Though the Indian Ocean was considered exotic for centuries, it was transformed into a mere colonial sea by the 18th century. The European powers divided the South Asian continent among themselves to a degree that these South Asian countries no longer identified with the larger whole. However, the British retreat from the region and subsequent de-colonization spree around the periphery of the Indian Ocean raised a complex situation of an Indian Ocean vacuum. By the end of the 1940s many of the countries in Africa and Asia became independent from their colonial rulers and many of these newly emerged free countries lived in the littoral of the Indian Ocean. The British announcement in 1968 to withdraw from east of the Suez by the end of 1971 marked the end of over 150 years of British supremacy in the Indian Ocean.
Thus, the Second World War ended colonialism and the European countries ceased to be the rulers of this ocean. The United States and the Soviet Union became the new involved parties. However, even though the Cold War divided the world into two blocs, both the U.S. and USSR did not seriously attempt to fill the vacuum left by the British in this area. Now in the Post-Cold War era, according to Ashwani Sharma, “the realm of world politics had transformed beyond all recognition, as was the Indian Ocean in its appearance and role, implicitly and explicitly due to the metamorphoses of the world.” During that period, the geo-strategic undercurrents of the Indian Ocean had changed significantly due to the tireless struggles of new players in the region, especially China and India, to achieve strategic aims in the IOR. Though the United States still holds an impressive locus in the Indo-Pacific, the complex upheavals during the last century only allowed them to restructure their strategy to truly sustain its dominance in the area only recently.
This region, the Indo-Pacific, is at present one of the fastest developing regions of the world, displaying unmatched vigor in socio-political, economic, and geo-security terms. Robert Kaplan has rightly stated that “the 21st-century power dynamics will be revealed in the backdrop of keen interest and influence of three key players, i.e., China, India, and United States and their interests could be some sort of an overlap and intersection.” In short, the Indo-Pacific has rightly emerged as the economic and geopolitical center of gravity of the world in the 21st century. China unlocked its economy in the year 1978 and accomplished approximately a rate of 10 percent growth for three decades. China has lifted millions of people out of poverty through a systematic growth pattern. China has now risen to become the second largest economy in the world, second only to the United States. Japan, which enjoyed the position of the only Asian developed nation for decades, was pushed to the world’s third position. With their vigilant strategic investments, China’s economic growth and global influence are increasing.
After China declared itself the People’s Republic of China in 1949, its naval operations were limited to defending the coasts for nearly three decades until the 1980s. By the end of that decade, the strategy sought to expand its naval capabilities beyond coastal waters. Most of the Sea Lines of Communications of China pass through the Indian Ocean and a few through the Pacific Rim. One of China’s foremost concerns is the protection of these SLOCs. The Indian Ocean is home to major chokepoints that Chinese vessels must traverse and where any threat in this ocean directly distresses the ambitions of China. The rise of China as a superpower in Asia and its revival of the ancient Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) have raised concerns in India. Any nation, in order to ensure its sphere of influence would not only accumulate strength to its camp but also take measures that ensure that the enemy’s camp would be weakened without adequate logistics. In addition to port construction and acquisition efforts in the Indian Ocean that add to the value of these SLOCs and strengthen China’s logistical infrastructure, China’s concurrent naval modernization efforts also generate concerns for India. The evolution of Chinese naval modernization has been steady and it has eventually become the largest navy in Asia today, with a plentiful addition of surface ships and submarines. Far seas training and deployments in this region have become the new norm for China’s Navy.
China aims to create a counterbalance through economic and strategic partnerships with the various littoral nations in the IOR in order to reinforce her existence in the region. China’s investment in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, its electronic gathering amenities in isolated islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Chittagong Port of Bangladesh, and others are certain instances to prove China’s increasing interest in the IOR. China has maritime disputes with many of its neighbors and many of the Southeast Asian nations are in conflict with China over the latter’s expansionist tendencies and dominance. However, China has no major disputes or tensions with India’s neighbors in the IOR and is instead cultivating maritime partnerships with these states. For example, China is building maritime relations with Pakistan through its investments in Gwadar Port and a mainland highway connecting Gwadar to Kashgar in the Xinjiang region. All these efforts ensure that China will be somewhat relieved from the threat of chokepoints in the Indian Ocean and will have a smoothly flowing trade and supply chain.
