India’s balancing act: Navigating the evolving geopolitics of the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific

As the Gaza war spills into Red Sea impacting trade and security, India navigates complex alliances and its own strategic interests in Indian Ocean.

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 17 MINS READ

After US-led air strikes on targets in Sana’a, Yemen, on February 25, in response to a recent surge in attacks by Houthi militants on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

After US-led air strikes on targets in Sana’a, Yemen, on February 25, in response to a recent surge in attacks by Houthi militants on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. | Photo Credit: Osamah Abdulrahman/AP

From November 2023, the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas has spilled over into the Red Sea when the Houthis, engaged in civil conflict in Yemen since 2015, began to launch drones and missiles against commercial shipping entering the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. Over the next three months, more than a hundred missile and drone strikes have targeted vessels in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports.

The Houthis, whose attacks are aimed at helping Hamas, have demanded an immediate ceasefire and increased flow of humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Palestinians. The Houthi attacks have disrupted the movement of ships into the Red Sea, which accounts for 10 to 12 per cent of global shipping annually, valued at $1 trillion. The alternative route, around the Cape of Good Hope, that several shipping companies have begun to divert their vessels to adds 3,300 km and nearly two weeks to the voyage.

Since December, the Houthis have targeted British and US ships as well, and the US has retaliated with strikes on Houthi targets. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have not joined the US operation for fear of being viewed as its allies.

Also Read | Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps: A force to reckon with

The US has designated the Houthis as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and placed harsh sanctions on the group on funding and weaponry. But this has had little impact on the Houthis, who have made the strategic waterway a new front in a war that Iran is actively overseeing with technical and intelligence aid, according to US and Israeli sources. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Shia militant groups in Iraq, the Houthis are part of the Iran-sponsored “axis of resistance” that is conducting a war of attrition against Israel and Western targets.

The return of piracy off the Somali coast, dormant for about a decade, complicates the scenario further: nearly 20 ships have been attacked, hijacked, or boarded since November.

A US fighter plane launches from the deck of the aircraft carrier the USS Eisenhower in the Red Sea during operations against Houthi targets on February 24.

A US fighter plane launches from the deck of the aircraft carrier the USS Eisenhower in the Red Sea during operations against Houthi targets on February 24. | Photo Credit: Handout/US Central Command/AFP

Although Indian vessels are not specific targets, several ships hit by the Houthis or the pirates have had Indian crew. For instance, on December 24, the Liberia-flagged chemical tanker MV Chem Pluto, with 21 Indian crew members, was hit by a Houthi drone off the coast of Gujarat. The damaged vessel was escorted to Mumbai by the Indian Coast Guard. On January 5, the Liberia-flagged MV Lila Norfolk was hijacked off the Somali coast. Personnel of the Indian destroyer INS Chennai successfully boarded the ship and rescued the crew, who included 15 Indians.

India has deployed a task force of 10 to 12 warships, with reconnaissance aircraft, in the Gulf of Aden, possibly India’s largest naval deployment in the Indian Ocean, which signals the country’s commitment to safeguarding its security interests there. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also paid a visit to Tehran on January 14 and 15. While the media has focussed on the revival of the Chabahar port project in Iran, there can be little doubt that the security of Red Sea shipping would have been a major part of the conversation. Separately, reports indicate India’s interest in buying technology to detect drones and other unmanned craft threatening shipping.

India’s maritime security issues

The Gaza war has thus brought new challenges to India’s maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Placed at the centre of the Indian Ocean, India has a coastline of 7,500 km, 1,200 islands, 13 major ports, 14,500 km of navigable waterways, and an exclusive economic zone of about 2.4 million sq km. About 15 per cent of its population lives along the coast and depends on fishing.

Today, of $1 trillion of India’s total annual foreign trade, 95 per cent by volume and about 70 per cent by value passes through the Indian Ocean. About 80 per cent of oil imports and 60 per cent of LNG imports are seaborne. Also, refined oil products, which account for 20 per cent of exports, are primarily transported by sea. India is also a big importer of coal, with 25 per cent of its total consumption coming from imports via sea.

Besides, the fishing and aquaculture industry employs 1.4 crore people. India is also a major exporter of marine products, valued at about $7 billion annually. A pioneer in deep-sea mining, it received, in 1987, exclusive rights to explore 4 million sq miles (10.36 million sq km) of two mining sites and, in 2014, the licence to explore the Indian Ocean ridge, believed to be rich in cobalt, nickel, and copper.

