- China, consequently, decided to become a major player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Deftly playing its economic and diplomatic cards, China has established a chain of maritime footholds in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and acquired its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year.
India’s recent development:
- India’s recent agreement with Oman providing access, for “military use and logistical support” in the new Port of Duqm, has raised hopes that India is, belatedly, strengthening its maritime posture in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
- There have been other significant developments too; like President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Djibouti and its impending recognition by India; the conclusion of an Indo-Seychelles agreement for creation of air and naval facilities on Assumption Island; and the agreement with the UAE for joint naval exercises.
- It is the absence of an over-arching vision which conceptualises the IOR in a 50-75 year perspective that has led to the neglect of maritime issues critical to India’s vital interests.
- China has been releasing defence white papers every two years and its 10th white paper, issued in 2015, enunciated: “It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force, commensurate with its… maritime rights and interests; and to protect the security of strategic sea lanes.”
- Accordingly, Beijing has built a powerful navy that will soon overtake the US navy in numbers, lagging behind only in capability.
- New Delhi, on the other hand, has shown no tangible signs of strategic thinking or long-term security planning, as evident from a total absence of defence white papers or security doctrines to date.
- The navy did spell out, in 2004-05, its own vision of India’s maritime interests and challenges through a maritime doctrine and a maritime strategy. But, in the absence of higher strategic guidance in the form of a national-level document, they are of limited utility.
- Thus, while a lack of political resolve and diplomatic lassitude have been contributory factors, it is the absence of an over-arching vision which conceptualises the IOR in a 50-75 year perspective that has led to the neglect of maritime issues critical to India’s vital interests.
- The Chabahar port project should have been completed long ago, notwithstanding US sanctions.
- The offer of Agalega Islands from Mauritius should have been taken up years ago; the Maldives imbroglio should have been pre-empted; and our disregard of distant Mozambique and Madagascar remains a huge maritime “missed opportunity”.
- The IOR strategic agenda may be soon taken out of India’s hands as the chairmanship of two important bodies, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) devolves on the UAE and Iran respectively.
The Way Ahead:
- A renewed impetus to India’s maritime outreach or, perhaps, the actualisation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 “Sagar” vision, depends on whether they are random actions or part of a coherent Indian maritime grand strategy.
- Let us remember that “great power” status is not pre-ordained for India. If we do not get our political and economic acts together, India could well remain a large, over-populated and chaotic Third World nation — maybe with the world’s third largest GDP.