Due to India’s growing dependence on oil and energy resources, any interference in the stability or peace of the Indian Ocean will have a cataclysmic impact on the economic and political stability of the nation. A peaceful and reliant Indian Ocean is the responsibility of the littoral and island states in this region to an extent that the “overall political character of the Indian Ocean had changed from one of European dominance to that of local assertion.”
Aswani Dravid is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Policy and Administration in University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun, Uttarakhand.
Buckley, C. (2013, January 29). China Leader Affirms Policy on Islands. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/world/asia/incoming-chinese-leader-will-not-to-bargain-on-disputed-territory.html
Dowdy, W. L., & Trood, R. B. (1983, September 1). The Indian Ocean: An Emerging Geostrategic Region. Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis, 38(3), 432-458.
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Kaplan, R. (2010). Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. New York City: Random House.
Kumar, K. (2000). Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace: Problems and Prospects. New Delhi: APH Publishing.
Majumdar, D. (2016, June 27). Why the US Navy Should Fear China’s New 093B Nuclear Attack Submarine. The National Interest. Retrieved from http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/why-the-us-navy-should-fear-chinas-new-093b-nuclear-attack-16741
O’Rourke, R. (2017, January 5). China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service Report.
Pant, H. (2009). India in the Indian Ocean: Growing Mismatch between Ambitions and Capabilities. Pacific Affairs, 82(2), 279-297. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25608866
Sharma, A. (2018). The Indian Ocean: Cold War – Post-Cold War Scenario. International Journal of South Asian Studies , 23.
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Featured Image: CSCL Pacific Ocean Elbe (Wikimedia Commons)
There is a growing strategic competition underway in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea between India and China focused on acquiring commercial ports and military facilities. It is a race for strategic access, leverage, and influence for energy resources, markets, and national security. This competition between two relative new naval powers in the region will directly influence the U.S. and its regional partners in the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) Area of Responsibilities (AORs), beyond the usual purview of Pacific Command (USPACOM) whose AOR India lies within. For the U.S., this represents a strategic opportunity to compete against China’s growing influence by expanding its relationship with India in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs.
While China expands its presence, India has not remained idle. It has invested in the commercial port of Chabahar, Iran to give it greater access to Afghanistan, circumventing Pakistan. However, questions arise on whether India can use the port to effectively compete against Chinaand its One Belt and One Road (OBOR) strategy. In addition to the port in Iran, India is competing for access to the Seychelles, Maldives, and Oman. The recent tensions between China and India, after China deployed 11 warships to the Maldives in February illustrates this growing rivalry. In the Seychelles, India is spending $46 million dollars in foreign aid to improve costal defense and airstrips; however, that has run into recent issues with the president of the Seychelles. While India doesn’t lack in its ambition to compete with China, it lacks a cohesive political and economic decisionmaking body like China to invest and outcompete, and lacks in its naval capabilities to effectively challenge the Chinese. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), China’s naval surface combatants dwarfs India (83 Chinese combatants vs. 27 Indian Combatants; 57 Chinese attack submarines vs. 15 Indian attack submarines; and 4 Chinese ballistic submarines vs. 1 Indian in development). Of course, the naval disparity between the two nations is spread out across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and China must overcome its “Malacca Straits Dilemma” to surge forces into the Indian Ocean.
This growing competition between China and India present a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to offset China’s growing presence in the region. While the U.S. has generally viewed India as a strategic partner in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) AOR to offset China, it represents an opportunity to counter-balance China in the USCENTCOM and AFRICOM AOR as well. In concerted effort by USCENTCOM, in partnership with PACOM, can find ways to enhance the Indian Navy’s force projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to challenge China’s small, but growing, military presence in the region. U.S. Navy Central Command (USNAVCENT) can spearhead this effort on behalf of CENTCOM by encouraging India to more fully participate in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that focuses on Counter-Piracy operations. NAVCENT could consider future joint naval exercises focusing on combined naval operations, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and carrier-based operations. Such combined exercises can assist India in expanding its capabilities and capacity to exert greater influence, in concert with U.S. interests, in the region as a means to counter-balance China’s presence. Additionally, as Harry Halem recently noted, the U.S. can encourage greater cooperation between its allies and partners in the region, to include Israel, to cooperate with India. This also includes expanding ongoing Indian-French naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean as seen by France’s deployment of its Charles De Gaulle strike group to exercise with the Indian Navy. For the U.S., these efforts will have to be delicately balanced with the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and it may raise concerns on the Pakistani Navy’s ability to counter-balance India as well.
