By Antony Clement and Jessica Lucas
Indian Ocean has been a vital strategic trade route since the early medieval period, but was substantially exercised by the Europeans in the 16 to 19th century to gain an economic and political foothold within the region.
During the Cold War, India’s non-aligned foreign policy enacted by Prime Minister Nehru effectively dismantled the permanent shadow of superpower presence in the Indian Ocean. However, attempt to contain China’s ‘peaceful’ rise and eager stare towards the Indian Ocean signifies warning signs for Indian diplomacy and security. The unfolding events and environment seem to validate the statement by David Kaplan that “the Indian Ocean could be the 21st century playing field for the major powers.” The shadow of the Cold War in India’s backyard could be inevitable if New Delhi fails to respond effectively to both Beijing and Washington.
Under Prime Minister Modi’s direction, the foreign ministry’s articulation of foreign policy has the solid mind-set of “the Indian Ocean is India’s Ocean”. Modi’s visits to the Indian Ocean Islands can be seen in this regard, with the world closely monitoring the diplomatic engagements of the tour; from the renewed relationships within the Indian diasporas to Modi’s dress code, to the broad range of military and civilian assistance being offered to the strategically significant islands to veer Chinese influence from the Islands’ current security embrace. Cancelling his visit to the Maldives during his Indian Ocean tour, the Prime Minister citied political turmoil and arrest of opposition leader and former President Mohammed Rasheed as the main consideration. With mounting speculation of the Male governments’ intentions to prohibit Nasheed from participating in the next general election, along with Nasheeds vocalized criticism of Chinese influence in the region, India’s response was discouraging. With the long term objective of decreasing Chinese Naval presence in the region, New Delhi’s non-interference and non-intervention in the Maldives political situation is an appropriate, rationale and safe long term strategy, however over-looking and neglecting the issue entirely is a disappointing strategy to employ.
The potential forge of political tensions is exacerbated by the controversial Maldiven President Abdullah Yameen’s strategic trajectory toward China and the growing influence via the recently ratified law that allows foreign ownership of land. In a speech Yameen reassured intentions of maintaining the Indian Oceans demilitarized status; however, concerns mount in New Delhi as the move attracts significant commercial expansion from Beijing, with the inevitability of a Chinese naval presence following to protect economic interests.
At the moment it is unclear exactly how much this will impact Modi’s policy, but rhetoric grows surrounding the Indian Ocean Islands becoming vital ground for regional competition between the two dominant Asian powers. Amidst the race for great power status, the question rises of India’s action towards China’s influence and presence in the Indian Ocean. With decades of warm diplomatic relations between Modi and Beijing officials coupled with the ‘all weather friendship’ between China and Pakistan, the Indian Ocean cannot solely remain India’s Ocean. With China extending diplomatic relations and financial assistance to smaller and more distant islands, it is clear that Beijing does not intend to stop flexing its political and economic muscles. Modi’s current policies that seek to renew regional engagement and provide a more stable security role is proving effective, particularly as more Asian nations tilt from the increasingly aggressive influence of China. As naval expansion becomes the prominent strategy for Chinese containment, India’s position in the Indian Ocean is jeopardised by accusations of multi-lateral Chinese alienation and isolation tactics; such as the Quadrilateral Security Initiative. For New Delhi, this remains a contentious and complex issue of balancing security engagements with Indo-Pacific neighbours, as well as embracing China economically but simultaneously attempting to restrain their maritime influence, creating a fragile environment in the Indian Ocean.
India’s fears of permanent Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean have been validated with the $20 billion dollar ‘Maritime Silk Road’ project announcement by Beijing. With commercial and military infrastructures already a primary concern for New Delhi, the project aims to fully expand into the Indian Ocean to utilize the lucrative trade routes and protect Chinese commercial interests and vital energy lines from Africa and the Gulf.
This will inevitably sharpen regional tensions as India continues to rapidly modernize and expand its navy along with embarking on more naval exercises with East and South Asian nations. As China and Pakistan’s relationship tightens; with Pakistan gaining more advanced military hardware from China, China will gain complete access to Pakistan’s coastline and the peripheries of the Indian Ocean.
New Delhi is greatly aware of the growing significance that the Indian Ocean strategically offers in international politics. Coupled with China’s continued attempts to gain hegemony within the region, Modi has made a decisive break from New Delhi’s decades-old foreign policy and ambivalence, to the insistence that India becomes primarily responsible for ensuring regional peace and stability. The reinvigoration of stagnant diplomatic relationships and application of more ambitious strategic policies by Modi, is building a foundation for India to regain the Indian Ocean sphere of influence without relying on geographic advantage.
The multi-faceted relationship between Russia and India continues to ensure the strategic vision for India’s backyard. The second largest market for sales for the Russian defence industry, India is also the only recipient of Russian strategic weapons. New Delhi also continues to be held in high regard within Moscow through a combination of history, political relations, expansion of cooperation, and commonalities within global policies and interest. Russia has noted the benefits India can provide regionally and globally in becoming a strong military centre, and is willing to support and supply New Delhi to ensure this rise of power and influence.
As the Indo-Pacific region transcends to become a central hub for global economics and strategy, Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also developing and deepening their already warm relationship to ensure regional stability. Both nations aim to secure trade routes and reduce the risk of regional destabilisation by supporting for economic interdependence between emerging and major nations in the Indo-Pacific area. By building a solid foundation of shared values and interests, emphasizing cooperation over competition and highlighting the importance of an open dialogue, the potential for misinterpretation, tension and escalation into conflict is not entirely removed, but is significantly lowered.
The recognition by several prominent nations that India is a critical role in supporting the security environment developing across the Indian Ocean not only provides testament in terms of New Delhi’s capabilities in exercising regional power and willingness to expand its security framework.
With the Indian Ocean rising to become a significant but tense corner of the world, particularly as Asia and Africa continue to house the world’s fastest growing economies, India’s management of its own backyard provide authenticating credentials as a reliable and valuable Asian superpower.
Antony Clement has a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Madras, India and is pursuing postgraduate in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. He had previously worked as a Junior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. Jessica Lucas has an undergraduate degree in Politics & International Relations, and a postgraduate degree in Strategic Studies’ at the University of Aberdeen, UK.