Since the middle of May, four vessels of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet, including some of its most advanced indigenous ships, have plied the waters of Southeast Asia and Australia, conducting exercises with partners and making port calls in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia. Some, not least the Indian government, have held up the deployment as an embodiment of India’s commitment to its new “Act East Policy.” While this may be a fair characterization of the mission’s objectives, it is important to recognize that neither the deployment nor sentiment behind the policy is unprecedented. In doing so, what is truly new – the degree to which India is “Acting East” in the maritime domain – can be more fully appreciated.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Act East Policy at the November 2014 ASEAN-India summit, signaling a desire to increase economic and strategic ties with East Asia. As successor to the “Look East Policy,” which originated in the 1990s and sought to refocus attention on the region, the policy pronouncement is most accurately viewed not as a sudden shift in effort but as recognition of a long-developing trend. It is also a signal that the government will maintain the upward trajectory of deepening ties as it enters a new phase. Within this phase maritime security efforts have played a prominent and important role.

The Eastern Fleet’s annual “operational deployments” or “overseas deployments” throughout East Asia are a prime example. In the 1990s, “India and her Navy reached out to regional maritime neighbours” with increasing goodwill port calls, augmented the next decade by greater participation in maritime exercises and the start of multi-ship regional deployments. Their presence became regular features only in the last decade, contributing to the Indian Navy’s reportedly “all-time high” operational tempo, according to the Chief of the Naval Staff R.K. Dhowan.

In addition to increasing presence, evidence of India’s implementation of the Act East Policy comes from a series of firsts in engagement with nations to the east. Although India’s Navy has for some time helped conduct joint training and enforcement efforts with regional forces – for instance coordinated patrols (CORPATs) with both Indonesia (since 2002) and Thailand (since 2005) – the past several years have seen a maturation and proliferation of these efforts. The twice-yearly Ind-Indo CORPATs are set to develop into more robust exercises this year and will join the growing roster of annual bilateral exercises with Asian nations such as JIMEX with Japan (since 2012) and SIMBEX with Singapore (since 1999).

Similarly, last week India agreed to hold its first bilateral naval exercise with Australia later this year. The agreement’s venue was historic in its own right and implications for the Act East Policy, coming at the first high-level trilateral maritime security talks between India, Japan, and Australia. While the Indian legs of the trilateral may not be as fast-moving as the Australian-Japanese leg, both promise closer cooperation with eastern democracies, such as the “special global strategic partnership” touted with Japan. Additionally, the trilateral relationship itself would hold considerable regional clout should it sustain its development. This looks likely, at least in the near-term, as the representatives discussed the potential for a trilateral exercise of their own and a second round of talks.

India has also recently agreed to undertake several maritime capacity building efforts beyond training in line with its Act East Policy. For example, in July 2013 India agreed to build four offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) for the Myanmar Navy, although the timeline for this project is unclear. Of greater strategic importance is the burgeoning effort to bolster Vietnam’s maritime capabilities. In the fall of 2014 India established a $100M line of credit for Vietnam to buy four Indian patrol boats, helping lay the groundwork for the evolution of another relationship to the status of a “strategic partnership.” Signed memos on defense and coastguard cooperation followed this May during Vietnamese Defense Minister Phùng Quang Thanh’s visit to New Delhi. Further, India is reportedly in talks to allow Russia to sell their jointly developed BrahMos cruise missile to Vietnam. Perhaps just as important, India has long supplied critical spares to Vietnam’s Navy for its vessels of Russian origin.

In addition to these partner-focused efforts, important elements of Act East capacity building begin at home. The tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), gateway to the Malacca Strait and “window into East and South East Asia,” has at last become a priority in the defense budget, for instance receiving funds in 2015 to develop and expand several air and naval stations on the islands. The ANC is also a hub of regional engagement, overseeing the biennial MILAN multinational naval exercise while its operational units undertake many of the joint patrols described above.

India’s commitment to developing its own capabilities furthermore provides one of the motivations for the maritime component of the Act East Policy. India has undertaken to expand its military acquisition beyond Russia as default exporter. This is particularly true for those willing to help its “Make in India” campaign, which aims for a rapid increase in indigenous defense article production and technology transfer defense deals. India’s recent amity with Japan may be due in part to the potential to help with several capability challenges, including a likely US-2i amphibious aircraft sale in 2016 and a less likely deal for Soryu-class submarines.

If India’s “East” extends to the United States, a similar dynamic emerges. Indian Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on June 3rd signed the new 10-year “Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship,” an outgrowth of the meeting between Presidents Obama and Modi in January. It includes a call to “enhance cooperation toward maritime security and to increase each other’s capability to secure the free movement of lawful commerce and freedom of navigation across sea lines of communication.” Such cooperation would build upon the successful 2009 deal to supply India with P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and center initially on India’s development of aircraft carrier technology.

On June 10th, India took out of drydock its Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) project, the 40,000-ton INS Vikrant, scheduled in 2018 to join the remaining, foreign-built, carrier in the fleet (INS Viraat is slated to retire next year). Although much work remains before Vikrant is operational, the occasion marked the end of another critical stage of production and progress towards an important symbolic achievement – especially as China’s generally more successful indigenous naval shipbuilding strives to achieve the same in near future. India and the United States in January agreed to form a working group “to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design,” which meets for the first time in June, with an eye toward to follow-on IAC-II, the planned 65,000-ton Vishal. Of probable interest for the project are nuclear propulsion and the U.S. Navy’s new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) – a catapult launching system that would incidentally increase the logic for sales of U.S.-built jets.

But what is this capacity for? Responding to China’s growing capabilities and presence in the Indian Ocean is likely another factor driving the Act East Policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, Chinese submarines calling in Sri Lanka, and even a highly speculative canal across Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra with rumored ties to the Chinese government have fuelled fears of the so-called “String of Pearls” strangling India’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs). But the reciprocal eastern Indian presence is likely intended less as a threat than signal that as the Indian Ocean becomes a regular theater of operations for China, so too will East Asia be for India.

The most important factor behind India’s eastern maritime activity is probably economic. The engagement with Vietnam can be explained in large part by the desire to protect India’s investments in oil fields off Vietnam’s coast. India’s joint counter-piracy patrols help shore up its SLOCs, while its ministers regular refer to the importance of the freedom of navigation.

Notably, India has also avoided most issues upsetting to China, maintaining the economic benefits of friendly ties. As evidence, consider Modi’s delicate handling of this year’s U.S.-India Malabar exercise invitations. Japan, a past attendee, is expected to receive an invite after the July planning conference, but Modi’s government was careful not to extend the offer before his May trip to meet with Xi. A similar balancing occurred with two Act East firsts last year when India participated in both the United States-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise and new naval exercises attached to China’s International Fleet Review. While Acting East, India, like most Asian nations, would prefer not have to make a “China choice.” For its part, India is inviting both the United States and China, among dozens of others, to its second International Fleet Review in February next year.

About Scott Cheney-Peters

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow. He can be followed on Twitter at @scheneypeters.