While China is attempting to build upon the legacy of Zheng He (Ming Dynasty), India must learn to use its geographic positional advantage in the Indian Ocean that dominates east to west maritime traffic. The key to leveraging its geographic positional advantage in the Great Game of the Indian Ocean will be based on a mutual desire by India to expand its military, primarily naval, capabilities to compete with China and, a mutual desire by the U.S. and India to expand their military cooperation. For the U.S., India can no longer be viewed simply as a PACOM partner. Instead, it must be viewed as a trans-regional partner who has the ability to influence both the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs as a counter-balance to China’s growing global ambition. As Robert Kaplan, author of Monsoon, has noted, the Indian Ocean represents the fulcrum between American Power in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, and its growing relationship with India will shape its desire to remain atop the global order against a rising China.
Chad M. Pillai is an experienced Army strategist and is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild, Army Strategy Association, and contributes to the U.S. Naval Institute. He has operational experience in the CENTCOM AOR and has traveled to India, to include 1998 during the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998. He received a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The article reflects the opinion of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (June 10, 2016) – Rear Adm. Brian Hurley, center, deputy commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, tours the Indian navy Kora-class corvette INS Kirch (P62) during Malabar 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)
This past January, Benjamin Netanyahu undertook a high-profile visit to India, becoming the second Israeli Prime Minister to travel to the country. Accompanied by a 130-member delegation, Netanyahu’s trip included a stay in New Delhi, and visits to the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi’s grave, and Gandhi’s home in the state of Gujrat. The personal relationship between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, seems extremely strong – in a distinct break from protocol, Modi greeted Netanyahu at the airport, an honor denied to the popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit a month later.
Netanyahu and Modi’s strong personal relationship indicates the growing closeness of Indo-Israeli relations. While India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv only 26 years ago, since the two countries have engaged in growing levels of trade and military cooperation – the present diplomatic evolution simply reflects underlying trends. Since 1992, India has also engaged in a sustained rapprochement with the United States. Tacitly aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the USSR’s collapse revolutionized India’s strategic situation, and has resulted in progressively improving relations with the U.S., despite multiple hiccups along the way.
Strategic trends dictate growing areas of cooperation between India, the U.S., and Israel, particularly in the maritime sphere. As such, U.S. policymakers are faced with the unique opportunity of being able to forge an alliance with a major power that could revolutionize American security architecture in the Near East and Indian Ocean. Despite the potential points of Indo-American and Indo-Israeli friction that remain, Washington can use the relationship between its critical Near Eastern ally and New Delhi to actualize the full potential of this partnership.
The Development of Indian Foreign Policy – Non-Alignment to Balancing
India’s shifting policy toward the West is the culmination of steady changes in India’s approach toward the external world since its independence in 1947. Despite its initial war with Pakistan, India faced few external threats during its first decade of independent existence. Its armed forces were employed internally, enabling the absorption of reticent enclaves into the fledgling Republic. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, embarked upon an anticolonial foreign policy, using India’s ostensible moral capital to build links with other nations emerging from their colonial pasts.
The outbreak of war with China in 1962, therefore, was a distinct shock for the Indian governing establishment. Up until that point, China had been viewed as a Marxist brother in arms – Nehru hoped to anchor Indian foreign policy on cooperation with China, and use the combined authority of the two formerly colonial powers to remain independent from the Cold War. Despite its border dispute with China, the PRC’s invasion across the McMahon Line and into Ladakh was utterly unanticipated. Not only were India’s armed forces unprepared for conflict in Jammu and Kashmir’s harsh mountain conditions against the more experienced People’s Liberation Army, China also executed its offensive concurrent with the Cuban Missile Crisis, ensuring that neither Washington nor Moscow could properly focus on the region and lend New Delhi support until after Beijing consolidated its initial gains.
