Bharat is a prominent power in the Indo-Pacific Region. It, along with USA, Japan, Australia and South Korea, it is one of the most renowned protagonist and leading player in the maritime biogeographical theater. It also works in tandem with the above four nations in countering the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) which can be called the major antagonist of the region.
Though the word “Indo-Pacific” has formally come into the international forefront through efforts of the former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, the idea of Indo-Pacific comes from medieval India. The region stretches all the way from Pacific Ocean till the shores of eastern Africa and encompasses several sub regions like IOR, South China Sea, East China Sea, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal to name a few.
Shinzo Abe was inspired by a book written by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s brother Dara Shikhoh, which is called “Majum-ul-Bahrain” or “The Confluence of the Two Seas.” During British colonial rule, Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India, had predicted that the centre of power held by the Atlantic Ocean in his times would be replaced in the future by the Pacific Ocean.
Bharat has various geostrategic interests and valuable assets in the Indo-Pacific. They can be classified into physical as well as geopolitical ones namely,
- India’s Ties with ASEAN
- India’s Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC)
- Indian Diaspora
- Indian Blue Economy
- Indian Military Bases
- India’s Overseas Ports
- India’s Energy Imports and Exports
- India’s Collective Interest for Denuclearization of DPRK
- Protection from Piracy and Organized Crime
At the heart of India’s Indo-Pacific interests is the multilateral ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is a ten-member grouping which encompasses almost all nations of Southeast Asia. India’s engagement in this region is mostly security and economically. Economically, ASEAN is India’s 4th largest trading partner. India is having two Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with the inter-governmental organization. Bonhomie with ASEAN is also key interest for India especially the Act East and Look East Policies.
Indian assets with ASEAN include India-Myanmar-Thailand-Trilateral Highway. This nearly completed highway starts from Moreh (Manipur) all the way to Thailand and in the near future would also reach out and extend to Laos and Cambodia too. The second and third asset is the Kaladan Multimodal Project and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Projects. The Indian community living in Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean Region constitute a strategic asset for India. Especially in the Narendra Modi government and even in preceding governments, diaspora is also a national interest for India and therefore is an asset for Bharat in the Indo-Pacific theater.
Many countries in the Indo-Pacific Region particularly Southeast Asia have multitude of Hindu temples such as Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Bali (Indonesia), Java (Prambanan Temple) which reveals that the region has had cultural, linguistic and religious interaction with ancient India. The two most prominent religions that have flourished in the Indo-Pacific Region (ASEAN nations) in this context are Hinduism and Buddhism which originated in India and were subsequently proliferated in these nations through traders, pilgrims, travelers and merchants.
Ramayana and Mahabharata are highly popular in ASEAN countries and often depicted in Wayang Characters (Indonesia and Thailand) Myanmar has its own version of Ramayana. Garuda, the vahana of Vishnu popular in Thailand. This can be called as India’s foreign policy cultural interests
Threats: The biggest internal roadblock to these assets is the ongoing insurgency in Manipur and other Northeastern States of Bharat. The second obstacle depends on India’s relations with the regime and political relations with Myanmar. Infrastructural problems coupled with use of these connectivity projects by nonstate actors to enter Indian territory and spread the tentacles of their nefarious activities in the country is challenging. The gradually increasing economic engagement by China towards ASEAN countries is another cause of concern especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
Solutions: As far as insurgencies are concerned, counter insurgency operations are a must. There should be a greater coordination between central and state forces for better tactical response. Cooperation between Myanmar and Indian governments to ensure a crackdown on the safe havens of northeastern insurgent camps near the border is a must.
For the trilateral highway and other projects improving relations with the Tatmadaw regime in Myanmar is the need of the hour. Both governments must use financial resources to jointly enhance connectivity projects and build resilient infrastructure. Movement of goods and people from India to ASEAN countries is possible due to a Free-Movement Regime. Building resilient border management practices such as Integrated Checkposts can help in tackling issues emanating from non state actors and illegal entities.
