Indian Ocean Region: Can New Delhi Guarantee Regional Stability?

23 Aug, 2013    ·   4099

Barana Waidyatilake anaylses the capabilities and limitations of India in the Indian Ocean Region

With the recent launch of its first indigenously-developed aircraft carrier, India has announced its entry into yet another elite club. Historically, developing naval power projection has been seen as a major indicator of ‘great power’ status; the launch of INS Vikraant underscored India’s intention. Beyond the prestige factor, it is worthwhile considering how such burgeoning strategic capabilities impinge India’s role within the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

With its growing economic and military clout, strategic analysts discuss  India’s  increasingly capable of playing an effective role as a guarantor of peace and stability within the IOR. What are the enabling factors and obstacles for New Delhi in meeting the challenge?

Firstly, it must be emphasised that, India is the only country in the IOR possessing adequate resources and, more importantly, a central strategic location, to effectively provide a security umbrella for the region. As underscored by reputed historian like K.M. Panikkar - the Indian subcontinent, juts out by a thousand miles into the Indian Ocean, placing India in a strategically advantageous within the IOR than, say, the USA in relation to the Atlantic Ocean or China in relation to the Pacific Ocean. India could most definitely perform this role with greater technical proficiency and at a lower cost than the USA (which has faced substantial costs in deploying forces and combating piracy in the IOR, with dubious results). Therefore, geopolitical circumstances make a strong case for India being the nation to provide a comprehensive security umbrella for the region.

Internal political structure should also be considered while discussing the Indian capabilities regard is its. Being a democracy, and having a foreign policy that (despite recent pro-US tilts) is generally non-aligned and non-aggressive, India can be trusted to use its burgeoning military capabilities in the region in a responsible manner without engaging in unilateral adventurism. It is worth drawing a contrast in this regard with China; its launch of its first aircraft carrier was greeted with a significant amount of anxious speculation among its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, due to the opaque nature of its political structure and its generally aggressive foreign policy within its immediate neighbourhood. Therefore, Indian soft power (supported by its democratic structure and relatively benign foreign policy) are major factors that will assuage any concerns that its IOR neighbours might have about its strategic intentions; this, in fact, would be a good working example of what Joseph Nye termed ‘smart power’. All this makes a strong case for India’s ability to effectively guarantee regional security.

When considering strategic naval doctrine, India again displays strengths that mark it out as a good candidate for ensuring security in the IOR. The Indian navy’s doctrine encompasses a very broad understanding of security, taking into consideration the importance of the IOR as a region through which two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and half of its container trade passes; it also highlights new security threats emerging from piracy and maritime terrorism. Therefore, it could plausibly be argued that the Indian navy possesses a comprehensive strategic vision that accurately captures the emerging security needs of the IOR. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the development of carrier fleets significantly increases the Indian navy’s capability to conduct surveillance over larger parts of the IOR, and also reduces the response time against various maritime threats (piracy naturally comes to mind). 

Besides, India’s strategic doctrine for the IOR highlights its willingness to enter into cooperative security in policing the region. To this end, India appears prepared to engage in ‘a broad spectrum of cooperative and inclusive endeavours [which] encompass coordinated operations, bilateral exercises, security assistance and military-to-military dialogue’, as stated by Admiral D.K. Joshi, Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy. Initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the biennial MILAN gathering of regional navies could arguably increase the confidence of India’s neighbours that peace in the IOR is not based on Indian hegemony, and that they too are important stakeholders in ensuring stability in the region. 

While all these factors strongly indicate that India could play an effective role in guaranteeing IOR stability, it is also worth mentioning a major obstacle that it faces in this regard, especially concerning its immediate neighbours: the pressure of domestic electoral considerations in determining Indian foreign policy towards these countries. Given India’s heterogeneous population, federal governance structure and the trans-border nature of some of its major ethnic communities, foreign policy towards some of its close neighbours becomes closely bound up with the imperatives of maintaining domestic political coalitions with state-based (ethnic) parties. This, admittedly, prevents Indian neighbourhood policy from being consistent, and thereby from inducing confidence in its neighbours about Indian strategic behaviour in the IOR. Nevertheless, on balance, India seems quite capable of providing an effective security umbrella for the IOR.