Following the Sino-Indian War, India’s foreign policy shifted away from its idealistic roots. However, relations between India and the West remained chilled, particularly over America’s persistent support for Pakistan, a critical facilitator in Nixon and Kissinger’s attempts to realign China during the early 1970s. Ideologically, the socialist, anti-Imperialist Indian National Congress (INC), which dominated Indian politics until the late 1970s, found the Soviet Union to be a more amenable partner than the United States, with its capitalist ideology and close relationship with Britain and other former colonial European powers, while the Kremlin had a progressively increasing interest in balancing China as relations cooled and animosity increased from Stalin’s death onward. India’s relationship with Israel was similarly frigid, albeit for more pragmatic reasons. India initially refused to recognize Israel, and remained wary of appearing too close to the Jewish state despite recognition in 1950. Indian politicians feared the response of the significant Muslim minority population if New Delhi formally opened an embassy in Tel Aviv. Moreover, India was dependent upon Israel’s Arab adversaries for energy supplies, relied on the Persian Gulf states to maintain Indian foreign exchange reserves, and significantly benefited from the productivity of Indian nationals working in the Near East. Formally engaging with Israel would therefore have risked Indian economic and energy security.
The Cold War’s conclusion was a major turning point for Indo-Israeli and Indo-American relations. INC progressively lost its political monopoly from Indira Gandhi’s ouster in 1977 after unprecedented centralization. By 1989, India’s political environment had become much more balanced, with various opposition parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates challenging long-standing socialist economic policies, and implementing free market reforms. American loans underwrote India’s market liberalization. The U.S. also identified India as a potential defense export market, and gradually increased technological transfers. More notably, the U.S. Navy began its Malabar exercises with its Indian counterpart in 1992, explicitly focusing on rehearsing combat operations, rather than non-wartime activities. Indo-American relations then cooled in 1998 when the Clinton administration sanctioned India for its nuclear testing. However, President Clinton quickly abandoned his sanctions policy, while President Bush identified India as a critical potential partner in the Global War on Terror after the September 11th Attacks. The Malabar naval exercises have continued to increase in scope, while Indian Navy and U.S. Navy ships cooperate on antipiracy, counterterrorism, and other maritime patrol missions in the Indian Ocean.
Indo-Israeli relations also progressively thawed. India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992. Economic relations have flourished since, while India and Israel also have a progressively expanding security relationship. Indian forces have participated in training exercises in Israel, while Israeli defense companies sell advanced technologies to the Indian military – India has used Israeli drones to offset the advantages of its regional rivals. Increased state visits demonstrate the strength of this relationship: the Netanyahu-Modi visits are only the most recent of a rising number of high-profile diplomatic exchanges. Additionally, significant are changes in Indian rhetoric. In the 2014 Gaza War, India broke with its previous strong condemnation of Israeli action in the Palestinian territories, instead blaming both parties for the conflict, and calling upon the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to limit civilian casualties. This reflects a broader attempt to “de-hyphenate” Indo-Israeli relations: New Delhi wishes to build an independent relationship with Tel Aviv, regardless of the Palestinian issue. One can only expect this cooperation to increase in the future.
The Strategic Roots of Cooperation
Policymakers rarely have the opportunity to forge new, lasting alliances. The uncertainty of the international environment makes ensuring sustained cooperation difficult, particularly among great powers – a cursory observation of Sino-Russo-American relations from 1945 to the present indicates this fact. However, the clear confluence of interests between India, Israel, and the United States makes the potential for cooperation extremely high, particularly in the maritime domain.
The U.S. and Israel have clear shared interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. Both require Near Eastern stability to advance their interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran is presently the greatest regional threat to both of their goals. Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon poses a physical threat to Israeli security through irregular assets like Hezbollah and their missile capabilities, or, potentially in the future, a direct threat from conventional ground forces. Iranian expansion in the Indian Ocean also threatens the U.S.’ ability to impose a “far blockade” on China in the event of conflict by attempting to closing the Strait of Hormuz and pressure American sea lines of communication running from the Near East to the Western Pacific. Hence, Israel and the U.S. have a clear joint interest in ensuring their control over the Eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.
