New Delhi still has a ways to go before it can live up to its regional aspirations.
India has been busy in the eastern Indian Ocean of late. In early February, the country finished its second International Fleet Review, which brought together 52 countries and more than 100 warships for ceremonial inspections, underscoring the growing indispensability of the maritime posture in India’s eastward orientation. In March, India test-fired a ballistic missile from its soon-to-be inducted, nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, in the Bay of Bengal. In early May, the Indian Navy participated in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Defense Ministers’ Meeting, which coincided with a collaborative exercise focussed on counterterrorism and maritime security in the South China Sea.
These recent activities show that India is positioning itself for a more ambitious role in the region as a maritime security provider. However, the country’s current naval capabilities remain insufficient. For India to become a regional naval power, it will need to invest in the technology, manpower, and force-readiness capabilities that will allow it to assert strength and stand tall against other regional naval powers.
India continues to signal its intent to safeguard key strategic and economic interests, in the wake of China’s naval buildup in the region, through international naval cooperation and power projection. Though that intent remains clear, limited operational naval assets and a capability development program often marred by long delays and a cumbersome acquisition processes have hampered progress. A lack of financial resources for force modernization, and the continuous struggle to fund the Army and Air Force, have further accentuated the challenge.
For some time now, New Delhi has become more open in projecting its interests in Southeast Asia and beyond, especially on the seas. Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean region and its assertive posture in the western Pacific may be the reasons for this. Although India has traditionally remained cautious of ruffling Chinese feathers with aggressive political or military action, the subcontinent’s current posture indicates a mix of growing confidence and prudent restraint. It remains to be seen how New Delhi would walk the fine line between pursuing a naval buildup and expanding its influence while avoiding adverse Chinese reactions.
India is seen to be discarding its traditional inhibitions, no longer shying away from being counted as a key player in the emerging maritime dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, the contemporary confines of New Delhi’s capabilities have not stopped it from attempting to articulate what it perceives to be its natural role and position in the region. India’s foreign policy attitude towards the Indo-Pacific region is enshrined in the revamped Look East policy, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced as Act East in November 2014. Although it may be too early to pass a verdict on the policy’s outcome, it signifies India’s increased commitment to active engagement with East Asian neighbors, and to assuming a more active role in balancing China’s rise, specifically in the Indian Ocean.
The most prominent acknowledgment of this intention was the release of the Indian maritime security strategy document, “Ensuring Secure Seas,” which recognized India’s expanding interests and engagement “across the Indo-Pacific Region,” and its emerging role as a “net maritime security provider.” China’s escalating claims and military activities along strategic sea lines of communication in the Indo-Pacific are an important driver for this stance, as India’s dependence on these sea lines for trade and energy supplies continues to grow. Almost 90 percent of India’s sea-bound trade flows through the Indian Ocean, and approximately 25 percent of its trade passes through the South China Sea. India also faces specific vulnerabilities in the Straits of Malacca, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and are a major global chokepoint.
Taking note of this evolving geostrategic landscape, India has been engaging more closely — through joint strategic and military cooperation — with pivotal powers such as Japan, the United States, Australia, South Korea, Seychelles, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines. Several of these engagements go beyond the norm of bilateral equations, featuring trilateral or even quadrilateral relationships.
Apart from enhancing its regional outreach, India is also beefing up its own capabilities. Developments include the deployment of new Boeing P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft at India’s strategic outposts in Southeast Asia, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Also, the first of the Scorpene-class stealth submarines, far behind their original schedule, will be commissioned by September 2016.
Evidently, India’s maritime profile is growing steadily. However, numerous challenges limit the country’s expanding geostrategic ambitions. Indian Navy procurements remain mired in constant delays and were neglected by the previous United Progressive Alliance government. The current government has a tough task on hand as it attempts to address the Indian Navy’s deficiencies. Another major domestic contestation is the perpetual debate over what needs greater Indian military attention: its land border issues or maritime challenges. This dilemma is also playing out in scholarly debates within India. In view of the land-based threat posed by China and territorial disputes with Pakistan, New Delhi must carve out a comprehensive and coherent strategy that strikes a balance between its continental and maritime objectives.
The obsolescence of the India’s naval fleet is concerning, highlighted by accidents on board the INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhuratna in 2013 and 2014, respectively. According to India’s comptroller and auditor general, the country has just 14 diesel submarines (plus one nuclear-powered submarine) in service, out of which only 10 can be operational at a time. Moreover, half of the submarines have already reached 75 percent of their lifespans, or have outlived them. The Navy also suffers from a severe shortage of anti-submarine helicopters and a shortfall of approximately 1,400 naval officers. Needless to say, these factors thwart the Indian Navy’s ambitions of graduating into a blue-water force. However, despite these limitations, India has been able to overshadow China in anti-piracy operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief — areas in which the Indian Navy has performed exceptionally well in terms of operational success and frequency of deployments.
India will likely continue to expand its maritime activities and pursue collaborations with other naval powers, while simultaneously building on its strengths and developing capabilities that match its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Given the role that India envisions for itself in the region, it will have to significantly build its defense capabilities, especially naval ones. To do that, the country will have to overcome numerous obstacles that could impinge on its naval modernization plans. The Indian government will continue to face the competing needs to earmark sufficient funds for air, land, and naval forces, especially in view of the limited available financial resources and the capital-intensive modernization that the Indian Navy requires.
By Aditi Malhotra