New Delhi’s maritime security pivot

Strategic analysts usually divide the orientation of states’ geopolitical strategies and military capabilities between states that prioritise naval power and those that give priority to land power. Britain and America are primarily maritime powers, whereas Russia is a land power. China is also a land power and is taking steps to channelize its energies towards the seas.

For India, the option of choosing between land and naval power does not exist. Its geography compels it to pursue both. India has extended land boundaries and an equally long coastline.

Since independence, India was forced to focus more on building up its land power as the primary challenges to security, namely, China and Pakistan, were on the land.  However, India’s peninsular geography, jutting out in the Indian Ocean, has distinct advantages in building maritime power. With the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan and consequently growing geopolitical leverage of China and Pakistan, the latest developments in India’s neighbourhood have reignited the debate between building up of land and naval power.

The continuing border standoff with China and the developments in the Af-Pak region underscore the need to train strategic focus seawards more sharply. Some commentators have even made a strong case for prioritizing maritime power.  Interestingly, in August, India undertook a flurry of activities in the maritime realm whose significance goes beyond the “here and now” strategic concerns.

These ranged from shaping the debate by engaging international institutions and like-minded countries, augmenting capabilities to project growing naval power and finally and conducting naval exercises with key strategic partners. These activities point towards the growing salience of the maritime dimension in India’s foreign policy.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the way with his address to the UN Security Council on August 9.

The UNSC meeting on maritime security was attended, among others, by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The purpose of organizing such a debate was to position India as a key global actor in international maritime security.  Towards the end of August, India hosted the National Security Advisers (NSA) meeting of IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) countries.

This was also the first such meeting between IBSA NSAs and underscored the growing role of maritime security in these three countries’ foreign policy.  All three countries face similar developmental challenges, are maritime democracies and depend on secure sea-lanes of communications for their economic and energy security. They agreed to intensify their co-operation in the domain of maritime security in future.

India invited Brazil and South Africa for the Milan Naval Exercises of 2022, and it was also decided to hold trilateral naval exercises known as IBSAMAR at the earliest. In the second set of activities, the beginning of the sea trials of INS Vikrant, an indigenously built aircraft carrier, is the most important. Aircraft carriers are a crucial component of naval power, and the capability to make one sends a strong signal about the industrial as well as technological base of the country.

It is also a critical node in making a blue water navy capable of operating far away from the home shores for a long duration. As per the Navy, INS Vikrant has been built with about 76 per cent indigenous content. The Navy’s statement also noted that India is now part of a “select group of nations with the capability to indigenously design and build an Aircraft Carrier.” The aircraft carrier is expected to join the service next year after the completion of the sea trials.

Also read: Taliban indicated they’d be reasonable in addressing India’s concerns: Foreign Secretary Shringla Finally, August was a busy month for the Indian Navy as its multiple warships were engaged in the naval exercises across the Indo-Pacific region. The choice of partners for maritime exercises reflects the strategic convergence and shared interests between the participating countries.

Indian Navy conducted exercises with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Vietnam, Britain, the Philippines and the Quad partners (US, Japan and Australia). India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have stakes in the security and stability of the Persian Gulf. Therefore, India’s naval exercises with these three Gulf players are significant.

Naval exercises improve the understanding and interoperability between the naval forces and contribute to the overall strengthening of defence partnership between the participating nations.  It was the first time that India held exercises with Saudi Arabia’s Navy. Along with Operation Sankalp, launched in 2019 to provide security to the naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, these exercises position India as an important stakeholder in the security dynamics of the maritime space of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

The Quad countries and other like-minded strategic partners in the Western Pacific, like Vietnam, are increasingly important in India’s foreign policy in the last few years. The naval exercise Malabar between the Quad navies off the coast of Guam in the Western Pacific witnessed “complex exercises including anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drill, and other manoeuvres and tactical exercises.” This is the 25th edition of Exercise Malabar.

In the context of China’s increasingly assertive behaviour, these exercises serve the purpose of demonstrating a shared vision and resolve of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Strengthening bilateral relations between the Quad partners also feeds into the overall quadrilateral strategic dynamics. Therefore, the “Joint Guidance for Australia-India Navy to Navy Relationship” signed in August between Indian and Australian Navies is a welcome step.

The Guidance focuses on developing mutual understanding, cooperating for regional security, collaborating in mutually beneficial activities, and developing interoperability. Overall, India faces grave challenges on its northern peripheries with the continuing standoff with China and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. It serves to restrict the geopolitical space for India in Eurasia.

As India’s difficulties in the northern peripheries go up, the maritime dimension will likely assume increasing importance in the foreign policy matrix. The month of August gave us indications in that direction. (The writer is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors’ own.

They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH

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