India and the U.S. also share a critical interest concerning China. China is a blatant threat to India’s sphere of influence in South Asia. The Doklam Crisis is only the most recent evidence of Chinese encroachment on Indian or Indian allied borders, while China’s hedging strategy involves supporting India’s chief rival, Pakistan. India is the only regional actor that can offer China significant resistance without external support. The qualitatively sophisticated JSDF and Taiwanese militaries are too small to sustainably challenge the PLA absent American aid, while the Vietnamese and Philippine Armed Forces are qualitatively and quantitatively outmatched. India’s active military ranks only behind China’s numerically, while if reserves and paramilitary groups are included, the Indian Armed Forces could field nearly two million more personnel than the PLA. Moreover, as a nuclear-armed state, India can limit Chinese escalatory options in a way no other regional power can. However, India’s military is outmatched by the PLA. The PLAAF fields more combat aircraft than its Indian counterpart, and faces only three substantial regional threats aside from India – the Taiwanese Air Force, Japanese Air Self Defense Forces, and Republic of Korea Air Force (assuming the ROK is not tied down in some fashion by North Korea either through conflict or deterrence requirements) while the Indians will need to divert forces to deterring or fighting Pakistan’s Air Force in any conflict. At sea, the PLAN outmatches the Indian Navy. The PLAN’s two STOBAR carriers’ air wings match the INS Vikramaditya’s in size, while it outnumbers India in every surface combatant category. In the near future, the Indian Navy could face as much as a one-to-four disadvantage in a conflict with the PLAN. Nevertheless, India has a commanding geographic position over the approaches to and from the South China Sea, and can use both naval forces and land-based maritime patrol craft to prevent PLAN surface combatants from entering the Indian Ocean. Considering concurrent American interest in countering China’s rise, formalized cooperation between the U.S. and India would significantly improve the relative position of both countries in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.
Israel and India also share a number of direct interests outside of their present economic and military transactions. Israel is not directly threatened by China – indeed, Israeli companies have sold the PLA military technology – while India relies on Iran for a significant portion of its energy imports. However, both have a clear interest in Indian Ocean maritime security. Chinese patrols in the Indian Ocean could pressure Indian supply lines, while China’s growing economic relationship with Iran could allow it to diplomatically leverage the Islamic Republic into choking off its oil flows to New Delhi. Israel, alternatively, would be unable to respond to Chinese submarine harassment of Israeli shipping in the Indian Ocean. Despite the IDF’s military sophistication, it lacks a blue water navy, and small powers remain at the mercy of larger adversaries in conflict absent a great power partner. Additionally, damage inflicted upon the Indian economy would harm Israel’s own productivity: Israel has a clear interest in ensuring India remains insulated from Chinese economic pressure. Finally, Israel could benefit from the ability to pressure Iran from the Indian Ocean, rather than simply overland. The U.S. Navy’s current presence in the Arabian Gulf allows for greater Israeli freedom of action on land. However, Israel would benefit from having its own naval forces, giving it the ability to act more independently.
These bilateral interests cohere into a broader whole. India, Israel, and the U.S. would all benefit from a more formal maritime arrangement in the Indian Ocean, while each nation would directly or indirectly benefit from the increases to the others’ security. These overlapping strategic interests are reinforced by the broader desire of all three potential partners to combat terrorism and respond to Islamic extremist organizations. With the roots for cooperation evidently existing, one must understand how to leverage this into a more explicit framework.
Future Steps to Facilitate Cooperation
Despite the clear cooperative potential between India, the U.S., and Israel, actualizing cooperation is a difficult task. Israel would likely be hesitant to be drawn into a formalized security architecture that would commit it to defending tangential interests with force, while India would reasonably be wary of jeopardizing relations with Iran, and by extension its access to oil. Nevertheless, American policymakers can take several steps to increase cooperation and lay the groundwork for a broader Mediterranean-Indo-Pacific security architecture that can respond to increasing Chinese, Russian, and Iranian southward pressure. Four specific policy recommendations can actualize this cooperation.
First, the U.S. should consider inviting the Israeli Navy to future iterations of the Malabar Exercises. Israel’s participation at Malabar would be a public way to signal Indo-Israeli cooperation, without Israel making any formal commitments in the Indian Ocean. Ensuring the stability of military-to-military contacts between the IDF and Indian Armed Forces will help insulate the security relationship between Israel and India despite changes in administration. Other joint training exercises are possible, and would be beneficial. India already sends fighter aircraft and Special Operations Forces units to Israel for various activities – America’s CENTCOM military forces could engage in exercises along their IDF and Indian Armed Forces counterparts.
