile and dangerous. In addition to some of the conditions enumerated above, recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan now pose additional challenges of violence, terrorism, and instability across the entire Indian Ocean region. A Malaysian conference participant, for example, argued that the foregoing conflicts have been bad for Malaysia and have “played into the hands of local terrorists.” For these reasons and others, the region - - an "insecurity community" - - has been an arena of increased diplomatic and military activity on the part of a variety of littoral states as well as external powers in last few years.


Military power, including weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, is looming larger in the region.   Conference participants pointed to the ongoing insertion of military power in the region by the United States and - - to a much lesser extent - - Japan.  At the same time, it was emphasized that India, Malaysia and a variety of other littoral states are strengthening their militaries. We also will see "a resurgent Iranian naval capability eventually."  Moreover, many of these states are emphasizing power projection capabilities, often through the acquisition of more advanced military hardware and the construction of new bases intended for forward defense.  For example, one Indian participant claimed that India's relatively new Andaman and Nicobar Command - - which New Delhi almost decided to name "Southeast Asia Command" - - is intended to "stop the Chinese east of the Malacca Strait."


Quite a few conference participants underscored the growing role of nuclear weapons in the region.  The Israeli scholar pointed to Israel's growing emphasis on strategic reach and on the development of a maritime second-strike nuclear capability with respect to both the Indian Ocean - - to deal with Iranian and Pakistani contingencies - - and the Mediterranean.  The Indians, similarly, emphasized their intention to develop a full triad of nuclear weapons capabilities to include, in the words of one scholar, "high yield nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean."


India remains concerned about the role of external powers (or some of them) in the Indian Ocean region.  Most of this concern relates to China and - - to a lesser extent, the United States. On the other hand, some conference participants - - to include some Indian participants - - believe that key littoral countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, and Malaysia have gained substantial space and strategic autonomy because of the desire of external powers to forge alliances and coalitions in the region. One Indian, moreover, commented: "asking outside powers to stay away is a pipedream."


The Indians present also seemed comfortable with, and appreciative of, Israel's expanding security perimeter and its growing strategic involvement in the Indian Ocean region.  The Indians present welcomed the evolving Indo-Israeli security nexus and were pleased by a presentation by an Israeli scholar, which placed India and Israel in a common democratic and civilizational community.  Similarly, one Indian - - referring to Moscow's recent naval foray into the Indian Ocean - - stated: "India is pleased that Russia is back in the Indian Ocean."


The region is characterized by growing strategic competition involving both external powers and the littoral states.  In this regard, most conference participants emphasized the continuing rivalry between India and China, the "peer powers of Asia," and the potential for this problem to worsen. The Indians at this conference were especially vocal and alarmed about Beijing's evolving role the Indian Ocean region. One Indian, for example, asserted that the 21st century would be the "template for Sino-Indian rivalry." Pointing to Chinese proliferation of WMD, provision of conventional arms to various South Asian states, "ruthless subordination of its neighbors", "special relationships" with Pakistan and Burma, "growing presence of the PLA" in areas adjacent to India's borders, and developing naval capabilities, most of the Indians present made it clear that China, in their view, is India's number one security problem.  Commenting on India's insertion of naval forces into the South China Sea last year, one Indian said it was a "good thing if China felt threatened by our exercise.  We intended to send a message and they got the message."


The Chinese scholar present strongly countered these assertions and argued that Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean is benign and has three dimensions: trade and development, good neighborliness and friendship, and security and cooperation.  In his view, China has re-oriented its overall security strategy since the end of the Cold War, but India has not done so. He argued that China is no longer preoccupied by fears that other states are "encircling" China, but Indian national security strategists remain fixated on fears of encirclement of India.


Some of the Americans at the conference also attempted to calm Indian fears, arguing, for example, that China's security strategy is oriented mainly east, not south.  The Indians generally reacted to such interventions with skepticism.  In addition, on the matter of Burma, one conference participant argued that fears about Chinese influence in Burma are overdrawn and it is not Beijing, but Rangoon, that holds the “whip hand” in the China-Burma relationship.