Thus, India has a prime security interest in the Indian Ocean. In March 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented, in Mauritius, “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR), a comprehensive vision for cooperation among Indian Ocean littoral states that interlinked maritime cooperation, development, and security and envisaged cooperation via the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. There was also a commitment to peace and stability as well as sustainable development through “Blue Economy” projects in the areas of fishing, extraction of hydrocarbon and minerals, tourism, shipping, and ports. Nine years later, SAGAR remains at the centre of India’s maritime security approach. But the idea of the Indian Ocean and India’s interests are facing a challenge from a new concept: the “Indo-Pacific”.

The Indo-Pacific

The Indian commentator Udayan Das has made the interesting observation that global cartography is usually made up of geographical demarcations (mountains, peninsulas, rivers, and oceans) and political demarcations (national boundaries and economic zones), but there is a third demarcation, which is an “imaginative space”, a concept that emerges from strategic interests. Soon after the Cold War, the US saw its principal interests in Asia in the West Pacific and the North-East and the South-East. It thus developed the concept of the “Asia-Pacific”. In institutional terms, this region was represented by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea.

The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea. | Photo Credit: Houthi Military Media/Handout via Reuters

The emergence of a more assertive China that challenges US interests in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; its robust claims in the South China Sea; and its expanding presence in the Indian Ocean region compelled the US to take a fresh look at the idea of the “Asia-Pacific”. But it was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who first articulated the concept of the Indo-Pacific.

It took another decade for the term to become official. As Rushali Saha notes, the shift in US perceptions was largely motivated by the “recognition of India’s role in the Pacific, East Asia and South-east Asia”. In 2018, in response to China’s expanding encroachments into India’s strategic space in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India affiliated itself with the Indo-Pacific as well, with Modi describing the Indo-Pacific as “free, open, and inclusive”. However, while the concept of the Indo-Pacific has received wide acceptance, there is as yet no consensus on the geography it embraces; different countries define it according to their own interests. According to the EU, it stretches from “the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island states”. Japan and India see it as extending from the US West Coast to the African east coast.

In 2018, the US renamed its Pacific Command the “US Indo-Pacific Command” and described the Indo-Pacific in terms of command responsibility, that is, from the US western coast to the Indian western coast, or “Hollywood to Bollywood”, as an observer put it. Clearly, Sino-US competition lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.

Sino-US competition

The principal space for Sino-US maritime competition is the West Pacific, specifically Japan and the Sea of Japan; Taiwan and the East China Sea; and the South China Sea. Disputes relating to the South China Sea are more complex and involve several countries in South-East Asia. For China, the West Pacific remains a crucial security concern, but it has also expanded its maritime interests into the Indian Ocean. As Darshana Baruah notes, “a safe, secure, and stable Indian Ocean” is crucial for China, particularly for energy supplies and links with West Asia, Africa, the island nations, and the vast ocean littoral.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has focussed on maximising strategic and operational autonomy as a priority, that is, relying on its own capabilities and not depending on others. Although China’s principal area of interest remains the West Pacific, it attaches great importance to the sea lanes of communications across the Indian Ocean—the straits of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, and Malacca—through which the bulk of its energy imports and trade passes.

Supporters of the Houthi militia rally in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza as Israel continues its offensive against the Gaza Strip, in Sana’a.

Supporters of the Houthi militia rally in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza as Israel continues its offensive against the Gaza Strip, in Sana’a. | Photo Credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

In the IOR, China enjoys several advantages over Western naval powers. It has no disputes in the region and has established close diplomatic, political, and economic ties across the area, while also maintaining a military presence. From 2008, it has deployed its navy for anti-piracy operations and, in 2015, to evacuate its citizens and foreign nationals from war-torn Yemen. China opened a naval base in Djibouti in 2017, joining France, the US, Italy, and Japan. Even as Chinese companies manage the Pakistani port of Gwadar and the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, reports indicate that it could be looking to set up more naval bases in Asia and Africa.

From the US perspective, the Indo-Pacific is a region in which “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place” and where, as Alyssa Ayres points out, “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda”.

