Today’s globalized world increasingly depends on the Indian Ocean for trade connectivity. In 2018, Indian Ocean-connected nations had a combined nominal GDP of over $54 trillion and included 12 of the 16 members of the trillion-dollar club. By 2033, the Indian Ocean will connect 21 of the 25 global members of the projected trillion-dollar club. In comparison, the Atlantic will connect only 12, and the Pacific will connect 13. Over 60 percent of the $17.43 trillion worth of merchandise exports the world witnessed in 2017 comprised seaborne trade, with close to two thirds of this transiting the Indian Ocean. While the Atlantic formed the backbone of the global trading system of the past, the Indian Ocean has effectively taken over that role today–and its share of global trade will grow in the years ahead. The security of Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs) has thus become a key concern for stakeholders, but regional mechanisms for maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean are few. Consequently, the security of Indian Ocean SLOCs depends largely on extra-regional powers.

As India has grown, so has its reliance on the seas. India depends on Indian Ocean SLOCs for vital energy imports as well as for external trade in goods and services which amounted to roughly 40 percent of India’s GDP in 2018. Merchandise trade is carried predominantly by sea, and even trade in services depends to a large extent on undersea cables. While India’s territorial integrity may depend on secure borders, its economic future depends on secure Indian Ocean SLOCs.

Consequently, SLOC security has become an increasingly prominent component of India’s security outlook. The importance attached to SLOC security was first seen in India’s stated aspiration to become a “net security provider” in the region. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went public with his SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) strategy, making it the cornerstone of his engagement with the Indian Ocean rim and islands. But India does not possess power or influence sufficient to secure the entire region. India must enlist other stakeholders’ cooperation in order create this critical foundation for the region’s prosperity. Such cooperation requires the development of a common understanding and comprehensive strategy to tackle the different types of security challenges found at sea.

Maritime security challenges and responses for a status quo nation can be divided into three broad categories. First is the humanitarian or “benign” category, entailing provision of succor to those in distress, evacuation of diasporas from strife torn areas, and assistance to people of regional states impacted by natural calamities. Next comes the governance or “constabulary” category that consists of securing maritime transportation routes and nodes against criminals and non-state actors seeking financial or political gain, as well as the enforcement of international law. Third is the coercive or military category, comprising actions to deter or counter the coercive acts of other nation-states. Each of these three baskets of challenges requires a different approach.

India has a proven pan-oceanic capability to tackle humanitarian challenges in the Indian Ocean. Its geographic centrality, the deployment pattern of its navy, and the limited capacity of regional nations enable it to be the first responder in the crises that strike Indian Ocean states with predictable regularity. India must, therefore, take the lead in organizing humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Governance challenges are somewhat more difficult to tackle given their transnational linkages, the sovereignty concerns of regional nations, and the political clout of criminal elements. An example of governance cooperation lies in the ongoing anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, where India has contributed effectively, albeit not under the command of others. Extra-regional nations maintain a substantial naval presence in Indian Ocean hot spots to deal with such challenges. India’s Information Fusion Centre—Indian Ocean Region has provided a foundation for regional cooperation in tackling governance challenges. It is now time for India to take the lead in organizing such regional cooperation.

Cooperation is most difficult when it comes to dealing with revisionist coercive challenges by nation-states, both overt and covert. India has developed the wherewithal to deal with such challenges from Pakistan, but there is increasing concern regarding a Chinese challenge manifesting itself in the years ahead. Given its vital interests in the region, there can be little doubt that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy presence in the Indian Ocean will increase and China will acquire additional bases to add to Djibouti. This could conceivably threaten the SLOCs that serve as India’s economic jugular vein, creating coercive pressure. To counter this challenge, sections of India’s strategic community are discussing seeking maritime security guarantees from external powers in a manner reminiscent of India’s search for external nuclear security guarantees when China became a nuclear power. But can other nations provide India reliable maritime security guarantees? Is that the objective of highly visible exercises such as Malabar?

In 1984, then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger articulated what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, specifying that U.S. military forces should not be deployed in combat situations in which the United States does not have vital interests at stake. This doctrine generated much opposition, particularly from the State Department, but the use of military force for operations that do not clearly involve U.S. vital interests has always aroused strong debate. India’s policymakers must understand that no extra-regional stakeholder can be reliably expected to risk entanglement in confronting China directly if, and when, it seeks to coerce India in the Indian Ocean. Only India’s vital interests are at stake; others will, at best, provide diplomatic support. Just as it was forced to develop and strengthen an independent nuclear capability, India has no option but to strengthen its own naval capability to tackle a possible coercive challenge from China.

President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy says, “We will deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.” Concession of the leadership role to India makes it clear that the United States has no vital interests in the Indian Ocean. It will help develop India’s capability, including through enhancing domain awareness, technology transfers, and tactical exercises, but will not risk military entanglement. Exercises such as Malabar, Konkan, Cope India, and Varuna are useful in honing India’s military capability and testing the doctrinal aspects and tactical proficiency of India’s fighting forces, but to see them as signaling commitment to come to India’s aid in a crisis with China (or even Pakistan) is overly optimistic.

India’s approach to cooperative maritime security must therefore be to:

  • Expand humanitarian cooperation with Indian Ocean Region nations by providing HADR assistance as necessary, while enhancing their capability to govern maritime zones provided to them by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • Take on increased responsibility for governance of ocean areas within the Indian Ocean in cooperation with extra-regional great powers, including both China and the United States.
  • Strengthen military capabilities to deal with coercive challenges within the Indian Ocean, particularly from China. This will require increased budgetary allocations and other measures.

India’s economic future and prosperity are dependent on cooperation with like-minded nations to secure the global maritime (and cyber) commons, on which its linkage with the world at large depends. Failing to invest adequately and to develop a suitable cooperative security strategy would be as myopic a failure as those that led to defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The second Modi administration should structure its maritime security outlook accordingly.

Photo: PMIndia

About Lalit Kapur

Commodore Lalit Kapur is a veteran with over 35 years of service in the Indian Navy, including in diplomatic and tri-service appointments, and holds three master’s degrees as well as a deep interest in maritime history and the Indo-Pacific. He is currently a senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group.