Growing Indian Naval Presence in the Indo-Pacific

SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region – is the Indian maritime policy laying out a framework for maritime cooperation with other littoral countries in the Indo-Pacific.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi elaborated the Indo-Pacific construct at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018 as stretching “from the shores of Africa to that of Americas”. Indian apprehensions emanating from what is termed as the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ strategy has compelled it to reassess the significance of smaller littoral countries in the security calculus of the IOR. India envisions a security framework that focuses on maritime cooperation with littoral countries by means of acquiring naval bases and basing rights, and signing strategic agreements with great powers to bolster operational capabilities with a special focus on logistics.  

Recently, Aljazeera published an extensive report indicating a naval build up on the North Agalega Islands, located in the Mauritius. As per various media reports, India has invested around $250m in the island for building an airfield, port and communications hub. Accounting for the strategic position of this island in the Southwestern part of Indian Ocean, especially the Mozambique Channel, this surveillance outpost would be instrumental in the days to come. It is anticipated that a fleet of P8I surveillance aircrafts being famous for anti-submarine warfare will be stationed on this base.  

In the perpetual quest to ensure sea-denial to the China, India has placed central importance on Seychelles in its envisioned security framework for the IOR. India signed an agreement with the Seychelles government in 2015, to ensure access to the famous Assumption Islands for keeping a vigilant eye on the Mozambique Channel. However, due to the growing contempt of masses towards the prospective acquisition of the island by the Indian Navy, the government pulled out of the agreement. While India is planning to build multiple Coastal Surveillance Radar (CSR) stations in Seychelles, one is being built on the main island of Mahe.  

Recently, India and the Maldives have signed an agreement for building a Coast Guard harbour in Uthuru Thila Falhu. India has delivered patrol vessels and surveillance aircrafts to the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF).

India and Singapore signed a bilateral agreement in 2017, concluded in the Second Defence Ministers’ dialogue, which has provisions for logistical support and refuelling for Indian Navy ships at the Changi Naval Base. In the recent edition of the SIMBEX bi-lateral maritime exercise, India and Singapore practiced anti-submarine warfare. 

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, being adjacent to Strait of Malacca, hold strategic importance for India. The Andaman and Nicobar Command is the only tri-service theatre command of the Indian Armed Forces stationed at Port Blair. In 2019, the Indian Navy commissioned a fully operational naval base, Indian Naval Ship (INS) Kohassa, in the North Andaman Island. It is anticipated that the length of the runway would be extended to 3000m to host the fleet of P8I, Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) aircrafts, currently operated from Arakkonam. The forward stationing of LRMR aircrafts would improve the surveillance capabilities of the Indian Navy.   

INS Baaz is another air station, located in Campbell Bay. It is the most forward base of the Indian Navy at a distance of less than 100 nautical miles from Strait of Malacca. The Indian Navy aspires to extend the 3,000 feet air strip into 10,000 feet runway to upgrade operational capabilities.

Indian maritime cooperation with Myanmar is driven by security as well as economic interests. Indo-Myanmar Co-ordinated Patrols (IMCOP) is the hallmark of maritime co-operation. India has given sonars, medium range surveillance aircrafts, deck-based air defence systems and a submarine to Myanmar. 

Indo-US maritime cooperation is based on the principles chalked out in the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was the first foundational agreement signed between the two, which has provisions of food, water and medical supplies as well as maintenance and training services from the designated military facilities. The sharing of military logistics in reciprocal fashion will enhance the operational outreach for both navies. In 2018, the United States (US) and India signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). After this agreement, India would be able to procure specialized equipment for encrypted communication for US origin military equipment like C-17, C-130 and P8Is. Greater interoperability and enhanced Indian access to US secure data links would improve the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the Indian Navy. 

