In seeking to be a major global power, India risks being undermined in its own Indian Ocean backyard
- India has been expanding its reach in international politics and pursuing relations with major powers, including the US and Russia
- However, major powers’ growing interest in the Indian Ocean region is creating hurdles for New Delhi’s strategic objectives
In his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar writes that the country’s grand strategy should be to advance “national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions” and maximise “gains from as many ties as possible”.
With this objective, India is expanding its reach in international politics and pursuing relations with the major powers. However, this could be at odds with its interests in the region and its own strategic autonomy.
In the early days of independence, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was quite determined to keep India out of the big power rivalry that was emerging in the aftermath of the Korean war. He was a proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement, the principles of which were agreed during the Bandung Conference in 1955.
Indeed, India was non-aligned during the Cold War, before switching to strategic autonomy in the post-Cold-War era.
In hedging its bets strategically and building relationships with major powers, it is seeking to ensure that the regional balance of power remains in its favour.
So, India has upgraded its relations with all the major actors in the global arena. However, are these relations contributing towards Indian national interests, especially with regard to the Indian Ocean region?
The Indian Ocean is one of the crucial conduits for trade, commerce and energy. Having naval access and influence over choke points in the region – including the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – can offer benefits.
India considers this region to be its sphere of influence and understands the advantages it will have in dominating it. As scholar Donald L. Berlin has said, New Delhi “regards the Indian Ocean as its backyard and deems it both natural and desirable that India function as, eventually, the leader and the predominant influence in this region – the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state”.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said as much, when he declared that the Indian Ocean region “is at the top of our policy priorities”.
India aspires to be a regional hegemon, and sees itself as a net security provider in the region. Just as the US is a regional hegemon and will not brook any attempt by a partner or an adversary to exert influence in the Western hemisphere, India should have supremacy in the Indian Ocean region.
However, the naval presence of major powers, whether strategic partners or competitors, undermines its position in the region.
Russian’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean region is also noteworthy. In 2020, Moscow announced a plan to establish a naval logistics hub in Sudan. Last year, Russia participated in two international naval exercises in the Indian Ocean region – one with Iran, and the other as part of a Pakistan-led multilateral exercise. Middle powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are also looking to extend their reach in the region.
The military presence of several nations in the Indian Ocean region creates barriers to India’s objectives, while the growing influence of New Delhi’s partners gives its competitors an excuse to enhance their presence.
Thus, in effect, the presence of India’s partners runs contrary to its ambitions. When India is not the sole power in the region, it cannot play the role of the security provider. Not only is its position being undermined, its capabilities also come into question.
In overextending itself and pursuing an illusory goal of becoming a major player in the world, India risks forsaking its own interests in its backyard and compromising its priorities.
Abdul Moiz Khan is a research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. He is also pursuing MPhil in international relations at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University
Amna Saqib is a research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad