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India’s PM Modi implements his maritime strategy

"Indian Navy flotilla of Western Fleet escort INS Vikramaditya (R33) and INS Viraat (R22) in the Arabian Sea" by Indian Navy. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 in via Commons -

PM Modi’s diplomacy has demonstrated his strategic choices. In these columns, we have written before about India’s choice to (re)establish ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Now, PM Modi has started the implementation. He does the necessary, he builds up India’s naval forces and reaches out to the Island States in the Indian Ocean for strategic partnerships. Maritime dominance in India’s off-shore neighbourhood is the new foreign-policy priority. It is about protecting vital Indian economic interests in the area, where 90% of India’s foreign trade is being transported, accounting for over a third of India’s GDP. India seems set to protect the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean with more robust determination. It is a move to ascertain itself in a growing global competition, but first of all it is about countering China’s expansionist policies in India’s immediate neighbourhood. The Indian outreach initiative bears a name: SAGAR, which means “Ocean” in Hindi and, at the same time, stands for “Security And Growth for All in the Region”. The year 2015 saw PM Modi visiting Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, after years, some even after decades, of neglect. Modi’s India will seek economic and security cooperation, collective action for peace and security and better cooperation for a sustainable development of the region. Modi is actively building up naval capacities of these partners by giving them offshore patrol vessels, maritime patrol aircraft and coast guard ships. India is going to set up coastal surveillance radar systems and will also equip its new partners Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the Maldives with their own surveillance radar systems to be linked to India’s coastal sites. Arrangements are being made for cooperation in the field of long-range identification and tracking data for monitoring and tracking their merchant vessels. These new endeavours are not limited to regional partners in the Indian Ocean, but have already started to be actively extended to partners such as Japan, Australia and Malaysia, the strategic partnership with the United States providing the newly won basis for the new determination. Loyal to its traditional belief in international institutions and multilateral cooperation, and with the aim to translate its policies into international frameworks, India will most probably undertake to strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association, IORA, a regional body uniting 21 member states, to make it the key Indian Ocean body for collective action and cooperation. On the basis of a joint US-India strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, aircraft carrier technology cooperation with the US will be launched, naval cooperation with the United Kingdom is being strengthened and naval operation exercises have already taken place with Australia or are planned to take place with Japan. The effectiveness of such policies fundamentally depends on the improvement of capabilities, i.e. the enhancement of naval hardware, so to say.  India’s fleet is composed of some 140 ships, submarines, principal surface combatants and patrol and coastal combatants plus two squadrons of maritime patrol aircraft. The Government intends to expand this naval force to a 200-ship navy within a decade. Thus, India has the third largest warship building program of the world, behind the US and Russia only. In line with such ambitious policies and procurement programs, the Navy has adapted its operational concept and, aiming at “shaping a favourable and positive maritime environment”, is heading towards more robust maritime power to safeguard national interests at sea.

Such a development does not result out of free will, but out of necessity. The Indian Government and its strategic community perceive the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean as strategic encirclement. Chinese involvement in the construction of Pakistan’s deep-water port of Gwadar and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port serve as illustrations of a real drive towards Chinese hegemony in wider regions, its current massive construction activities on uninhabited islands in the South China Sea being just the most advanced part of China’s global expansion plans. Most tellingly, the India-US joint strategic vision statement, which must be seen as a historic turn, affirmed “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. This is a clear expression of an Indian-American consensus that China’s assertive handling of conflicting regional territorial claims must be countered. With it, India extends its interests onto the Pacific side of Asia.

In earlier contributions on India’s foreign policy, we have drawn attention to the new Government’s strategic choices, and have labelled them “right choices”, without omitting, however, to state that all policy changes must be accompanied by the necessary material means in order to be relevant. PM Modi has seriously engaged in the implementation of his policy decisions. Now, he will have to be judged by the stamina with which he will try to tackle a near “mission impossible”.

18th December 2015 / Philippe Welti

(Sources: The International Institute for Strategic Affairs, IISS, Strategic Comments, Volume 21, Comment 37, London December 2015; The Hindu, comments and op-eds throughout 2015)

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