Recently, India and the US signed a Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA). BECA will result in the supply of high-end equipment for real-time intelligence and information sharing. Aiming at geo-spatial co-operation, this agreement would significantly improve MDA and precision strike capabilities of the Indian Navy. I2U2 stands for Israel, India, U.A.E and United States. It has been called the ‘West Asian Quad’ by Ahmed Albanna, Ambassador of the UAE to India. Keeping in mind the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War days, it is no surprise that the US wants to neutralize Chinese influence in the western Indian Ocean, while aligning with India and others.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD, has brought together the navies of India and Japan to counter the rising Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. Within the framework, India and Japan have agreed to pursue collaboration on Indo Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). This co-ordinated effort calls for the linking of land, sea and air surveillance units of the navies to improve MDA in respective spheres. Furthermore, India and Japan have signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSC) to develop a better understanding of each other’s operational environments, both navies have participated in bilateral and US sponsored multilateral Malabar exercises.   

France has the possession of La Réunion, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Atlantic Lands in the Southern Indian Ocean. Keeping this in mind, India signed a reciprocal military logistics agreement with France. France has permanent naval presence in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.  

In 2018, Oman has granted India the access to the strategically located Duqm port for logistical support and maintenance of vessels. ‘Al-Mohed Al-Hindi 2021’ heralded a new era of maritime co-operation between KSA and India. During this exercise, INS Kochi was docked in Jubail. Under the framework of five nation overseas deployment, four ships of the Indian Navy’s First Training Squadron made a visit to Jeddah port. Indian ships have made frequent so called “good-will” port calls to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Operation Sankalp being a part of mission based deployments enables India to keep forward deployment consisting of destroyers, frigates and patrol vessels in the Gulf of Oman. Furthermore, Indian presence on the Chahbahar port is not welcomed by neighbouring countries. Energy deficient Pakistan relies heavily on the Strait of Hormuz for the imports of carbon fuels, while China and Pakistan developed Gwadar deep sea port for its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, allowing China to address its ‘Malacca Dilemma’.

It is imperative here to assess the challenges for Pakistan and China emanating from a growing Indian naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. After the recent brawl with the Chinese Army in the Galwan valley, the fear of a two-front war looms large in the minds of Indian strategist. Recognizing the importance of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC’s) originating from the Persian Gulf, it is anticipated that India may counter-act to interdict these SLOC’s and hit Gawadar port to cause economic damages to Pakistan and China.

Let us assess the operational feasibility of the above-said proposition that India can interdict these SLOC’s. As mentioned above, India has access to the ports of Oman and KSA. Furthermore, the forward deployment of destroyers and frigates in the Gulf of Oman adds plausibility to this idea. As stated by Indian Naval strategy document published in 2015, the interdiction of SLOC’s will be pursued to dictate the terms of conflict and achieve strategic objectives. Presence of US 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf adds to Indian confidence for pursuing any offensive action, keeping in mind the reverse logistics and intelligence sharing agreements.

As the East Africa is transforming itself into a hydrocarbon hub, China is eager to assert its control over the Mozambique Channel to ensure uninterrupted access to the oil and natural gas reserves of these countries. In a bid to checkmate China, India has developed naval installations at Seychelles and Mauritius. This naval outreach can be used to block the Mozambique Channel for China in any future contingency.

The US 7th Fleet quite often conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea; this irks China. India has operational naval bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Having naval presence at the Changi base in Singapore, there is a great feasibility of a future naval blockade of the Malacca Strait for China.

Growing Indian presence in the Indo-Pacific would push Pakistan and China closer. In the days to come, China and Pakistan will collaborate more on the issues of maritime security, naval modernization and building roadways and railway lines to connect the strategically important Gwadar with Xinjiang. As reflected by the holistic document of the National Security Policy of Pakistan (NSP), economic security remains at the heart of our strategic thinking. Tapping the gigantic potential of the blue economy is the need of hour. Pakistan must draw the attention of investors to maritime infrastructure. Pakistan must remain steadfast in building a comprehensive maritime security framework with the help of China and other littoral countries to ensure safe passage of merchant vessels through strategic SLOC’s.                        

Growing Indian Naval Presence in the Indo-Pacific

About Syed Saif ul-Haq 3 Articles
The author is studying Defence & Strategic studies in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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