Second, the U.S. can encourage further defense cooperation by making a concerted effort to win over the Indian market. The Indian military largely uses Soviet and Russian equipment. All but six percent of the Indian Army’s main battle tanks, and 20 percent of its combat aircraft, are Russian made or designed. Two-thirds of the Indian Navy’s attack submarine fleet, and slightly under half of its large surface combatant fleet of guided missile destroyers and frigates were produced in Russian shipyards. The U.S.’ high-cost systems, and Israel’s smaller industrial base, makes it difficult to imagine either one of them singlehandedly crowding out Russian production. But at least when it comes to surface combatants, one could envision Israeli or American ships being increasingly represented in the Indian fleet, with Israeli and American-designed small surface combatants competing for purchase. Moreover, the Indian Navy’s undersized submarine fleet offers U.S. producers an opportunity to revive diesel-electric submarines, and produce cheaper platforms to counter growing Chinese numerical superiority. Just as the British shipbuilding industry benefited from building capital ships and surface combatants for foreign nations before the Great War, American shipyards could help expand and maintain critical wartime capacity by producing warships for friendly and allied foreign powers. This could extend to IDF and American tanks and other armored vehicles replacing Soviet and Russian alternatives. Israel’s unmanned expertise is a critical facilitating factor. The Indian Air Force already uses Israeli UAV’s, namely the IAI Harop, a loitering munition, the IAI Searcher, a light scout platform, and the IAI Heron, a MALE reconnaissance and strike UCAV. Not only will demand for these sorts of platforms grow, as armed forces globally develop their understanding of teaming between manned and unmanned assets, but increases in AI technology will likely lead to a fully unmanned fighter aircraft in the next two to three decades. India, the U.S., and Israel would all benefit from research and production of such platforms – or risk being left behind by their Russian and Chinese rivals, who are undoubtedly engaging in developing those capabilities.
Third, American diplomacy can help decrease Iran’s role in India’s energy supply by leveraging energy supplies in the Eastern Mediterranean’s Leviathan Gas Field and other neighboring energy deposits. Current exploration indicates that these newly-discovered Eastern Mediterranean resource deposits contain upwards of 16.5 trillion cubic feet of gasoline. Combined with an increase in already high exports from Saudi Arabia, and a concerted effort to export North American oil and natural gas to India, the U.S. can decrease the proportion of India’s Iranian energy imports, and thereby give India the ability to more openly cooperate with the U.S. and Israel by lessening energy security risks.
Fourth, the U.S. should explore political and military relationships with India to increase security in the Indian Ocean. The present Indo-American relationship is remarkably similar to the early stages of Anglo-French cooperation before the First World War. The 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention, in which Britain offered to secure the North Sea and France’s Atlantic coastline in return for France’s safeguarding of British interests in the Mediterranean, allowed Britain to concentrate its forces against the Imperial German Kaiserlichmarine while maintaining a degree of security in other global chokepoints. Even if implemented successfully, the PLAN will outnumber the U.S. Navy by nearly 150 ships in 2030, and could outnumber the U.S. Navy as early as 2020, and has nearly achieved numerical surface combatant parity today.Most dangerously, between 2025 and 2035,the U.S. Navy’s ship numbers will hover between 310 and 320 – such a disparity increases potential instabilityAbsent a colossal shipbuilding program, the U.S. Navy’s only hope for parity will involve transferring the vast majority of American combat power to the Pacific, while easing force commitments elsewhere. Turning Indian Ocean and Arabian security over to the Indian Navy, in return for American guarantees to protect shared Indo-American interests in the South and East China Seas, may therefore be a preferable solution. At a minimum, the U.S. should consider joint basing arrangements with Indian facilities in the Southern and Western Indian Oceans, replicating the Royal Navy’s commanding position in the Indian Ocean during the Second World War. Israel could also benefit from such an arrangement – its submarines could refuel and resupply from Indian bases, or Indian support ships, enabling more consistent presence on Iran’s southern flank.
Conclusion – Forging the Strategic Relationship
Seldom does the international environment explicitly conform to the goals of high policy. Sophisticated strategies can easily unravel when they encounter certain facts on the ground. However, this makes identifying the points where a state can exert its influence even more critical. The confluence of interests between Israel, India, and the U.S. creates such a situation. With proper American policy action, the U.S. can effectively further its interests in the Near East, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific, and potentially build a lasting partnership that stabilizes critical regions stretching from Cyprus to Ceylon.
Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shake hands at a joint press conference in the president’s house in New Delhi, India, on January 15, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.
Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.
Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, Chinawas reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.
Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.
What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.
Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.
Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)