“We cannot afford to be weak at sea…history has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at her mercy, and in the second, India’s very independence itself.” – Jawaharlal Nehru
Indian strategic culture has been characterized by a preoccupation with land based threats (PDF), a bias evident from an examination of budgetary allocations to the three services. The Navy has traditionally received the least funding, resulting in it being called the Cinderella Service, which is due to several factors. First, India has a history over millennia of being repeatedly invaded from the Northwestern plains. Second, the British stymied the growth of the Indian Navy, seeing it as a potential strategic competitor. Third, all of India’s major 20th century conflicts in 1947, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 were against land powers. Finally, the trend was reinforced by the US alignment with Pakistan as a response to India’s perceived tilting towards the USSR, which had the effect of keeping India focused on remaining a land power and not transitioning to a maritime one.
Since the 1990s, India has rejected inward-looking economic models of growth and has increasingly integrated itself into the global economy. As a result, 75% of India’s trade is now carried by sea. Sustained rates of economic growth towards double figures are required for India to pursue its primary national goals of lifting large proportions of its population out of poverty, and once again becoming a pivotal nation in global affairs. Fuelling this growth requires great quantities of energy.
With four fifths of Indian energy supplies being imported by sea—the bulk of which originates from the Persian Gulf and passes through the Straits of Hormuz—India is confronted with the ‘Hormuz dilemma.’ That particular arc of nations is home to Islamic extremist groups and has a large presence of private military security companies. The former Indian Navy chief flagged these as a threat. India’s unease about security around Hormuz and the western Indian Ocean is palpable in a region that collectively accounts for a sizable proportion of the crises and conflicts in the world.
The Indian Ocean is home to the world’s most important shipping lanes and the principal maritime straits, including the Malacca Strait, the Bab al Mandab and the Lombok Strait in addition to Hormuz. Together these carry over half the world’s container traffic and over 80% of the world’s seaborne oil trade transits through the Indian Ocean. Geopolitical security concerns coupled with widespread piracy have ensured the presence of many external powers. The recognition that the Asia Pacific is the future engine of world growth and the rise of China have compelled the US to have a forward deployed presence in the region and are the prime reasons for the US pivot. The US Navy has long identified a need for an expansion in ship numbers, but its fleet continues to shrink. Most recently, the identified required fleet size was in the range of 313–346 ships, but it’s presently hovering in the 280s.
The US has proclaimed India as a natural ally and a linchpin of America’s ‘pivot’ that will act as a ‘regional anchor’ in the new world order. In 2010, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared India’s potential to be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed similar sentiments. India now plans for the development of a blue water Navy, as envisioned by then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta in 2006. India aims to have 160 combat ships by 2022, centered around at least three aircraft carriers. With the Navy now receiving a budget share hovering about the 20% mark, and with the Navy’s portion of capital acquisitions far exceeding that of the Army, this is no longer mere conjecture.
While there are tensions on the Himalayan front, large scale land warfare in the high altitude Himalayas for any prolonged stretch of time is extrordinarily difficult. It’s on the seas where Indi–China strategic competition with China is most likely to play out. India fears the so-called ‘string of pearls’—a supposed Chinese attempt at encircling India in its maritime backyard. China also depends on oceanic energy supplies for its survival, preoccupied as it is with its own “Malacca dilemma.”
Today China finds itself in a rare situation historically (PDF) of not having land-based threats pose as its dominant security concerns, which has resulted in China’s explosive expansion of its naval arm which will, among other things, bring it into the Indian Ocean in some numbers. India has described China as the “principal variable in the calculus of Indian foreign and defence policy.” As recent crises in the Ukraine, Syria and Iran have demonstrated, the US needs to maintain a global naval presence—some argue that the US needs to maintain a “three-hub navy.” But with declining fleet numbers, the US will need partners, and India is one obvious candidate. How the US chooses to engage India and balance China will determine the trajectory taken by sea power in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
This article was originally posted in The Strategist.