Paralleling this concern with China, there also is some Indian worry about the growing role of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan in the region. At the extreme, one Indian argued strongly for the need for Indian military  - - and nuclear - - contingency plans with respect to a potential U.S. threat. This worry about the United States and U.S. power is so notwithstanding the reality that almost all of the Indians at the conference welcomed the development of closer Indian ties with the United States.


According to an Indian naval officer, “the United States is unquestionably the most dominant player in the Indian Ocean in modern history.”  The United States has the capability to project military power in the region and a well-defined strategy to pursue its policy of preeminence.  The U.S. maritime strategy of the 1980s envisioned a war at sea won by sea control.  The new U.S. strategic thrust aims to move away from classical sea control/sea denial to influencing events further ashore as exemplified by Afghanistan.  He observed: “if the U.S. objective is to share with …other nations …(the) enduring objective…(of) stopping the emergence of a hostile coalition, then it must remain engaged in the region. Its policies must work towards engagement rather than adopt unilateralist approaches.” The Indians present also seemed anxious about how the United States will "manage" China when the PLA navy or other military forces start to operate in the Indian Ocean, as New Delhi believes likely.


India will be increasingly attentive to its interests in the Indian Ocean region in the coming years.  This is suggested by a variety of considerations. 


All Indian participants in the conference stressed the importance of the Indian Ocean to India from economic, political, legal and military perspectives. India’s political and naval leadership is convinced that matters maritime are going to play an increasingly important and critical role. India needs a secure maritime environment to achieve sustained national development. In addition, many Indians see the Indian Ocean as India’s backyard and see it as both natural and desirable for India to function as the leader and the predominant influence in this region - - the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state. 


To this end, there was broad agreement among the Indian delegation that India's security perimeter - - its "rightful domain" - - extends from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz and from the coast of Africa to the western shores of Australia. India, according to a senior Indian naval officer at the conference, “will have to play a very large role (in the Indian Ocean) if the prospects for peace and cooperation are to grow.”  


India will try to exert a strong hand in this region for fundamental national security reasons. Protecting India’s EEZ of over 2.3 million square kilometers, securing India’s energy lifelines, promoting overseas markets and fulfilling international commitments are some of the interests to which India is sensitive.  As expressed at the conference, New Delhi’s “Look East” policy, its growing ties with Israel and Africa, and even Iran, and its naval, air and nuclear weapons modernization efforts, all are related to these concerns. 


Aside from India, many of the other littoral states are acquiring a more pronounced maritime orientation and developing closer links with one another. Malaysia, for example, is more focused now than ever before on the potential strategic importance of the Indian Ocean approaches to Peninsula Malaysia. Not long ago, Malaysia’s navy chief said that the country’s strategic location in the waterways of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean exposes the country to serious dangers. Reacting to this challenge, the Malaysian navy has inaugurated construction of a new navy base and command center at Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur’s only port directly fronting the Indian Ocean.


Thailand, similarly, is now more aware of its status as an Indian Ocean littoral state. Arms trafficking in southern Thailand, which has fueled conflicts in Sri Lanka and northeast India, has come under scrutiny as Thailand’s neighbors have urged a more robust response from Bangkok. In recent years, Bangkok also has joined a plethora of Indian Ocean regional organizations - - including BIMSTEC and IOR-ARC, and has pursued the so-called “Look West” policy of cultivating Indian Ocean states, especially India.  Thailand lately has also shown new interest in building a canal across the Kra Isthmus to forge a shorter direct route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, large obstacles stand in the way of this dream being realized any time soon, not the least of which is Singapore’s implacable opposition to a Kra Canal.


Sub-regional efforts to promote Indian Ocean peace and security are more likely to bear fruit than are region-wide schemes.  To this end, conference participants were of one mind that confidence-building and similar measures would be most successful if attempted in Bay of Bengal (the area of operations of BIMSTEC) or the Arabian Sea or between the Indian and Pakistani navies.  On the other hand, large region-wide efforts such as the “Indian Ocean Zone of Peace” concept or even the Indian Ocean Region Association for Regional Cooperation are much less likely to succeed.