The South Asia Channel

Why India’s ‘Blue Water’ Ambitions Matter

Overlooking China’s past objections, India, Japan and the United States are conducting joint naval war games this month in the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to the East China Sea. India’s decision to proceed with the trilateral exercise after five years of keeping Japan out, so as not to provoke China, indicates a new brand of maritime ...


Overlooking China’s past objections, India, Japan and the United States are conducting joint naval war games this month in the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to the East China Sea. India’s decision to proceed with the trilateral exercise after five years of keeping Japan out, so as not to provoke China, indicates a new brand of maritime assertiveness. At the same time, both Indian and Chinese navies are actively building ‘blue water’ capabilities – an ability to carry out operations much farther than their territorial boundaries, across the deep oceans. As India juggles the dual imperative to simultaneously befriend and hedge against an economically and militarily rising China, the outcome of its blue water quest will influence the balance of power in Asia for years to come.  

Why Develop ‘Blue Water’ Capabilities?

Almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, India has built one of the largest and most powerful navies in the world. However, there exist a number of drivers for further expanding its influence at sea.

New Delhi has been growing uneasy about Beijing’s perceived ‘String of Pearls’ strategy in the Indian Ocean. Some see this as encirclement by China’s strategic alliances and building of maritime facilities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. With China developing its own blue water navy, India aims to not only secure its own territory but also be able to project power farther than its shores.

While Beijing grows its influence in the Indian Ocean that India sees as its backyard, New Delhi in turn targets a strong presence in the eastern South China Sea. Both countries aim to have presence in the strategically located Malacca Straits, where 40 percent of the world’s trade and more than 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through.

While most of its wars have been fought on land and air, a strong navy with nuclear deployment capabilities gives India a much-needed strategic edge. As opposed to land and air, India is importantly at a relative locational advantage on the sea vis-à-vis China. The Economist argues that India’s naval advantage might allow it to impede oil traffic heading for China through the Malacca Straits.

Further, India and China are projected to be the largest sources of energy demand in the future, and domestic energy sources would be insufficient for both countries to meet their growing demand. India is expected to import 90 percent of its crude oil by 2030, and its coal imports are expected to more than double to 300 million tonnes by 2040. India needs to be able to protect the energy routes to bring these resources to its shores.

The tremors of China’s increasing claims in the South China Sea are already being felt across Asia, giving the Indian Navy more reason to beef up its fleet.   While it might not be a primary player in the disputed waters, India would not want to be excluded from exploring assets in the resource-rich South China Sea or elsewhere as it scours far and wide for much-needed energy sources. Such fears are already starting to come true with China claiming control over the waters where an oil block was being explored by an Indian petroleum giant at Vietnam’s invitation earlier this year. In a rare assertion of maritime power, D.K. Joshi, former Indian Navy Chief Admiral, indicated last year that India is prepared to defend its interests in the South China Sea, though it does not expect to be in those waters too frequently.

A blue water navy would provide muscle for all these strategic imperatives, enhance regional power projection capabilities, more effectively protect India’s expanding energy and trade routes, and enable stronger defense and trade ties with other nations.

Why Does the Rest of the World Care?

There is a long list of nations keen on such partnerships with India. China’s deepening and persistent pattern of assertiveness in the South China Sea — including the release of a map last month that claims ever-increasing areas stretching down to the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines — has set alarm bells ringing in a number of Southeast Asian countries. Incidentally, the same map claims control over India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, practically throwing it together with the Southeast Asian countries in indignation. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia see increasing Chinese sea claims as a fundamental security and economic threat and would like India and other countries to step up and assume a stronger role in the region. In turn, India’s ‘Look East’ policy of the 1990s has drawn it closer to the very same countries. India now holds joint naval exercises with several of these countries, including in the South China Sea.

India and Japan are drawing closer and naval ties are the cornerstones of this strengthening defense relationship. In the first break from its self-imposed ban on defense exports since 1967, Japan is selling 15 amphibious aircrafts to India.  Apart from the ongoing trilateral naval exercise with the United States, India and Japan will also carry out a bilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean this year. India’s new pairing with Japan will surely have Beijing’s attention. Next year, India and Australia will start carrying out annual bilateral naval exercises.

