/  Issues & Analysis Series   /  Maritime Potential Vs Land

Maritime Potential Vs Land


India’s policy so far

Problems in the approach so far

Upcoming and emerging Problems

Movement towards Indian Ocean

Advantages of movement towards Indian Ocean.

India should hit the snooze button on Afghanistan and Central Asia, focus on oceanic region

Our big problem remains our neighbourhood. We still lack “the requisite power to shape their strategic choices.” Neither our economic nor our military power by itself can influence our neighbours’ foreign policy choices. This has been exacerbated by the rise of China which has emerged as both an economic and military player in South Asia.

The failure with Pakistan is manifest. After a brief flirtation with the carrot, India doubled down on the stick. This has yielded considerable electoral dividends, but whether or not it has helped modify or change Islamabad’s behaviour remains open to question.

Pakistan already extracts a large price from India, in particular the huge national security expenditures we incur on account of its continuing proxy war against us. There is a larger opportunity cost that we pay because of its hostility.

It has refused normal trade and intercourse with India. Worse, it maintains an effective blockade between India and central and west Asia. Because of this, India is unable to establish any worthwhile rail, road or pipelines to trade with the region.  India has sought to remedy the situation through the Chabahar project and the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC).

But now, when India has been on the verge of some success, the US has blockaded Iran. At present India doesn’t have the kind of clout that would enable it to challenge the Americans, so no one is going to rush to put more money in Chabahar or INSTC till the issues between Iran and the US are settled.

Under such a circumstance, and the problems in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, India needs to push a snooze button. True, this is India’s near abroad, but New Delhi will be better off by putting its Eurasian ambitions on hold for a while and focusing its limited resources and effort on its immediate neighbourhood, and exploiting the opportunities presented by the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean communities.

Delhi should have no problem recognising that Islamabad is not ready for economic integration with India; it wants a settlement of the Kashmir question to precede any economic and political cooperation with India. That might take a while. But should we hold up the rest of the region until Pakistan is comfortable with India-centred regionalism?

An Ocean of neighbours

Modi’s visit to Male, Colombo can affirm the salience of the Indian Ocean island states offers the opportunity to firmly place the Indian Ocean island states into India’s regional geography. India must now expand the ambit of the strategy to draw in Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion and Diego Garcia. Reunion is part of France and Diego Garcia hosts a major American military facility.

Similarly, Delhi should focus on a number of small islands that dot the sea lines of communication in the eastern Indian Ocean — the Cocos and Keeling islands belonging to Australia come readily to mind. In both the east and the west, India’s own island territories — the Andaman and Lakshadweep — have a critical role in reshaping our maritime neighborhood.

But first to the conceptions of India’s strategic geography. Nothing has diminished India’s geopolitical thinking than the idea of South Asia. The shrinking of India’s regional vision was also reinforced by India’s inward economic orientation and the sundering of historic commercial ties with the maritime neighbors.


Modi’s focus on BIMSTEC was as much about rediscovering a forgotten regional organization as it was about putting the Bay of Bengal on India’s mental map. Equally important was Modi’s focus on the Indian Ocean islands. His 2015 trip to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka was to include Maldives, but had to be cancelled at the last minute because of the crackdown on opposition leaders. Modi travelled briefly to Maldives at the end of last year to celebrate the restoration of democracy in the island state.

Over the last few years, Colombo has been persistent in claiming an “Indian Ocean identity” rather than a South Asian identity. The future of the Maldives, sitting astride one of the world’s busiest sea lines of communication, is in the Indian Ocean. Both of them are acutely conscious of their growing maritime salience and have not been hesitant to develop all-round political leverage.

Indo Pacific

Although skepticism about the idea of Indo-Pacific endures, the new geopolitical construct continues to gain ground. In embracing the concept the Association of South East Asian Nations has taken a big step towards bridging the eastern Indian Ocean with the Pacific. If South East Asia has been central to the Indo-Pacific debate.

The ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific vision has come after a prolonged internal debate among its ten member states. The initiative came from Indonesia — the largest member of the ASEAN and an early champion of the Indo-Pacific. After all, Indonesia is the land link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Almost all the maritime traffic between the two oceans passes through the narrow straits formed by the Indonesian archipelago.

Modi Government  eventually adopted the Indo-Pacific framework. In the east, Indonesia’s initiative is an important landmark in the way South East Asia rethinks its geography.


The new government in India starts on the back of quite a few gains, which seem to have consolidated its regional maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Early in his last term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi significantly visited three important Indian Ocean countries, the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka, in 2015. In the following year, he visited Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya, four littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. Besides these, in the last five years India has partly undone the damage to relations with its critical IOR neighbor, the Maldives; ties had suffered under the previous pro-China government in Male under Abdulla Yameen. As for strategic steps in the IOR, securing port access in Duqm, Oman for military use; India’s decision to develop its maiden deep-sea port in Indonesia’s Sabang; furthering talks for a possible military base at Assumption Island in the Seychelles; and securing logistics agreements with the U.S., France, and Singapore have been critical decisions for consolidating India’s regional naval presence as well as deterring external power dominance.

Modi’s decision to visit the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country, on his first visit to any country in his second term ties in with India’s desire to consolidate its Indian Ocean vision. The new government’s focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — prioritizing relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand — underscores New Delhi’s maritime vision in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific. Going forward, India’s regional consolidation in the Indian Ocean will depend on at least four factors:

  • steps taken to harness the potential of the country’s coastlines and oceans to power a blue economy;
  • the speed and efficiency with which its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) is implemented;
  • robust maritime diplomacy with the countries of the IOR, invoking the right spirit of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR); and
  • effective, expansive partnership with external powers of the region.

