In the last decade, India has made a concerted effort to enhance its maritime posture in the Indian Ocean. When AMTI last surveyed Indian maritime investments in 2019, many projects were ongoing. While not every planned upgrade has gone through in the years since, India has more than made up for individual setbacks by broadening and deepening defense ties with many of its most important maritime partners and securing a stake in several critical maritime infrastructure projects in the region. Taken together with modest improvements to India’s own offshore bases, these steps represent substantial movement from New Delhi along a trajectory that would position India as the beating heart of a maritime security network in the Indian Ocean.
Indian Facility Upgrades
In the past two years, India has made modest upgrades to some of its offshore military bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The airstrip at Indian Naval Station (INS) Baaz on Great Nicobar Island was extended by 860 feet in 2021, and construction on buildings to the northwest of the runway remains ongoing.
Construction at INS Baaz
At INS Kohassa on North Andaman Island, an expected extension of the runway to 10,000 feet, the length required to host larger military planes, has not yet materialized. It was reported in July 2020 that land allotments and clearances for the runway’s extension had been completed, but current satellite imagery has yet to show any clearing of additional land on either end of the runway. Instead, work began this February on repaving and widening the current runway.
Then and now: the runway at INS Kohassa
Other plans for a dual-use port that would host a naval detachment at Minicoy Island in India’s southwestern Lakshadweep archipelago have also fallen short, with no construction yet visible in satellite imagery.
The Indian Ocean Neighborhood
Despite setbacks in improving its own offshore facilities, India has made substantial progress in boosting joint capabilities with partners in the Indian Ocean.
Foremost among these maritime partnerships has been the upgrading of military infrastructure on the island of Agalega in Mauritius.
Agalega, April 20, 2022
As reported by the Lowy Institute in 2021, India constructed a 10,000-foot runway on Agalega in 2020, dwarfing the previous airstrip, as well as a jetty and significant new facilities construction at the northern end of the island. In recent imagery, progress can be seen on hangars along the runway which measure 180 feet long and 200 feet wide—big enough to house large military aircraft such as India’s P-8I Poseidon, which measures 123 in length and has a wingspan of 126 feet.
Hangars under construction at Agalega, April 20, 2022
India signed an agreement in 2015 to develop the runway and jetty. Both countries maintain that the upgrades are mainly for the benefit of Mauritius, which will surely benefit from improved logistics and maritime patrol capabilities on the island. But in 2018, Mauritius’s prime minister Pravind Jugnauth also said India would be allowed to use the facilities “subject to prior notification” of Mauritius.
India has also pursued maritime engagement with Mauritius through other measures. In February 2021, India extended $100 million in credit for the procurement of defense assets by Mauritius and inked a deal to provide Dornier aircraft and Dhruv helicopters. And in March of this year, Mauritius was admitted as a member of the Colombo Security Conclave, a regional grouping focused on maritime security that consists of India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, with Seychelles and Bangladesh participating as observers.
Delhi has also put effort into building a relationship with the Maldives focused on the Indian Ocean. In March, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited the Maldives and formally handed over a new Coastal Radar System consisting of 10 India-built radar stations across the Maldives. These stations feed into the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR). During the visit, the two countries also announced a series of initiatives expanding their security partnership, including $40 million in financing for major police infrastructure upgrades across the Maldives.
A month earlier, during a visit from India’s defense secretary Ajay Kumar, the two sides signed an agreement to “develop, support, and maintain a Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour” at Uthuru Thila Falhu Naval Base northwest of Malé, and India extended a $50 million defense line of credit to the Maldives. Kumar also inaugurated a “Phase-1” addition to the jointly constructed Composite Training Center for the Maldives National Defense Force on Maafilaafushi, which has seen several new buildings constructed since its opening in 2019.
Construction since 2019 at the Composite Training Center on Maafilaafushi, April 18, 2022
Last, but not least, India signed a $500 million deal in 2021 for the Greater Male Connectivity Project, an infrastructure project involving the construction of a four-mile bridge and causeway connecting the Maldives’ capital Malé with three neighboring islands. Called the largest ever infrastructure project in the country by India’s high commissioner to the Maldives, the bridge would, notably, be four times longer than the China-constructed Sinamalé Bridge (also known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge), the first inter-island bridge in the Maldives.
