“India will have to play a very great part in security problems of Asia and the Indian Ocean, more especially of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as India is the pivot around which these problems will have to be considered.” – Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India
The changing geopolitical environment in Asia and in particular in the Indian Ocean region brings attention to the role of oceans in shaping a country’s strategic and security policy. The launch of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, Vikrant, on August 12, and later, a military satellite from French Guiana, on August 30, appears to form an integral part of India’s Asia-Pacific strategy or India’s Look East Policy (LEP) 3.0 Strategy. China views the Indian aircraft carrier and military satellite as a power projection by New Delhi in the region. For example, the official, China Daily, quoted Chinese analysts, “the development of the aircraft carrier (as well as the readiness of India’s first nuclear submarine for sea trials) were significant steps towards enabling India to project power across the oceans, not only in the Indian Ocean, but also eastward in the Pacific.”
Similarly, Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute is of the view that these developments have contributed to India’s efforts “to quicken its pace to steer eastward to the Pacific.” Therefore, the question that arises is whether this maritime component is a new feature of India’s LEP 3.0? Why and how is the Asia-Pacific significant for India? What is India’s stake in the region and how does New Delhi perceive this region in terms of India’s evolving strategic interests?
Look East Policy 3.0
India’s Look East Policy was initiated in 1992 following the end of the Cold War and the start of the liberalization policy to reintegrate India within South East Asia (SEA), economically and culturally. This policy is commonly mentioned as LEP 2.0 as the initial LEP refers to Indian influence in SEA from the 6th to the 15th century B.C. According to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy.” Consequently, increasing trade ties between India and SEA has contributed to the expansion of relations in the areas of defence and security. As a result, relations between India and the region have acquired strategic characteristics in recent years.
India’s Look East Policy 3.0 refers to India’s strategy of strengthening its relations with states in Asia-Pacific that are beyond the South East Asia region, extending to East Asia. It is safe to assume that the new version of India’s Look East Policy has been shaped partly by China’s rise and the manner in which Beijing is strengthening its position in the South and Southeast Asian regions both in terms of strategic ties with countries in the region and technological advancements like anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM).
Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region aided by the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) and its aggressive posture towards its neighbors has rekindled the maritime interests of India and other regional powers. The second factor that has called for an updated version of LEP is India’s quest for external energy sources and its engagement in the South China Sea. Notably, India seems to be reorienting the basis of its Look East Policy in order to position itself as a strategically pre-eminent power in the region.
Today, the Asia-Pacific region has reemerged as a major center of geopolitical interest. Several factors have contributed to this development. Strategic rivalries among major powers like an aggressive China, the United States with its focus on the region and a revitalized Japan, are intensifying in the region. Competition is more powerful today because more is at stake including natural resources and access to maritime sea-lanes.
The continued and ever-growing importance of oil, energy and other vital resources is a factor that contributes to the reemergence of Asia-Pacific as a theatre of strategic significance. Apart from being a major sea route connecting Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, around 40 percent of seaborne crude oil and 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet passes through this region.
At present, about 25 percent of all oil used by the United States and 80 percent of crude oil imports used by China and Japan pass through the Indian Ocean. Michael Klare of Foreign Affairs argues that the world is witnessing a growing competition over access to vital economic assets, “an interruption in the supply of natural resources would portend severe economic consequences.” Consequently, the major powers now consider protection of this flow and sea-lanes of communication as a significant national priority.
The Chinese quest for energy security and its naval build-up have highlighted the significance of the India-Pacific region. In fact, one-third of Chinese Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is attributable to foreign trade and it is the Indian Ocean that makes this trade possible. Beijing’s need for access to the Indian Ocean can also be understood from yet another angle. With mounting tensions between China and Japan in ECS and the US pivot to Asia (who has its own allies like Philippines, South Korea and Japan already with whom China has maritime disputes) Beijing considers that having a strong presence in the Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific Ocean only will secure its strategic interest.
America’s attention to the region has amplified due to its stated policy of a “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific. It is quite apparent that the region is expected to witness a heightened amount of tension as the power equations in the region change from time to time, precisely because the region is so vast and diverse with countries that are at different stages of development and those that have formed alliances with one another or outside actors like the United States.
India‘s Maritime Strategic Interest
India’s increasing energy requirements and growing economic power have evinced New Delhi’s augmented interest in the affairs of the Asia-Pacific Ocean. New Delhi perceives this region as a potential opportunity for maximizing its strategic and security interests. In fact, India has always considered itself the major player in South Asia and the Indian Ocean as part of its sphere of influence. With almost, 55 per cent of India’s trade with the Asia Pacific transits through the SCS and India’s maritime activities related to trade and exploration for hydro-carbons in the region and in particular in SCS in accordance with principles of international law have prompted India to look seaward—the Eastern Ocean—as part of its new version of LEP. Furthermore the increased maritime disputes related to fisheries management, maritime border and threats like seaborne terrorism and piracy had called for India’s attention on maritime domain.
More importantly, though China is concerned about the US’ presence in the region, it is equally or more concerned about India’s moves considering India has a geostrategic advantage in the Indian Ocean owing to its geographic location, which could help India to contest China’s interests in the region. Also as the largest power in the region, India is likely to be a victim of the emerging power politics in the future, if not armored with the required strategic posture i.e. naval preparedness, technological self-sufficiency and “readiness to accept a leadership role in providing the public good of maritime security.”
The improved version of India’s LEP 3.0 strategy appears designed to help New Delhi maneuver into a favorable position in the Asia-Pacific, without being directly involving in any internal conflicts but at the same time meeting challenges that might arise in the region. Enhancing greater relations with other regional players like Japan, Australia and South Korea further would provide a solid basis for India’s LEP 3.0.