India’s Role in the IOR: An Articulated Goal Towards ‘Freedom of Navigation’

03 Apr, 2013    ·   3868

Shanta Maree Surendran discusses the importance of an IOR strategy vis-a-vis India's role in the region

Shanta Maree Surendran
Shanta Maree Surendran
Research Intern

The emerging global importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) places India literally and figuratively at the apex of an evolving strategic space.  Geography and size have afforded India a given and sustained influence in the region. In the modern dynamic of geo-strategy and power projection, however, these attributes alone are unlikely to hold sufficient weight if they are not complemented with a clear agenda. Does India have an articulated strategy for the IOR, and what is evident from documents, discourse and actions?

Importance of an IOR Strategy 
China has demonstrated a desire and willingness to expand into the IOR. These intentions, articulated through government policy and documents and manifested through actions, have culminated in an increased presence in the IOR. China’s manoeuvres, ostensibly to protect economic and energy interests, opportunistically afford the nation greater prospective for regional power and influence, particularly with respect to sea power. The implications of this aspect of China’s rise, particularly in terms of military potentials, have caused ripples across the IOR maritime space.

The actions of China leave India with a potentially narrowing strategic space to presume upon in terms of occupying a dominant physical presence in the IOR. Smaller nations are afforded a wider scope for negotiation, dancing between large powers to advance their national interests through capitalising on the latent competition to invest in states which exhibit geostrategic benefit. Alternatively, the prospect of a dominant China in the IOR has both military and access implictaions for IOR nations and stakeholders such as the US. With this view an alternate strategic space is opening for a balancing force to counterweigh China’s heft. India’s size, geographical position and relationships in the IOR make her the logical nation upon which eyes fall to serve this purpose. In the absence of an articulated strategic policy from India on China’s IOR foray, it has been in the interests of other nations that contextualise India’s role in the literature.

US Pivot and India's Role as a 'Balancing Force'
The much discussed US ‘pivot to Asia’ is one such contextualising force. The pivot and ‘rebalancing’ intentions embody focus correction towards Asian regions to acknowledge their growing importance to global economy, energy security and international stability. China’s rise and IOR activity, and the potential implications for US national interests, has seen a new role form for India. The placing of India in the role of ‘balancer’ is evident through documentation relating to the Asian pivot.

The threat of China’s dominance in the region, particularly along critical Seal Lines of Communication (SLOC), is also an alarming potential for many smaller littoral nations. India’s balancing potential is therefore also referred to by other IOR naitons including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. With comparatively smaller navies, India’s size and naval power represent balance, stability and continued freedom of navigation. It is the latter focus that may serve as an appropriate starting point for identifying India’s likely strategic approach to the IOR.

'Freedom of Navigation' as a Place to Start
India does not have a white paper or equivalent definitive source tht documents her IOR interests. The lack of articulated foreign policies or strategic agendas may or may not affect India’s intended direction and functioning, but what it can impact is the capacity for other nations to identify as to how their interests align with India’s. Rather than focus on what is missing, it may be more valuable for nations struggling to place India in the make-up of their strategic planning to focus on what is apparent. The one clarion goal evident across dialogue, documents and demonstrated maritime strategy is that of ‘freedom of navigation’.

India has been consistent in articulating and practicing the principles of freedom of navigation and access to trade. It is this clear message that offers a signpost to other nations about what norms and values India holds with respect to the maritime domain. This position aligns India with Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the US in policy. This also justifies a close relationship with the US in terms of protecting this aspect of maritime activity in the IOR.

Despite the ambiguity of much of India’s foreign policy this one key approach is powerful enough and encompassing enough for India to promote a state position that is recognisable and relevant to other nations, without compromising discretion on other maritime agendas. The shared importance of ‘freedom of navigation’ to the national interests of IOR nations in turn serves as an avenue to propagate India’s soft power influence through diplomatic interaction. India has an opportunity to use clarity of purpose in her maritime agenda to sharpen direction of activity and through this to empower meaningful action.