Sri Lanka has also been the target of Indian strategic outreach. But Delhi initially suffered a setback in Colombo when a 2019 three-way agreement for India and Japan to develop Colombo Port’s eastern container terminal was cancelled amid protest from trade unions. India’s Adani Group was instead offered and agreed in September to develop the less desirable western container terminal. The contract for the eastern terminal was awarded to a Chinese company in November 2021.
But Delhi has made inroads since. In March, the two countries signed a deal to create a Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Colombo, with a sub-center to be established at Hambantota. Earlier in the same month, India agreed to donate a nearly $20 million floating dock to the Sri Lankan Navy and two Dornier surveillance aircraft to the Sri Lankan Air Force. These developments follow a major deal secured in December 2021 by Indian Oil to form a joint venture with Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to refurbish the 99 oil tanks at Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, a massive pre-World War II oil storage facility with capacity that far exceeds domestic demand. The deal makes good on a 1987 agreement to jointly develop the facility that had been put on hold and will last for the next 50 years.
Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, April 13, 2022
Chattogram Port, to which India enjoys access under a 2018 agreement, witnessed a series of upgrades in January of this year including a new jetty that can accommodate 220-meter-long ships, a mooring overflow container yard, and a swimming complex.
The new jetty at Chattogram Port, February 2, 2022
Construction at Sittwe Port, an Indian-financed facility located 70 miles north of the Chinese-funded Kyaukpyu port and special economic zone, was finished in early 2021. Bharat Freight, which also operates India’s Chabahar Port in Iran, was awarded the contract to operate Sittwe and its inland water terminals in May 2021.
In the meantime, however, another potential Indian port project was scrapped. India’s Adani Ports had won a bid to build and operate Yangon International Terminal in 2020, but later discovered that the $30 million in land lease fees it would have had to pay to the military-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation would run afoul of U.S. sanctions imposed on Myanmar’s military following the coup in February 2021.
In May 2021 India renewed its 2018 defense pact with Oman, which gives the Indian military access to the port of Duqm. Additionally, a new bunker terminal at the port was opened in February 2022.
The Quad and Beyond
While less tangible than India’s basing and port projects, some of the most significant recent steps New Delhi has taken to secure its leadership in the Indian Ocean have been diplomatic moves toward strengthening its relationships with other major maritime powers beyond its immediate neighborhood.
Foremost among its efforts has been increasing alignment with the members of the Quad. After signing logistics exchange agreements with Australia and Japan in 2020, India now has such agreements with all Quad members (it had already signed a similar agreement with the United States in 2016). These agreements formally allow Indian forces to access and replenish at U.S., Australian, or Japanese bases, dramatically increasing the potential operating range of Indian air and naval assets.
India also signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement with the United States in 2020, giving it access to U.S. geospatial intelligence. It was the third of three foundational pacts (after 2016’s Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and 2018’s Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) laying the groundwork for deepened U.S.-India defense cooperation.
Along with such milestone agreements, India expanded engagement with the other Quad members through the inclusion of Australia in Exercise Malabar in 2020 and 2021. The 2020 invitation occurred amid border clashes with China in eastern Ladakh and was widely read as an indication of a strategic shift given Delhi’s prior hesitance to invite Canberra. And military to military engagement among the Quad members has also continued outside of Malabar, most recently at exercise Sea Dragon 2022, an anti-submarine warfare exercise hosted by the United States in January where the Quad members were joined by Canada and South Korea.
The European Union
India has also increased its maritime engagement with Europe. In January 2021, India and the European Union held the inaugural India-EU Maritime Security Dialogue, with the second edition taking place this past January. And maritime cooperation with France, a resident Indian Ocean power, remains a focal point for India. In 2021 India and France signed a deal to enhance intelligence and information sharing and expand joint exercises in maritime, space, and cyber domains. And during a visit to France by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in February, the two countries agreed on a joint Roadmap on the Blue Economy and Ocean Governance, the first pillar of which declares the two countries’ “attachment to international law of the sea and compliance across all seas and oceans” and calls for strengthening international law of the sea by coordinating their positions in multilateral bodies and negotiations.
Explore the map below to learn more about India’s strategic maritime investments: