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From the left, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio arrive for their Quad leaders’ meeting at the Japanese prime minister’s office in Tokyo on May 24. Photo: AFP
Opinion
Abdul Moiz Khan and Amna Saqib
Abdul Moiz Khan and Amna Saqib

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.

For example, in pursuing a strategic partnership with the United States and joining the Quad, India is carving out a role for itself in the Pacific region. It has also recently joined I2U2, a multilateral partnership focused on the Middle East. At the same time, India hopes to have strong ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
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Furthermore, India is part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS, both groupings that include China and Russia; New Delhi has a long history of close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War.

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?

Why India’s maritime interests are closer to China than the US

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”.

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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.

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India's first indigenous aircraft carrier slated for commissioning

India's first indigenous aircraft carrier slated for commissioning

However, the naval presence of major powers, whether strategic partners or competitors, undermines its position in the region.

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China has significantly expanded its influence in the Indian Ocean region. In 2017, Beijing established a military base in Djibouti. Also, the Chinese strategy of building a “string of pearls”, in the form of port developments in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, poses a challenge for New Delhi.
Recently, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese research ship, Yuan Wang 5, to dock at Hambantota port, despite Indian claims about spying. However, China is not the only country increasing its influence in the region.
Aukus, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, also posits a challenge. Besides, India does not welcome the prospect of another actor deploying nuclear-powered submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Last year, New Delhi objected to a US “freedom of navigation” operation in its exclusive economic zone. France, too, has interests in the region as a key partner of French-speaking Madagascar and the Comoros.

How Beijing’s belligerence over Taiwan is related to the belt and road

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.

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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

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