India’s quest for maritime dominance

An in-depth assessment of India’s maritime interests and prospects in it’s own oceanic backyard – the Indian Ocean.

A book review of India’s Ocean: The story of India’s bid for regional leadership.

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The US government’s ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ towards the Indo-Pacific has been the buzzword for Indian geopolitical analysts over many months now, who predict that India will become the linchpin of the emerging global order. In this narrative built around hope, a missing link was a systematic analysis of India’s own capabilities and priorities in its near oceanic extent. The book India’s Ocean by David Brewster, a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and an authority on India’s strategic relations fills this critical void.

To understand the power equations between the various claimants in the Indian Ocean, the author has relied on a wide variety of sources – Indian, US and Chinese strategic thinkers, newspaper articles narrating contemporary events and maritime doctrines of all the major powers. Though the book is written by an Australian author, it is narrated with an Indian perspective and primarily intended for an Indian audience that supports India’s bid to maximise its national power in the evolving global framework.

The objective of this book is threefold. First, to trace the development of Indian thinking on its role in the Indian ocean by examining its relations in all the regions of the Indian Ocean. Second, a realistic interpretation of India’s relations with the two major power centres in the region and the world – US and China. Third, to assess if India has what it takes to become a leading power in the Indian Ocean. The book does a brilliant job of fulfilling the first two objectives. The last objective is partially met though, leaving the readers craving for more on the subject.

India’s Ocean comprises of 11 short, engaging and interesting chapters filled with interesting insights. The first chapter highlights the singularity of the Indian Ocean – a ‘lake-like’ water body enclosed on three sides that serves as a major oceanic thoroughfare between Asia and Europe and is accessible only through a few narrow gateways called chokepoints. The chapter delves into the question that due to a historical dominance of external colonial powers accompanied with a ‘low level of strategic interaction’ between the littoral states, can the Indian Ocean be even classified as a ‘region’? Stressing on the Indian role, the author also notes that should India succeed in maximising its power, it would be for the first time in history that a local Indian Ocean player will be the most predominant one.

The second chapter deals with various strands of Indian strategic thought since independence that have come to shape its role in the Indian Ocean. The section on India’s Monroe Doctrine that envisaged India as a de facto sovereign of regional security, leading to a number of military interventions by India in the sixties and seventies is particularly engrossing. Indian government’s failure in the Sri Lankan intervention in 1980s eventually led to a policy of greater restraint in dealing with the neighborhood.

Subsequently, David Brewster has divided the Indian Ocean into five geopolitical spheres – Maritime South Asia (comprising of SAARC states), Southwest Indian Ocean (comprising of Mauritius, Seychelles and the Mozambique Channel), East and Southern Africa, Northwest Indian Ocean (comprising of states in and around the Persian Gulf) and Northeast Indian Ocean (comprising of the ASEAN nation-states). This framework of analysing India’s strategic role in each of the disparate zones is particularly ingenious. The chapter on Southwest Indian Ocean is particularly enlightening. Here, Brewster talks about the little-known “Operation Lal Dora” which the Indian government planned against a coup in Mauritius. The author reveals that since 1983, the post of the Mauritian National Security Advisor has been filled by an Indian appointee, usually a R&AW officer. While discussing the Northwest Indian Ocean and East and Southern Africa, the author remarks that presence of large Indian migrant communities in these regions can constrain India’s political maneuvers. However, this point is subjective as it is the presence of these migrant communities that in some cases gives legitimacy to India’s engagement with these nation-states. For example, the Indian role in Mauritius could not have reached the same level as it is currently without the presence of Indian migrant and Indian origin communities.

In the next chapter on US role as a predominant power in the region, the author emphasises that India should not be shy of collaborating with the US in the Indian Ocean while simultaneously working on maximising national power. As a way forward, the author suggests an approach reminiscent of ‘Information Technology outsourcing’ wherein India can take ‘greater responsibility in low-end operations like peacekeeping, search and rescue and disaster relief while allowing the US to focus on high-end operations’. This is indeed a good trajectory for Indian maritime capacity building.

China’s growing role in the Indian Ocean has also been dealt at length. The author describes that the ‘string of pearls’ theory is overplayed by Indian analysts and that the Chinese facilities at Gwadar and Hambantota are militarily vulnerable and economically inviable. Nevertheless, China will continue to seek a greater role in the Indian Ocean, riding on its impressive economic prowess. The author suggests that the Indian Ocean is still China’s Achilles’ heel and in the event of a military conflict, India would do well to engage it in the Indian Ocean rather than on land across the Himalayas. Another option available to India would be to seek a greater role in the South China Sea to counter China’s growth in the Indian Ocean.

The book concludes with an assessment of various options available to India – imposing a muscular hegemony, exercising benign leadership, contributing to a regional security model, or a combination of all three. This chapter could have been more descriptive in drawing up an analytical framework describing India’s actions. One such framework could possibly be a 2×2 matrix with “India’s capability to influence” and “importance to India’s strategic interests” being the two orthogonal axes. One can then put each of the five regions of the Indian Ocean into the four quadrants thus formed. Further, the intervention options available to India can then be assigned to each of the regions and quadrants. A maritime doctrine can then be derived from this framework.

 India’s Ocean is undoubtedly a significant contribution to India’s strategic thought. It is a must-read for those interested in India’s maritime interests. It invigorates a discussion on the elements that can transform the Indian Ocean to India’s Ocean.