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Over the last two decades, China has significantly enhanced its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Beijing’s expanding diplomatic, economic, and military engagements have generated considerable anxiety about China’s increasing ambitions in the region. Beijing recently hosted a China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation with the joint collaboration of the people’s government of Yunan province and its chief foreign aid agency known as the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), pointing toward the institutionalization of Beijing’s role in the IOR and its littoral areas. While China has increased its engagement in the region, these waters have long been considered New Delhi’s front yard and primary area of responsibility. As the Indian Ocean region takes on greater geostrategic significance in the Indo-Pacific, India must bolster its engagement to maintain a leadership position.

Geostrategic Importance of the IOR

The Indian Ocean region holds tremendous geopolitical, geo-economic, and geostrategic importance. Extending from the eastern coast of Africa to the western coast of Australia, the IOR accounts for one-fifth of the water on Earth’s surface. Its vast maritime and continental expanse encompasses nearly 38 countries ranging from continental islands to archipelagos and has long been a crossroads for merchants, marines, and navies. Transit routes bridge the East and the West and supplement economies across the Indo-Pacific, especially through important choke points, such as the Straits of Malacca, Straits of Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb, and Ombai and Wetar Straits. Additionally, the region is rich in hydrocarbon resources like oil and natural gas, fertile fishing grounds along the coastlines, and rare earth materials like polymetallic nodules.

As the Indian Ocean region takes on greater geostrategic significance in the Indo-Pacific, India must bolster its engagement to maintain a leadership position.

Historically, India has served as the resident power in the IOR and its littorals. Occupying 40% of strategic waters, India’s national interests are inherently tied to the region’s dynamics. India is centrally located, shares civilization ties, and has strong diasporas in many of the countries across the IOR. Further, amid intensifying geopolitical competition, cooperation with island territories deepens New Delhi’s influence in its maritime neighborhood and beyond through extended areas of jurisdiction in the IOR, like the Reunion islands (France) and Cocos Islands (Australia). As China increases its investments in the Indo-Pacific, it’s an opportune moment for India to expand its presence in the IOR and maintain its leadership position.

Without leveraging the role of these island nations, New Delhi’s larger leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region will be affected. Lacking an Indian option, small island nations have little alternative to Chinese offers, creating a vacuum for Beijing to capitalize on at New Delhi’s expense. While China has stepped up its presence, island states may seek greater engagement from India as well. These small nations need assistance with challenges, including climate change, fulfilling Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), disaster management, climate crisis, renewable energy, and blue economy but fear being used as pawns in the great power competition. India’s respect for sovereignty and strategy autonomy positions the country well to emerge as the preferred regional partner. In recent times, India has served as a leading player by spearheading various climate-related initiatives, like the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI). While these initiatives align with India’s aspirations to be a trusted partner with island states, deeper engagement is needed.

Four Domains Determining India’s Role in the IOR

Despite such importance attached to the region, New Delhi’s role and responsibilities have been rather limited. For decades, New Delhi’s strategic focus on territorial threats left the maritime domain largely ignored. However, amid a shifting geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific, India has recently increased its presence in the IOR. Going forward, developments in four domains will determine India’s role in the region: diplomacy and capability building, information dominance, military might, and economic prowess.

Diplomatic relations are India’s greatest strength in the Indian Ocean. Born out of historic ties, island countries have welcomed Indian engagement. Recognizing this, New Delhi has increased its diplomatic footprint through various high-level visits to promote island diplomacy. Initiatives such as Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR) and the Colombo Security Conclave engage senior officials of the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India. Through SAGAR, the Indian Navy also provided medical assistance teams and food aid during the COVID-19 pandemic and is a testimony to New Delhi’s humanitarian outreach and the importance accorded to island states like the Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, and Seychelles in times of crisis. Steps like these help strengthen India’s role in the region. 

In the years ahead, New Delhi must expand and deepen diplomatic footprints among island countries. Efforts to make high-level visits, establish more embassies and commissions to address country-specific demands, and take a leadership role in institutional structures spanning the region offer an immediate first step. For instance, India invited Mauritius to serve as a special invitee on a Disaster Risk Reduction working group that New Delhi will lead as host of the G20 this year. This move elevates Mauritian input into the grouping and fosters cooperation on an issue island nationals care most about. Additional avenues to provide training and skill development in climate resiliency, tele-education, and tele-health could further diplomatic inroads.

To maintain a leadership position, New Delhi must also dominate the information environment. With nearly 350 Chinese warships and submarines at anytime in the IOR, information superiority will allow India to keep an eagle’s eye on increasing Chinese presence along with other inimical activities, such as sea-based terrorism and piracy. India has made significant strides in information dominance already. In 2018, New Delhi launched the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) to better address challenges like illegal fishing, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. The government also approved National Maritime Domain Awareness Project, which will provide “actionable intelligence” to deal with maritime threats.

Going forward, New Delhi should leverage its technological heft to expand its information capabilities. For example, India has extended the coastal surveillance radar network to island states like Mauritius, Seychelles, and the Maldives, but should further expand it to Comoros and Madagascar, which are closely located near chokepoints. Moreover, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) of the sea should be complemented by space-based MDA with countries like France and Japan, both of whom India has already signed agreements that will improve India’s information capabilities and help shape a stable maritime security architecture in the IOR.

Third, India must clarify its military position in the IOR. While the Indian Navy has started mission-based deployments and enhanced its presence in the region, India remains committed to atmanirbharta (“self-reliance”). History has shown that relationships are essential to gaining and maintaining a military advantage in the IOR. As India diversifies its partners to modernize its defense capabilities, New Delhi should extend defense engagement to small island nations, focusing on military operations other than war. For example, India can provide patrol vessels that help in search and rescue and surveillance of the high seas, provide training in humanitarian and disaster relief activities, and build goodwill along with interoperability. These actions maintain India’s strategic autonomy while narrowing space for China to build inroads in the region.

India’s approach should not be developed as a race against any country in the Indian Ocean Region, which will instead point towards short-sightedness and frivolous approach of New Delhi.

Finally, India must find ways to deepen economic engagement in the IOR. Though India has achieved impressive economic growth despite the COVID-19 slowdown, challenges persist in providing foreign assistance. Issues such as a low ranking on key global indices like poverty and hunger, bureaucratic hassles in delivering projects on the ground, and above all shrinking budgetary allocations to foreign aid hinder India’s economic influence. To compensate, India has launched a Trilateral Development Corporation (TDC) fund that will bring in the private sector to boost investments and undertake infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region. Such a burden-sharing model between the public and private sectors strengthens India’s diplomatic and economic position but limits the government’s ability to direct spending. If India aspires to play a leading role in the region, deeper pockets are essential. 

Conclusion

As India clarifies its strategy in the IOR, success or failure in these four domains will determine its role in the region. India will be constrained in taking wider economic responsibilities, adopting a more assertive military posture, and building political will to bring stakeholders together. However, if New Delhi is ready to engage with the island nations, Indian Ocean countries appear ready. India’s approach should not be developed as a race against any country in the Indian Ocean Region, which will instead point towards short-sightedness and frivolous approach of New Delhi. Instead, it should be driven by the holistic and sustainable development of these islands that value their interest first.

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Image 1: Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

Image 2: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

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