Finally, the United States is keen to balance China by diverting an increasing share of its naval fleet to the Pacific Ocean under its so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. In light of its own shrinking defense budget, the United States realizes the difficulty in materializing its intentions of extending its own naval presence in the region. To overcome this constraint, a quadrilateral naval alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the United States has long been on Washington’s mind though the idea lost steam after China’s protests in 2007. A new rightwing government in New Delhi gives the United States the impetus to push ahead for India to take a larger role in the West Pacific Ocean.

India has been traditionally wary of forming strategic military alliances, preferring to play a solitary hand. This is particularly true when it comes to the tricky relationship with China, now India’s largest trade partner. Indian policymakers have been reluctant to get drawn into matters that do not directly concern the country’s national interests. India is also wary of being the junior partner in a possible regional alliance — the country does not trust the United States to support it in a potential conflict, given its own complicated relationship with China and historically warm relationship with Pakistan. However, this reluctance is not preventing India from forging new partnerships at sea, which are much less noticeable but just as important strategically. Further, the new Indian government is putting its head together with its naval establishment to come up with a coordinated strategy for the Indian Ocean, including ‘capacity building’ of other countries in the Indian Ocean. These developments imply a rare tactical focus from a country often accused of having a weak strategic culture.

The Path to ‘Blue Water’ Power

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the naval aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in his first trip outside New Delhi since taking oath last month, in a move seen by many as signaling the importance his government places on defense might. Shortly afterwards, Arun Jaitley, India’s Defense and Finance Minister released the annual budget that showed a 12 percent increase in defense spending. According to IHS Jane’s estimates, India would become the fourth largest defense spender by 2020, only behind the United States, China and Russia.

The Indian Navy’s share of the defense budget has increased in the last decade, though in absolute terms it is still smaller than the army and air force. The acquisition of the Russia-made INS Vikramaditya last year takes the number of Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers up to two, the most owned by any Asian country.  Admittedly, one of the two is an ageing aircraft carrier that is reaching the end of its service. However, India is building its first indigenous aircraft carrier to take its place, which is expected for induction by 2018. The country’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine is undergoing sea trials. Its induction would complete the country’s nuclear triad – the ability to launch nuclear weapons by land, air or sea. While India has a ‘No First Use’ policy, a nuclear submarine enhances its ‘second strike capabilities’. A sea-based nuclear deterrent would alter the region’s nuclear landscape in India’s favor.

India also intends to augment its naval fleet. The Indian Navy now has around 145 warships, but many are due for progressive retirement. A senior official of the Indian Navy stated last year that India intended to have a 200-ship navy in the next 10 years – an ambitious goal.  The Navy’s approved shopping list runs into billions of dollars and includes deep sea rescue vessels, an indigenous anti-submarine craft program, Israeli air defense missiles, and anti-ship missiles from the United States amongst other planned acquisitions.

All is Not Rosy for India’s ‘Blue Water’ Ambitions

The country has an aging naval fleet and replacement is often fraught with major delays. For instance, the INS Vikramaditya was delayed by five years, and an Indian Comptroller and Auditor General report criticized the navy’s operational readiness, given 74 percent of its refits between 2005 and 2010 were completed with a total delay of more than 23 years. The Indian Navy is currently weak on submarine capabilities. Most of India’s defense equipment is imported (mostly from Russia) and the country needs to develop its indigenous manufacturing capabilities. The navy’s allocation in the defense budget would force it to make crucial tradeoffs between developing one capability versus the other. Added to this is the strategic disconnect between the defense forces and the Ministry of Defense. Cost effective and timely modernization would be critical to fully realize India’s blue water dreams. India has the allocated funds, locational advantage, time and the opportunity to form strategic alliances on its side. But it needs to avoid getting this agenda mired in bureaucracy, inefficiency and a lack of strategic focus. And as acknowledged by its policy thinkers, India does have a window of opportunity to forge ahead on building its naval capabilities while China is still preoccupied with the Pacific Ocean.

Just like the sea, naval maneuvers seem deceptively quiet for the most part, but in fact conceal deep underlying currents. The outcomes of India’s blue water quest will subtly but surely impact the region’s long-term strategic calculus.

Ritika Katyal is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs at Princeton University.