China sees the scenario differently: Ge Tengfei, researcher at the National University of Defense Technology, says the Indo-Pacific “reflects the fierce strategic competition and confrontation of the US with China”.

Also Read | Israel-Hamas war highlights clashing visions for regional stability as China seeks alternative to US-led Abraham Accords

So, both the US and China place the concept of the Indo-Pacific and the regional institutions for cooperation that have emerged around it as expressions of the US response to the burgeoning Sino-US contest in the West Pacific and Indian Ocean area. Official US policy documents affirm this: in January 2021, the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific described the nation’s interests in the area thus: “to preserve US economic, diplomatic, and military access to the most populous region of the world and more than one-third of the global economy”. The US sees China’s rise and increasing assertiveness in areas it has thus far dominated as a challenge and a possible threat to the world order it has led since the Second World War. The Indo-Pacific concept is a facet of the competition between the two major powers, which has got sharper in recent years, encouraging them to draw other countries into competing alignments. As such, China is promoting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which now has 140 countries. In response, the US shaped the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that brings together Japan, Australia, and India to support its agenda in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Since November 2023, the Gaza conflict has spread to the Red Sea as Yemen’s Houthis began targetting commercial shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
  • In 2018, India aligned with the Indo-Pacific concept due to China’s encroachments, but consensus on its geographical scope is lacking. The US sees India as vital in its rivalry with China, thus focusing defense cooperation on upgrading Indian military facilities.
  • Additionally, India has expanded naval presence in the South China Sea through joint exercises with the US, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN states.

India’s quest for maritime security

For India, China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean has significant security implications. As Philip Andrews-Speed and Christopher Len have noted, India is “the premier Indian Ocean nation in terms of economic size, political weight and geostrategic location”. It has the same concerns as other littoral nations, namely, piracy; terrorism; trafficking in humans, drugs, and arms; and operations relating to search and rescue.

In recent years, India’s concerns have increased exponentially due to what it sees as expanding Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, including the maritime segment of the BRI. A recent challenge is the newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s demand for the withdrawal of India’s defence personnel even as he moved closer to China after a visit to Beijing in January. Maldives welcomed a Chinese “research vessel” in early February, aggravating India’s concerns.

Also Read | India-Maldives ties suffer unprecedented damage due to social media fracas

It is these Chinese incursions that encouraged India to affiliate itself with the Indo-Pacific concept. At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi signalled an active Indian outreach across the Indo-Pacific region while emphasising that the alliances would not become “alliances of containment”. The Prime Minister understood that the world order was changing but insisted that the new order should be free, open, and inclusive; founded on respect for laws and norms; and shaped by dialogue. Modi placed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the centre of this approach.

India’s role in Quad is a good illustration of its strategy. The Quad first met in 2007 but did not meet again for a decade because of objections from China about the grouping being directed at itself. The hesitations of the four members ended in 2017 in the face of what was seen as increasing Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea; its expanding presence in the Indian Ocean, including the launch of its naval base in Djibouti; and the increasing tensions on the Sino-Indian border.

An Indian Navy naval destroyer reaches the Palau-flagged cargo vessel MV Islander after responding to a distress call about a fire caused by a possible missile attack in the Gulf of Aden.

An Indian Navy naval destroyer reaches the Palau-flagged cargo vessel MV Islander after responding to a distress call about a fire caused by a possible missile attack in the Gulf of Aden. | Photo Credit: PTI

Since then, cooperation among Quad members has expanded steadily: it was elevated to Minister-level in September 2019. In 2020, against the background of the military stand-off with China in Ladakh, India invited Australia to join its Malabar naval exercises so that these effectively became a Quad exercise. In 2021, the Quad was elevated to summit level.

While the principal focus of the Quad was originally security, a conscious course correction was effected at the in-person summit in Washington, DC, in September 2021. The security element was diluted, and focus turned to cooperation in areas of long-term interest such as the COVID-19 vaccine, the STEM fellowship, cybersecurity, and green shipping. This seems to have been done after India took the initiative to play down the security aspect while the confrontation at the Sino-Indian border persisted. The Indian commentator Akshay Ranade noted that India was keen “to ensure that Quad doesn’t become an alliance-like structure”.

This approach can be best understood by examining India’s assertion of “strategic autonomy” in the changing world order.

