India’s smaller maritime neighbors are paying close attention as New Delhi consolidates the country’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. While bolstering its own naval and maritime capabilities, India has actively taken steps to cement partnerships with most of these smaller neighbors in recent years and continues to do so under the Narendra Modi administration. On balance, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Myanmar, as well as island nations further west in the Indian Ocean—i.e., Mauritius and Seychelles—benefit from the growth in Indian naval power in considerable ways. At the same time, these countries will occasionally find difficulty in navigating independent policy paths when they are at odds with India’s perspectives.
Among the most high-profile ways in which India’s rising naval capabilities have helped smaller countries in the Indian Ocean is through crisis response operations such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO). India delivered disaster relief to its Bay of Bengal neighbors prominently after the 2004 tsunami, the 2007 cyclone in Bangladesh, and the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar. More recently, Maldives received vital shipments of drinking water from the Indian Navy and Air Force after a water treatment plant caught fire in December. In the realm of NEOs, the Indian military has evacuated not only Indian nationals from hotspots in the Middle East but also nationals from India’s neighbors, given the large number of South Asians working in the Middle East. For example in April, after the situation deteriorated in Yemen, the Indian Navy and Air Force conducted NEOs of Indian citizens as well as nationals from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, among many other countries.
Outside crisis response operations, smaller maritime neighbors benefit from India’s growing naval power through the provision of surface platforms, aircraft, surveillance systems, and training. Countries need these capabilities to perform various maritime security duties such as patrolling their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and conducting counterpiracy operations. Indian shipyards are currently contracted to build two offshore patrol vessels for Sri Lanka and two fast attack craft and 11 fast interceptor boats for Mauritius. In December 2014, Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh delivered the offshore patrol vessel Barracuda to Mauritius, making it India’s first indigenously built ship for export. A month earlier, Indian Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral R.K. Dhowan gifted a second fast attack craft to Seychelles during his November visit, and during a visit to Seychelles in March 2015 Modi announced plans to donate a second Indian Dornier aircraft. India also supplied landing craft to Maldives in February 2014, in addition to previously donated Dhruv helicopters and fast attack craft. Myanmar has received platforms, equipment, and training from India, including potentially assistance from Indian shipyards in building offshore patrol vessels—although progress is not yet evident.
In addition to the provision of surface platforms and aircraft, India has greatly contributed to increasing smaller countries’ maritime domain awareness capabilities. It is installing coastal radars in Seychelles, Maldives, and Mauritius; conducts EEZ surveillance for these countries; and has expanded information-sharing through its maritime security trilateral with Maldives and Sri Lanka. Seychelles and Mauritius may eventually join this grouping. In addition to providing training, India also conducts port visits and bilateral exercises with the Sri Lanka Navy; trilateral exercises with the Maldives Coast Guard and Sri Lanka Coast Guard; coordinated patrols with neighboring Bay of Bengal navies Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia; and the multinational MILAN maneuvers biennially. With India’s support, neighboring countries’ maritime capacities are being expanded, which promotes regional security and deepens their partnerships with India. On balance, India’s maritime capacity building efforts far exceed those of China in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
Issues to watch
Whereas smaller Indian Ocean countries clearly stand much to gain from India’s naval rise, their larger neighbor’s prerogatives sometimes carry undesired weight. For example, Modi did not visit Maldives as expected in March 2015 despite having visited other close Indian Ocean island partners on the same trip. Modi’s avoidance of Maldives owes to India’s recent dissatisfaction with President Abdulla Yameen government’s arrest and imprisonment of the former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, whose ties with New Delhi are especially close. It remains to be seen to what extent this divergence between New Delhi and Male could affect the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka maritime trilateral, which did not meet as planned in early 2015 in Maldives.
Relations have improved between India and Sri Lanka in recent years—especially after Modi’s inauguration. One outstanding problem, however, is the protracted dispute between fishermen from southern India and northern Sri Lanka. Both New Delhi and Colombo are in agreement about the maritime boundary line but disagree on the means of enforcing the line. Repeated talks between fishermen indicate that the problem is nowhere close to being resolved at sea.
Untapped potential: Bangladesh-India maritime cooperation
Bangladesh is one country where India could pursue greater maritime capacity-building efforts as it has done with other smaller neighbors. The resolution of their maritime boundary dispute in July 2014 through the Permanent Court of Arbitration has opened up opportunities for naval and maritime cooperation. The Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard are actively seeking to develop their maritime surveillance and response capabilities to combat sea robbery and trafficking in the Bay of Bengal. However, India’s military engagement with Bangladesh has focused more on land forces and counterterrorism. Maritime cooperation has been limited, especially when compared with India’s interactions with other Indian Ocean neighbors. Moreover, other major powers dominate as defense suppliers to Bangladesh—for example, the United States provided the Bangladesh Navy with its two largest ships (former U.S. Coast Guard cutters), and China is preparing to sell it two Ming-class submarines.
India can build on the momentum of Modi’s landmark visit to Bangladesh in early June (which saw an MOU signed on coast guard cooperation) by proposing a bilateral naval exercise, annual navy staff talks, and regular coast guard exercises. Another path forward could be for New Delhi to offer to contract Indian shipyards to build surface platforms for the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard, as it has done for other countries (increasingly through lines of credit), and even build maritime patrol aircraft (as sold to Mauritius). Such measures would help advance Modi’s broader “Make in India” initiative, specifically by going from “a buyer’s navy” to a “builder’s navy,” in the words of CNS Admiral Dhowan.
Smaller Indian Ocean countries are clearly deriving benefits from India’s expanding naval and maritime capabilities. They are grateful for India’s crisis response operations, while India’s capacity building efforts are improving these countries’ maritime forces, thereby advancing regional security and deepening bilateral relationships with New Delhi. Inevitably, India’s predominance in the region will complicate some of these countries’ policy stances, as has been seen in Maldives and Sri Lanka. Smaller neighbors will continue to resist pressure to choose between security partners, preferring instead to benefit from the variety of options presented by the United States, European countries, China, and Japan, among others. On balance, however, these smaller countries have firmly entrenched political-military ties with India, which can be expected to continue to improve as India works to further develop its capabilities in the Indian Ocean.