India’s Expansionist Maritime Agenda


India, while emerging as a major economic player in the world, also possesses an ambitious maritime development plan. Its strategic interest in the Indian Ocean primarily derives from its historical sense of considering the Indian Ocean as India’s Ocean. The Indian maritime doctrine provides a guiding principle for increasing the capabilities of the Indian Navy and a means for giving India a leadership role in the Indian Ocean region.

India has always been preoccupied with a strong desire to establish its predominance in the Indian Ocean and since its independence from British in 1947, the main objective of Indian foreign policy is to realize the goal of becoming a regional hegemon whose legitimacy would be accepted by other states in the region.

India considers that supremacy over the Indian Ocean is a fundamental part of the Indian desire to achieve a great power status, as it has a gigantic population, an enormous military/maritime power, and is making rapid progress to be one of the world’s biggest economies. India aspires to be the sole authority in the Indian Ocean as the ocean and the state share the same nomenclature. During the colonial period, India was the focus of the British Empire, and following a huge gap of over sixty years since independence, India is now gradually trying to develop itself as the major power of the world. Its ever-growing worldwide financial and military force is driving it to look towards an extended strategic role in the region on the world stage. Indian Prime Minister Modi’s government sees control over the Indian Ocean as a prerequisite for the strategic influence of India over regional and international politics.

India has been projecting itself as a hegemon in the Indian Ocean Region since 1947 when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. But, its economy was in shambles, due to which it could not do many practical things on the ground. But with the rise of the Indian economy, now it considers itself to be the sole dictator in the Indian Ocean. Mohan analyses Indian prominence in the Indian Ocean region as fundamental to its global power ambition, which is also India’s long-term aspiration. In any case, most Indians would unequivocally dismiss the thought that India has any hegemonic desire in the Indian Ocean. They rather consider India as a well-disposed policeman that can manage security to the region and keep the undesirable external powers at bay.

Indian military rise in the Indian Ocean is part of broad Indian military strategy in the region and cannot be analyzed separately. Broad contours of Indian defense policy are the real prism from which to see and analyze the Indian naval strategy in the Indian Ocean. As discussed earlier in the article, Indian defense policy centers on its historical rivalry with two important neighbors i-e China and Pakistan. Both these states have a major role to play in the Indian backyard in the Indian Ocean which is the major reason for increased Indian focus in the ocean. Growing Indian concern in the Indian Ocean is partially driven by increased Chinese focus on tiny states in the region specially its unstated ‘string of pearls’ policy. Chinese ever-growing defense ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and other island states have rung alarm bells in Indian policymakers for some time. These developments have forced the Indian defense establishment to focus, modernize and expand the Indian naval force.

Although all the wars that India fought with these two neighbors were primarily land-based traditional wars, it had little or very low focus on its navy, and especially it didn’t have any policy in the Indian Ocean as part of its defense policy. However, the geostrategic environment changed significantly in the post-cold war world that necessitated Indian policymakers to weigh options on this aspect too. This re-evaluation of Indian defense policy is also supported by growing economic muscles of the rising Indian Economy that fund any ambitious plans related to Indian naval buildup in the Indian Ocean. It was in this context that the Indian navy started its ambitious program of modernization and expansion in the Indian Ocean.

India’s advent into the 21st century was with a very small but strong regional naval posture. Its navy has traditionally been called ‘blue water navy. However, it faced numerous challenges of human resources, technology, and numbers. It had the poor indigenous infrastructure to develop naval weapons and other equipment and mostly relied on Soviet-supplied equipment. However, the Indian navy was the fifth largest navy in the world by end of the 20th century. Indian navy consisted of over one hundred naval vessels including 15 submarines, 2 aircraft carriers, and other destroyers and frigates. This fleet was however aging and most of them were to expire. Even not all of these could be used at one time and only half of them were operating at one time. This was mainly due to lack of focus as well as lack of funding.

Besides modernization, India is also trying to increase its control around the Strait of Malacca. This is evident from establishing a Naval base “INS Baaz” at the controversial Andaman and Nicobar Island’s southernmost end of Campbell Bay. A few days back, Aljazeera’s Investigative Unit obtained financial data, satellite imagery, and on-the-ground evidence that point to India building a naval facility on the remote Mauritian island of Agaléga. This is not surprising as India has been building naval facilities in the Indian Ocean for many years. Indian policymakers are of the view that dominance over the Indian Ocean is a fundamental part of the so-called ‘manifest destiny’ of India.

Military experts who have analyzed Al Jazeera’s evidence say an airstrip under construction will almost certainly be used for maritime patrol missions by India’s navy. Rumors and media reports about the military base first surfaced in 2018 but both Mauritius and India have denied that the construction project is for military purposes and say the infrastructure is only to benefit the islanders. Satellite pictures reveal how Agaléga, located about 1,100km (684 miles) from Mauritius’ main island and home to about 300 people, is seeing the construction of two large jetties and a runway that is more than 3km (1.84 miles) long.  With India believing the Indian Ocean as the Indian lake, Pakistan cannot stay oblivious to the advancements occurring in the region due to its India-centric threat perception. Indian strategists today use the term “Modi Doctrine for the Indo-Pacific region”. The purpose of this doctrine is to project those Indian interests that lie not only in the Western Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean region.

Pakistan inherited the threat of Indian aggression with its inception. The two states have been traditional security rivals since then. The quest for equalizing power drove them to acquire even nuclear weapons. Pakistan has always been at the disadvantage of being at a lower ebb in traditional military security. It succeeded to get a cover of security through nuclear deterrence. However, India’s aspiration of the Blue Water Navy is a huge challenge to Pakistan’s security interests. The importance of the Indian Ocean in twenty-first century cannot be ignored owing to its political significance, economic importance, and relevance to the growing energy needs of the world.

Pakistan is already under threat of Indian hegemonic designs. The escalation of its pace and intensity directly hits Pakistan’s interests. Pakistan has also focused on developing its navy and particularly nuclearization of its naval forces. India plans to spend $45 billion on its naval development over the next 20 years. Pakistan cannot compete with such a huge budget at the present stage. It does not have many cards to play. Yet it owns a strategic move that is Gwadar. Gwadar is a deep seaport at such an influential location that can oversee the whole of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean can be controlled through a check on oil trade, goods trade, supply of goods to landlocked Central Asia and Russia, and a base for their energy exports. This will also check India’s activities in the Indian Ocean.

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