Energy and SLOC
India is an import dependent country in terms of energy resources. It imports a large quantity of oil and gas, cargo for sustenance of its population from the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf nations. Merchant ships, tankers and vessels regularly travel from the Gulf to India via sea. The Indian SLOC runs all the way from the Strait of Hormuz all across the Arabian Sea to Indian westward ports.
In an eventuality, naval military action from the Gwadar Port of Pakistan can easily intercept energy resources and goods coming all the way from Gulf nations and thereby preventing crucial energy supplies to India. The Pakistan Navy can also use sea-denial tactics to create a roadblock for India.
Secondly, India also imports are large amount of noteworthy goods from Southeast Asian countries such as palm oil, rubber from Malaysia etc. The route to Indian from Southeast Asia is via the Malacca Strait. It is also called world’s oil chokepoint. If the Strait is closed or blocked then India will not be able to receive these resources from South East Asia.
This will surely affect India as well as China and other Southeast and East Asian nations. China’s high handedness in the South China Sea needs to be tackled. If they block the Strait of Lombok, it will be another great problem for India. This will cut India’s access to Brunei and East Timor. Hence protection of SLOC (Sea Lanes of Communication) is an imperative. It is a strategic interest for the country. Additionally, there are petroleum and natural gas rigs in the Arabian Sea such as Bombay High which need to be protected as well.
China is pursuing an aggressive policy called String of Pearls. It has improved relations with neighboring maritime and littoral states in the IOR and has built numerous naval bases there such as Cox Bazaar (Bangladesh), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and many more. The main intention of this policy is to isolate India in the neighborhood and reduce the role of US in the region.
Anti-India sentiments and ideology constitute an important component of China’s relation building with littoral states. Very recently, the growth of pro-China ideology has been witnessed in Maldives. The Maldives was initially switching its stances and fluctuating its regime depending upon the government there. Under Abdullah Yameen, the anti-India rants began to take shape there and gradually strengthened over time.
With the election of Mohamed Muizzu as the new President of the island nation, pro-China and anti-India policies have reached their pinnacle. Maldives is a part of Neighborhood First Policy of India. Muizzu has purchased drones from Turkey and has publicly announced that Indian military stationed in Maldives should vacate the island before March 15, 2024. He along with constant Chinese backing has encouraged and fostered the growth of terrorism there. In the near future, Maldives can pose a serious threat to Indian SLOC’s and due to radical Islamic elements operating in the island’s vicinity, the country can encourage and launch sea-based terrorism and piracy to bleed India in the southern Indo-Pacific.
Solution: Protection of Sea Lanes of Communication is crucial for any nation having access to seas. The Indian Navy should frequently patrol the waters of the Indo-Pacific. This will counter problems emanating from Pakistan. As far as Strait of Malacca, Lombok Strait and South China Sea are concerned, India should increase its security and must vigorously cooperate with the QUAD nations and participating more in the Malabar Exercise with US, Australia and Japan as it has been doing previously. Close assistance from the US presence in Diego Garcia can prove to be quite helpful. India, US and QUAD countries also vouch for a free, rules based, inclusive Indo-Pacific with complete freedom of navigation. India is pursuing a policy called Necklace of Diamond to counter String of Pearls strategy.
India’s coastline has a length of more than 7500kms. The Indian Blue Economy depends on numerous factors like fishing villages, ports, harbors, lakes, water bodies and conservation of the marine environment and ecology. These are all strategic assets for India.
India also has significant Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). An EEZ is located 200 nautical miles from the shoreline of any maritime/ littoral nation. These EEZ contain strategic minerals besides petroleum and natural gas. An EEZ is a place from where marine resources can be exploited by the home state for activities such as sea mining. Sea tourism also cannot be ignored. The revenue generated can boost and project the littoral nations economy to apex levels.