With its blue economy focus, India intends to promote smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the Indian Ocean region’s maritime economic activities. The effort is being led by the Indian Ocean Rim Association and includes a spectrum of issues including fisheries, aquaculture, seafood products, seaport and shipping, maritime connectivity, port management and operations, marine spatial planning, ocean forecasting, blue carbon, and renewable energy.

On the security front, the MCPP is a grand regional plan to bolster India’s operational capabilities by inducting new warships, submarines, and aircraft besides enhancing New Delhi’s influence in the strategic maritime zones. It aims at a comprehensive enhancement of naval capabilities by inducting 200 ships, 500 aircraft, and 24 attack submarines (compared to India’s current levels of just over 130 ships, 220 aircraft, and 15 submarines). Amid slow inductions, procurement clearance delays, and bureaucratic hurdles, however, there is still a long way to go before realizing the Indian Navy’s MCPP. Beyond just the elements of hard power, a lot will depend on how the Indian Navy will assimilate future technologies into its operational criteria, especially big data analytics and artificial intelligence to deal with a rapidly changing battle space.

Diplomatically, India’s SAGAR approach remains limited to a grand vision that ties India’s IOR aspirations with those of the Indo-Pacific. Littoral countries of the IOR, including those in Southeast Asia, are keen to see India’s maritime vision translate into constructive leadership that not only looks beyond India’s immediate regional interests and great power politics but also provides an alternative to investment strategies led by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Although the Indo-Pacific vision, in its emphasis on ASEAN centrality together with its focus on the African coast, does underscore India’s SAGAR spirit, a lot remains to be done on in the area of security cooperation with India’s maritime neighbors and assisting them in building their maritime security capabilities.

Finally, a consequential aspect of India’s emerging regional maritime strategy is the way its partnerships with external powers in the IOR are shaping up. The role of external powers has become critical to the evolving maritime order in the IOR. The region had witnessed great power competition during the Cold War and continues to see competitive coexistence, if not outright rivalry, among major players. However, as opposed to the Cold War, smaller nations have gained strategic importance due to their positioning, leading to a subtle one-upmanship among competing powers for strategic leverage. While China’s BRI has weaved together a host of countries along crucial nodes in the IOR, generating unprecedented debt influence in countries like the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, other external powers like Australia, France, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. have sought to repurpose their strategic presence in the IOR to counter any domination by China. Within this mix, India continues to play it safe. While its logistics agreements with France and the United States potentially give it access to important ports like Djibouti near the horn of Africa, Reunion Islands near Madagascar, and Diego Garcia in southern Indian Ocean — beside other benefits like joint training and refueling with strategic partner navies — India continues to practice strategic ambivalence in the Indian Ocean. This is more evident in its Indo-Pacific strategy than anywhere else. India continues to term its strategy in the Indo-Pacific as “inclusive,” without defining the limits of inclusivity. Does it include China? To be sure, India has taken subtle steps not to antagonize China in this part of the world. For instance, it continues to keep Australia out of the Malabar series of naval exercises, which already includes Japan and the United States. India has also pussyfooted on its Quad policies, clearly negating any need for security polarization in the Indo-Pacific. Whether this approach needs to change will depend on how India consolidates its Indian Ocean strategy going forward.

On its eastern seaboard, India continues to cooperate with the Quad countries, having just concluded a meeting in Bangkok between officials of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, who held consultations on their collective efforts for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. As New Delhi continues to search for balance between its “Act East” and “Look West” visions, the consolidation of its IOR vision will be crucial for straddling its two subtly variant visions for the two ends of the Indo-Pacific seaboard.

Realities to be known

As Modi travels to the southern seas, Delhi must come to terms with a number of realities.

However, the single outstanding challenge for India’s new government will be to distinguish its maritime vision from that of its leading strategic partner in the region, the United States. While India continues to perceive the Indo-Pacific as extending from the Persian Gulf to ASEAN countries and Japan in the east, there is increasing pressure from Washington to clip the Persian Gulf out of that vision through sanctions on India’s energy imports from Iran. Although the Indian government stopped oil imports from Iran amidst political uncertainty in New Delhi, the Modi government has hinted at plans to resume purchases of Iranian oil, skirting U.S. sanctions. Besides enunciating the gravity of India’s dependence on oil imports, the decision to flout U.S. sanctions is telling of a subtle line of difference that New Delhi has drawn while constructing its own Indo-Pacific vision. India’s mission-based deployments have brought the Gulf region under the direct strategic focus of its Navy. In the same regard, the P8I surveillance planes of Indian Navy have been carrying out anti-piracy patrol sorties in Salalah in the Gulf of Aden and other piracy prone areas.

First, it needs to recognise that island states and territories — including the smallest pieces of real estate — are coming into strategic play amidst the return of great power rivalry to the littoral.

Second, the island states in the south western Indian Ocean form a coherent group and must be dealt within an integrated framework. In eastern Indian Ocean, a focus on developing the Andaman Islands opens up possibilities for sub-regional cooperation with Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

Third, India needs to develop its own national capabilities — especially in the delivery of strategic economic and security assistance to the island states. Without that the ambitious goals identified under the SAGAR vision will remain elusive.

Finally, in his SAGAR vision, Modi signalled India’s readiness to work with other powers in promoting regional prosperity and security. There are big possibilities for collaboration with France, the US, Australia and Japan in different corners of the Indian Ocean. The joint bidding by India and Japan for the development of East Container Terminal in the Colombo port underlines the potential.

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