By Abhijit Singh,
World Politics Review, 09 Jul 2012
China’s four-week standoff with the Philippines in May over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea has brought the issue of Asian naval rivalry back to center stage. The anxiety is not confined to China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, however. Maritime experts in India now worry about the increasing frequency and size of Chinese maritime contingents deployed in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and the increasingly assertive stance adopted by China’s maritime policy community, no longer coy about discussing naval bases in the Indian Ocean. But if New Delhi is most concerned about China’s forays into the Indian Ocean, it has not ignored developments in the South China Sea.
India’s “Look East” policy has been in force for more than two decades now. Originally devised as a strategy to boost trade and foster economic cooperation with Southeast Asia, the policy has more recently acquired a prominent maritime edge. Over the past few years, India’s political leadership has stressed repeatedly that it is in favor of “freedom of navigation” and an open and inclusive architecture of global maritime security. In his address at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony noted that open sea lanes in the South China Sea were critical for global commerce and that “maritime freedoms could not be the exclusive prerogative of a few.” Indian officials reiterated this theme during U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to New Delhi in early June.
While the Indian navy continues to actively participate in anti-piracy efforts in the western Indian Ocean and has expanded its operational interactions with its closest exercise partner, the U.S. Navy, it is gradually turning its attention to the security of sea lines of communications in the east. In 2011, the Indian navy began a process of sprucing up its eastern defenses. As part of the upgrade program, frontline warships and the landing platform dock INS Jalashawa were based in the Eastern Naval Command. The Indian navy now plans to base its new stealthy Shivalik-class frigates on the east coast and is also considering deploying unmanned aerial vehicles and multimission maritime aircraft there as well. The blueprint for setting up operational turnaround facilities in the eastern ports of Pardeep and Tuticorin is also reportedly ready. The Indian navy frames the operational overhaul of its eastern defenses in benign terms, calling it a long overdue refurbishment of critical infrastructure, but the shift in strategic focus is all too perceptible.
The South China Sea is vital for India not only as a gateway for shipping in East Asia but also as a strategic maritime link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. It profoundly affects India’s strategic vision as a growing power, in terms of its expanding economic and security role in the broader “Indo-Pacific,” where the Indian navy is best positioned to play a crucial role. While India does not have an official position on the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it has a huge economic stake in the region, with state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s foreign arm, ONGC Videsh, involved in major oil-exploration activity off the coast of Vietnam.
With economic interests to protect, New Delhi has displayed a pronounced inclination for sending its navy into the waters of the western Pacific of late. Meanwhile, the Indian navy has ramped up efforts at forging closer ties with other navies in Southeast and East Asia. India’s partners have their own interests in seeing the South China Sea remain an international waterway, and each is concerned about Chinese assertiveness in the region. Not surprisingly, participation in the Indian navy’s biennial Milan multinational exercises, conducted since 1992, has expanded significantly. The latest installment, in February, saw 13 countries take part (up from four in 1995), including Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines.
Lest its growing maritime engagements with nations in the western Pacific, many of which are traditional U.S. allies, be perceived as tacit alliance-building against China, the Indian navy has preferred to focus more on its bilateral engagements with other regional navies. These include the India-Thailand coordinated patrol aimed at countering terrorism, piracy and arms smuggling, and the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise. India has also reportedly sought to strengthen ties with Vietnam. In return for an offer of berthing rights in Vietnam’s Nha Trang port, the Indian navy has offered naval facilities for training and capacity-building for Vietnamese forces.
The Indian navy’s recent exercises with the Japanese navy are the latest example of India’s growing willingness to “engage East” in the maritime realm. On their way to the northwestern Pacific, Indian warships made port calls in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, clearly underlining India’s intentions to remain robustly engaged with Southeast Asia.
The stopover in Shanghai during the return leg of that tour highlights New Delhi’s parallel emphasis on reassuring Beijing that India seeks equal engagement with all stakeholders in the South China Sea. Significantly, in May, when the Chinese training ship Zheng He made a port call at Kochi, on India’s west coast, it received an exceptionally cordial welcome. Clearly naval diplomacy has become an important tool in New Delhi’s current outreach to the region.
As it comes into own, the Indian navy appears keen to dispel the impression that it remains confined to countering maritime threats in India’s coastal and near regional waters. It has set an expansive agenda for itself and aspires to be a world-class bluewater navy. But India’s naval planners are aware that longer forays into the western Pacific will impose costs and constraints, and these impediments, if not dealt with firmly, could seriously inhibit progress. If India wants to realize its desire to become a dominant maritime power in Asia, it will need to work with like-minded stakeholders in a singular and clear-minded pursuit of common objectives.
Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, in New Delhi, India. He focuses on political and strategic developments in West and South Asia and littoral security in the Indian Ocean region.