India has a total of 9,73,182 sq kms of EEZ (West Coast) and 4,45,011 sq.km (East Coast), while the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have an EEZ of 5,92,217sq kms. The West Coast has an abundance of Phosphate, especially Bombay-Saurashtra Coast. Manganese and Cobalt are found in Andaman Sea. In the east, the state of Odisha (Malud to Puri coast) has plentiful minerals like Garnet, Monazite and Magnetite.
Threats: It has been seen many a times that local fishermen wander into the EEZ of another nation either deliberately or by accident. They are apprehended by officials and naval security forces of other nations are killed believing to be informants and spies. Some fishermen also contribute heavily to Illegal Unregulated Fishing (IUU) which nowadays remains a hot and sensational topic. Transnational sea based organized crime occurs frequently in the region.
Secondly, Cruise Ships, Merchant Vessels, oil tankers can cause oil and hazardous chemical spills into oceans. Illegal Marine poaching and artificial island building (usually done by China in South China Sea) damages coral reefs and marine ecosystem to a large extent. Thirdly, the protection of ports is also vital for a nation’s blue economy. They can be vulnerable to sea-based attacks and sea terrorism.
Solutions: The protection of marine ecology, environment is one of the major duties of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). A major segment of the duty of the ICG is to assist fishermen at sea, preventing IUU and prevent sea based organized crime. The protection of Indian ports and harbors is also attributed to the ICG.
In order to solve problems related to the Exclusive Economic Zones and marine resource exploitation, the enforcement of the Indian Maritime Zones Act and United Nations Convention of Law in Sea (UNCLOS) can be helpful. Therefore, a more active engagement in tandem between the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard is essential for protecting India’s Blue economy. The ICG also assists in custom duties and acting against sea-based crimes like trafficking (humans, arms and narcotics) and prevent smuggling to a great extent in cooperation with local coastal communities.
Military Bases/ Strategic Assets
Many navies have built strategic military bases in the Indo-Pacific Region and the IOR in general. One of India’s key military bases in the Indo Pacific is the Andaman and Nicobar Command located in Port Blair. It is one of India’s premium asset and interests in the theater. India also has a base in Madagascar, a listening post to be more precise for maritime communications is located in Northern Madagascar. There are many Indian naval mission deployments in the IOR. There are a total of four Indian military bases in Oman. Three of them are naval bases and one is an airbase. India has a listening post in Ras-al-Hadd in Oman and military installation in Muscat along with the famous Duqu Port. India has a base in Mauritius as well. It is located in Agalega island.
Threats: The main cause of concern and worry is attributed to the Peoples Republic of China. It deploys its navy under the pretext of anti-piracy operations and actually gets a valid reason for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The Chinese also operate nuclear powered submarines and have made repeated forays in the region. These can stay submerged for months and remain undetected or silent. Aggressive Chinese forays from their overseas base of Djibouti can threaten Indian bases in Oman.
Chinese outposts in Myanmar (Coco Islands in particular) can keep a hawk eye on the Andaman Nicobar Base. In an eventuality they may target this base and monitor all naval activity of India in the Bay of Bengal.
India has three major overseas ports in Iran. These include Kish, Bandar Abbas and Chabahar Port. India has heavily invested in these ports. These ports can allow India to reach out to Central Asia and Afghanistan and vice versa allow the landlocked Central Asian nations with access to the sea.
The Chabahar Port acts as a watchtower and oversees all Chinese and Pakistani naval activities occurring at Gwadar. The Bandar Abbas is an important nodal point for the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). However, China is also strengthening its presence in Chabahar and has built a port at Jask near Strat of Hormuz. Chinese activities, if unchecked can undermine India’s influence and ports in Iran.
Solutions: The Indian Navy has to further hone their anti-submarine warfare tactics and skills suitable for this era. Acquisition of anti-submarine aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon can help detect Chinese submarines. Assistance from the US can be helpful as Diego Garcia is located close by. The US is allied with India in countering China in the Indo-Pacific and their joint operation can prove to be successful due to interoperability. The Sultanate of Oman has had cordial relations and warm ties with India and such robust cooperation in future can help in minimizing risk to Indian bases located in Oman.