India’s strategic autonomy

For the US, India is a crucial partner in its competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Hence, its defence cooperation is aimed at upgrading Indian military and maritime facilities so that they can be used by the US and its allies. Interoperability—in respect of equipment, capabilities, and support facilities—is at the heart of this agenda.

For its part, India welcomes an upgrade of its military capabilities and its economy in general but still rejects the idea of an alliance with the US because the two do not share the same perceptions on maritime security. The US’ view of the Indo-Pacific is entirely based on US interests, completely excluding the western Indian Ocean, which is India’s principal zone of security interest.

Also Read | Indian Ocean: By the numbers

As noted earlier, the US seized on the Indo-Pacific idea largely to bring India into its strategic embrace while confronting China on the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan. None of these issues impinge significantly on India’s interests, but being part of a US-led security coalition would make China regard India as its implacable enemy—in the West Pacific, the Indian Ocean, South Asia, and across the 3,800-km undemarcated border the two share.

Against this background, there has been considerable discussion in India about the Indian Navy’s role in the South China Sea. The US wants to see a high-profile Indian presence there to project a tight alignment between the two countries. In 2015, India’s naval doctrine defined the area as part of its “secondary area of maritime interest”, considering the South China Sea is the passageway to India’s major economic partners—China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam—carrying two-way trade valued at over $200 billion annually.

Just as China has expanded its footprint in the Indian Ocean, India too has increased its naval presence in the South China Sea, holding exercises with the US, Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN states, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. India has also provided the Philippines with BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missiles, while Vietnam has bought a light missile frigate from India. But India has remained neutral in the disputes among these states. India recognises that ASEAN members attach a high importance to their relations with China, and there are deep differences among them about the military role of non-regional states, including India, in the South China Sea. India has thus rejected US pressure to undertake joint patrolling in the water body.

Multi-alignment and mini-lateralism

A region where Indian and Chinese interests converge is the northern Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Here, both countries have energy, trade, investment, and logistic interests, besides a strong expatriate community (80 lakh Indians and five lakh Chinese).

China and India share an interest in the security of the sea lanes, including the choke points of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, and Suez. China shares India’s concerns about the disruptions in Red Sea shipping because of the Houthi attacks. Reports indicate that China has been urging Iran to use its influence to control the attacks.

“India will not get tied down to exclusive relationships but will advance on multiple major relationships at the same time in the best possible fashion,” said India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

“India will not get tied down to exclusive relationships but will advance on multiple major relationships at the same time in the best possible fashion,” said India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. | Photo Credit: Ishant/ANI

Not surprisingly, both China and India have developed substantial political and economic ties with the littoral states in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. India’s ties go back a few millennia, while the newcomer China is now the principal energy and trade partner for all these states. It has also incorporated some major players into the BRI. Having brokered the Saudi-Iran peace deal in March 2023, China has established its interest in ensuring stability there.

As Aditi Malhotra says, India’s quest is “for a multipolar world wherein it remains one of the major poles”. This view is shared widely across the Indo-Pacific, where most nations have not shown interest in joining a US-led security cabal against China. What they want, as Kelly Grieco and Jennifer Kavanagh have written, is “multi-alignment, when states form overlapping relationships with several major powers”.

In the western Indian Ocean littoral, hardly any West Asian nation wishes to participate in the US-defined binary competition between democracies and authoritarian states or buys into the idea of a new Cold War. Almost all states across the Indian Ocean support the emergence of a multipolar global order in which each of them asserts strategic autonomy and exercises the opportunity to pursue their own interests and concerns. As Jonathan Fulton says: “For MENA [Middle East North Africa] governments, China’s growing engagement and influence is more an opportunity than a threat. Its emergence as a significant source of investment, public goods, and political support provides an alternative option that few states have had.”

Amidst the prevailing uncertainty in global affairs, India has identified the Indian Ocean as the region where its core interests lie and where it is building capacities and shaping alignments. But with its footprint expanding, it is also playing a role in the Indo-Pacific.

In the pursuit of these diverse ties and alignments, India has ensured that they reflect its commitment to strategic autonomy. As the Indian External Affairs Minister has said, India will “not get tied down to exclusive relationships” but will “advance on multiple major relationships at the same time in the best possible fashion”.

This approach will remain at the heart of Indian foreign policy in the years to come.

The author, a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.

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