Across South Asia, India and China are competing to expand their respective maritime influences in the Indian Ocean. In view of ongoing border disputes, New Delhi could well resume quadrilateral naval exercises with the US, Japan and Australia, says Rahul Roy-Chaudhury.

By Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia

While the military stand-off with China continues on land, India is developing a new, proactive maritime-security policy to counter China’s expanding role and influence in the Indian Ocean. India’s neighbours do not seem to share its concerns about Chinese influence and assertiveness, but they are largely the beneficiaries of the current drive to deepen regional economic and security cooperation.

New Delhi’s aim is to provide significant economic, transportation and energy development incentives to select South Asian coastal and island states. The initiative means that India will be among the first contributors to humanitarian and disaster-relief operations in its neighbourhood and it will bring about an expansion of bilateral maritime security and defence cooperation with island states beyond that of a ‘net security provider’. It is also providing the impetus for a diplomatic and political push into the southwestern and eastern areas of the Indian Ocean. While this serves to generate opportunities to deepen cooperation with the new US administration on Indian Ocean security, there remain significant challenges in creating a regional consensus on, and implementing, this policy.

Countering Chinese influence

Indian policymakers’ concerns focus on China’s assertive policy towards their country, as well as its growing influence in the Indian Ocean, which they view as an attempt to gain permanent access to these waters and to ‘encircle’ India strategically. China’s initiative includes port-development projects at Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, as well as a significant increase in naval deployments in the Indian Ocean and submarine visits to the ports of Colombo and Karachi. China sold two refurbished diesel-electric submarines to Bangladesh in November 2016 and is constructing eight submarines for Pakistan.

This perception has sharpened with the recent establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, off the Horn of Africa, and the launch of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an estimated US$62 billion package of loans and equity agreements for energy and infrastructure projects that seeks to link China to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar port. CPEC is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which also provides US$22bn in soft loans and US$14bn in joint ventures in Bangladesh, US$5bn in investment in Sri Lanka and hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to the Maldives.

In May 2017, India refused to attend the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing as it regards CPEC projects in Gilgit-Baltistan – which it claims as part of Jammu and Kashmir – as a violation of Indian sovereignty. New Delhi sees CPEC as having only a strategic, not an economic, objective.

Deepening regional economic and security cooperation

India’s new maritime policy therefore includes challenging Chinese political narratives and infrastructure projects in South Asia by providing new economic, port and energy-development incentives to enhance regional connectivity.

For the past two years, the Indian government has sponsored an influential Indian Ocean conference on peace, progress and prosperity; the second conference takes place in Colombo next week. In April 2017, India agreed to provide a US$4.5bn line of credit to Bangladesh, including for port upgrades. It is also pursuing a US$2billion investment in Sri Lanka, for the development of the port, oil terminals and refinery at Trincomalee, while in April 2016 it agreed to develop port facilities in the Maldives. New Delhi also had some influence in Sri Lanka’s reported decision to provide only a minority stake to a Chinese operator for security operations at Hambantota port, and that Chinese naval ships would enter the port only at the discretion of the Sri Lankan government.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-pronged vision for the future of the Indian Ocean that he put forward in March 2015 included deepening economic and security cooperation in the region. The Indian navy’s revised official maritime security strategy in October 2015 significantly expanded its outlook by seeking to ‘secure’ rather than simply ‘use’ the seas to ‘shape a favourable and positive maritime environment’ to enhance national security interests. In April 2017, India agreed to provide Bangladesh a defence-related line of credit for US$500 million.

Towards Indian Ocean island states, the Modi government has also significantly expanded an existing aspiration to act as a ‘net security provider’. India has agreed to provide Sri Lanka and Mauritius defence-related lines of credit for US$100m and US$500m respectively; the largest naval ships in both countries are Indian-built offshore patrol vessels. India is building an airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian island of Agaléga for surveillance purposes. Significantly, Indian nationals continue to hold the posts of security adviser to the prime minister and coast guard commander in Mauritius. India has also launched a coastal-surveillance radar project in the Seychelles, and is upgrading the jetty and airstrip on Assumption Island for surveillance purposes. Indian naval ships and aircraft regularly carry out joint surveillance, patrols and hydrographic surveys of the exclusive economic zones of Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Maldives.

India is bolstering surveillance and operational capabilities from its Andaman and Nicobar Islands, close to the Strait of Malacca. As half of India’s trade passes through the disputed areas of the South China Sea, the country has maintained its diplomatic efforts to promote a rules-based order, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight. India has provided Vietnam with patrol boats, a US$500 million line of credit for defence spending, access to satellite data for monitoring its waters, and submarine and combat-aircraft training. Although it was recently reported that India was to provide Brahmos anti-ship missiles to Vietnam, this has subsequently been officially denied by Vietnam.

Deepening strategic partnerships

In a signal to China, India has upgraded its strategic partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia. The 2017 iteration of the trilateral Malabar exercise with the US and Japan took place in the Bay of Bengal with India providing nine ships, its largest-ever contribution. However, eager to avoid antagonising China, India will almost certainly continue to reject formal invitations to join the US in joint patrols in the South China Sea. However, in view of its current military stand-off with China, India could well seek the resumption of quadrilateral naval exercises along with the US, Japan and Australia.

New Delhi’s proactive approach to the Indian Ocean provides opportunities to deepen maritime-security cooperation with the Trump administration. The first meeting between Modi and Trump, held in Washington in late June 2017, was dominated by counter-terrorism and trade. Modi also met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who praised 'India’s long-term efforts to promote stability in the Indian Ocean region’. Similarly, at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier that month, Mattis had publicly stated that India’s recognition as a ‘major defence partner’ of the US was partly due to its ‘indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region’. Subsequently, in August 2017, a new bilateral ministerial-level mechanism for strategic consultations was set up. Having developed an essentially transactional rather than strategic relationship with the Trump administration, India’s assumption of new responsibilities in the Indian Ocean provides significant opportunities for US naval forces to deploy elsewhere.

However, few states in South Asia share India’s concerns about growing Chinese influence and assertiveness in the region. The leaders of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar participated in the BRF, as did ministers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives. India’s initiative to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar, less than 100km west of Gwadar port, is likely to face setbacks due to Trump’s hostility towards Iran. India’s ambitious warship-building programme continues to suffer from innumerable delays and cost increases. Nonetheless, having raised the expectations of Indian Ocean coastal and island states, the onus is now on the Indian bureaucratic and security establishments to fulfil these commitments.

Download Rahul Roy-Chaudhury's introductory remarks at the Second Indian Ocean Conference, Colombo, 31 August 2017.

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IISS Manama Dialogue 2017

India in the Gulf

IISS Senior Fellow for South Asia Rahul Roy-Chaudhury speaks at the 2017 IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.

About the conference

The 11th IISS South Asia Security Conference, in partnership with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the US National Defense University, took place in Muscat, Oman, on 13–15 October 2017.