The Indian community living in various states of the Indo-Pacific are an asset for India. Their interests and welfare lie in the hands of skilled and experienced diplomats. As per Hans Morgenthau, one key feature and role of a diplomat is to protect the interests of people within his country as well as overseas. Engagement with diaspora has gained momentum during the Modi Government. Millions of Indians live in Southeast Asia, Malaya, East Asia, Eastern Africa and Indian Ocean littoral nations. Their voice needs to be heard and resonated to the government back home. They pay a great role in projecting India’s soft power. Indian communities are densely concentrated in Indonesia, Oman, Kenya, Philippines etc.
In Singapore, many alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Management are found. There are about one lakh migrant workers in Singapore. Tamil is one of the four official languages of Singapore, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu along with Bengali are also spoken.
When it comes to Indonesia, the flourishing power of Indians (Sindhis in particular) cannot be ignored. Many people of Indian origin in Indonesia are descendants of migrants who came to Southeast Asia during British and Dutch colonial rule. In Kenya, the characteristics of Indian diaspora are that many of them are financially influential. There are 60,000 people in Kenya that have Indian origin.
While on an overseas trip, PM Modi never forgets to interact with the Indian community. They provide remittances and help in sharing, communicating their issues, grievances, experiences, give policy suggestions and feedback to the political head of the country. Diaspora is an important component of a country’s national interest and foreign policy.
Threats: Due to hostile political regimes, people of any country living outside their home countries at large are under threat by political turbulence. It is the utmost duty of the home government to ensure their safety. It is possible in the near future, that pro-Chinese government in Maldives spearheaded by Mohamed Muizzu may even order the Indian community to vacate the country.
Solutions: Effective strategic communication and timely evacuation have to go hand in hand in time of emergencies and contingency. Embassies and consulates must remain in contact with government at home. The only shelter the diaspora needs at the time of trouble looks forward to are diplomatic missions. Experienced diplomats, through use of dialogue and quality and negotiations can resolve crisis and restore status quo which can be helpful in avoiding evacuation and mitigating risks.
Threats: The presence of pirates and sea-based terrorists is very dense in the Horn of Africa. The area is located close to the Gulf of Aden and is infested by Somalian, Djibouti, Ethiopia pirates. Cargo ships, VLCC (Very Large Crude Carriers), merchant vessels from the Gulf can be intercepted and prone to pirate attacks. There are a considerable number of pirates in Arabian sea, Indian ocean and Bay of Bengal that prey upon merchant ships. They can be used by adversarial nations to launch sea-based terrorist attacks on vulnerable coastlines.
Solutions: Piracy in the Indo-Pacific can be countered only through naval military action, naval intelligence gathering, joint interoperability and superior firepower. Blue Water navies are extremely suitable to tackle piracy in far flung areas. But they can be eliminated by proper well-trained navies that can operate regionally. The Indian Navy is actively involved in anti-piracy operations in the Indo-Pacific especially in the Indian Ocean Region since 2008.
Denuclearization of North Korea
India is the part of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It along with Japan, USA, South Korea and Australia are highly committed to denuclearization of North Korea. The heavily isolated and sanctioned rouge state has defied all international orders to stop weaponizing nuclear missiles and thermonuclear bombs. Although India has very minimum contact, assets and relations with Pyongyang, except for strategic minerals and semiconductor materials, it being a part of QUAD and US led alliances has been a “collective interest” for India altogether to disarm the DPRK of its nuclear arsenal.
India is also against China for providing covert and overt assistance to DPRK in its nuclear program. It is worth mentioning that in the past that Pakistan has been sharing its nuclear technology plans to North Korea especially by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the brainchild of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Potential contacts and interaction between Pakistan and North Korea must be quelled for sake of peace in the Indo-Pacific region and de-escalate tensions.