The South Asia Channel
Is India Ready To Be a Power in the Pacific?
Despite New Delhi’s reassurances, it has yet to build a “blue water navy,” a force capable of operating in open seas and projecting power to areas of strategic interest.
For some time now, many have argued that India should assume the role of the so-called “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean and across the Asia-Pacific. Taking on this responsibility will require it to assert its strategic goals across the region. But given the evolving security environment in this region, it is quickly becoming apparent that many countries, including the United States, want India to step up perhaps more than New Delhi itself wants to. Furthermore, it also seems that India’s understanding of the role is significantly different from those making these demands.
Despite New Delhi’s reassurances, it has yet to build a “blue water navy,” a force capable of operating in open seas and projecting power to areas of strategic interest. The Indian army continues to be the favorite child of the Indian military, with nearly half of the defense budget typically going to the ground forces. On the other hand, the navy has seen a reduction in its allocated budget from 19 percent in 2012 to 2013 to 16 percent in 2015 to 2016. As of January 2015, the Indian navy had a shortage of 1,322 officers and 11,257 sailors. In the past, there have been reports of acute shortages of ships and helicopters. Furthermore, a series of mishaps aboard Indian naval ships and submarines led to the resignation of former Naval Chief DK Joshi in February 2014 — the first resignation of a leader of the armed forces since Indian independence in 1947.
With the Indian navy clearly facing numerous organizational challenges, why is Washington encouraging New Delhi to take on the role of the net security provider in the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific region?
In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that India should be a net security provider; Leon Panetta implied the same in 2012. The most recent and significant acknowledgment of the Pentagon’s push for India’s role as a net security provider was outlined in the U.S. Department of Defense’s recently released “U.S. Asia Pacific maritime security strategy” which noted that the United States is “seeking to reinforce India’s maritime capabilities as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.”
At the crux of all this is India’s geographic location. During his September 2015 visit to India, Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said that “Australia recognizes India’s critical role in supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indian Ocean region and the stability of a wider, rules-based global order.” Despite the challenges the Indian navy faces, the country’s geographic location allows it to assert itself in the Indian Ocean region in a manner that exceeds its capabilities. India’s long eastern coastlines provide access and command over the Bay of Bengal, while its western coast provides access to the Arabian Sea. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located close to critical sea lines, provide comfortable access to the Malacca Straits and the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Its naval limitations aside, New Delhi’s contributions in fighting maritime piracy both off the Horn of Africa and in Southeast Asia are noteworthy. The Indian navy’s performance during natural calamities and in search and rescue operations (SAR) after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the Maldives Fresh water crisis of 2014, and during SAR operations for MH370, demonstrate its strength.
But to be the net security provider for the region, this is not enough.
India must articulate a clear policy with political will to direct it. It will have to get involved in regional developments and take a lead in creating mechanisms and frameworks, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the Indian Ocean Dialogue, while simultaneously joining existing ones (like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Maritime Silk Road) to expand its reach. Last July, the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Evan Garcia encouraged India to play a greater role in the South China Sea when he remarked that India “is not an invited guest, India should be at the head table” when it comes to policing the South China Sea. Nations such as Singapore and Vietnam also share these sentiments. Furthermore, many navies — the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, or Singapore — stand ready to cooperate with the Indian navy. But India can only deliver the guarantees it hopes to through increased participation at regional security forums, where it can shape the discourse and, in doing so, define the role that it is willing to play.
India’s own definitions of what being a net security provider entails and what a blue water navy looks like, also differ from that of countries involved in the region. India’s definition of power projection in its area of interests may not necessarily align with the definition outlined by other Asia-Pacific nations. India’s interests in securing the Indian Ocean are likely to substantially converge with those of Pacific powers like the United States. But in areas like the South China Sea, which form a “secondary area” of interest for the Indian navy, the overlap may be considerably less.
In October 2015, India’s Defense Minister Shri Manohar Parrikar released India’s revised maritime military strategy document for 2015 (IMSS-2015), which offers a definition from the Indian perspective of what it means to be a net security provider. The Indian Navy, for the first time, has defined the phrase “net security provider” as maintaining “the state of actual security available in an area, upon balancing prevailing threats, inherent risks and rising challenges in the maritime environment, against the ability to monitor, contain and counter all of these.” However, the definition does not include the geographical scope of the region where India would pursue the above defined role, which reflects Indian hesitation to assert beyond its immediate strategic considerations.
The pressure for India to emerge as a regional leader and as a net security provider is high, and will only increase. The support from nations in the Chinese maritime neighborhood (Vietnam, Philippines, and Singapore) is encouraging, but perhaps their expectations exceed India’s own vision.
India’s current leaders have suggested that India is willing to play the role of an active security provider. After former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that India is well-positioned to be a net security provider, the Modi government has taken a firmer stand through its engagement with its maritime neighbors, joint strategic visions, and collaborations with regional navies. The Asia-Pacific is ready for a new discourse on maritime security. India is a central part of the discussion on maritime cooperation and security in the Indian Ocean region, among Australia, United States, European, and Southeast Asian countries. What the region now requires, however, is a bit of patience while India charts its own policy and adds its own substance to this narrative, before it can truly emerge as a net security provider.
Photo Credit: JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images