India’s Maritime Mandala: Expanding the Strategic Footprint

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2015
Sub Title: 
India’s strategic engagements with various naval powers in the region and beyond
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The phenomenal rise of India in the 21st Century has its foundations in the ‘antiquity’. India was a pre-eminent maritime power in Asia and possessed mercantile and naval prowess, which was brought to bear on its strategic conduct. This power was symbolized by its networks of politico-economic and strategic transactions in the neighbourhood in Southeast Asia, China, Persia, Eurasian landmass and the Mediterranean. The contemporary Indian maritime engagements and transactions have strong historical roots and exhibit civilizational legacy; significantly, the sources of India’s contemporary maritime theory and conduct is sourced to its ancient schools of thought.

Statecraft Legacy: Continuity with Change

India’s maritime glory was epitomized in the golden ages of the Mauryas’ (B.C. 321-184) who developed a sophisticated maritime trading system, the Andhra-Kushana period had trading links with Rome, (B.C. 200 – A.D. 250), Gupta Empire had extensive maritime trading contacts in the 5th and 6th Century, and in the later centuries, the Chalukyas’ and Chola’s in South India developed maritime power pivoting on political and trading engagements with Southeast Asia and China.

The Arthasasthra, a classic, authored by the Indian strategic thinker Kautilya who was the royal court advisor to the ancient Indian Emperor Chandragupta Maurya II, had a profound influence on the then thought and practice. The Arthasastra conceptualizes  geo-political and geo-strategic framework of interests, alliances and strategic conduct termed as the ‘Mandala’. Mandala is construct in international relations that signifies the contiguity of region and defines the interests and relations of the state and in spatial terms Mandala denotes a zone. Schematically Mandala is figurative of concentric circles, which define the relations of a state that lies at the core, with its ‘immediate’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘outer’ ring of countries.

Maritime Mandala

India’s ‘immediate Mandala’ has China and Pakistan, the two contiguous states with whom India has been engaged in wars over boundary disputes that remain unresolved. Both are primary detractors with whom the maritime engagements have been most contentious. In recent times, the presence of Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines in the Indian Ocean has caused concern in India. The presence of a Chinese conventional and nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean has breached India’s ‘bastion’.  Further, Chinese plans to sell submarines to Pakistan has caused anxiety in the naval establishment. Beijing and Islamabad have established bilateral strategic links and their cooperation now covers almost all facets of economy, defence, energy, industry, intelligence sharing and infrastructure, with military cooperation at its core. The nature and scope of Sino-Pakistan military and nuclear proliferation has been an issue of apprehension for New Delhi. India has attempted to hard balance its immediate Mandala by engaging several Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Southeast Asian and Pacific powers that form part of the ‘intermediate Mandala’.

As far as the ‘intermediate Mandala’ is concerned, in the Persian Gulf, India’s engagement has been quite prominent and is dictated by its energy jugular which passes through the Straits of Hormuz. Also, the presence of Indian diaspora that remits substantial remittances has resulted in a pronounced strategy of building close relations with Persian Gulf countries. Further, military cooperation with Persian Gulf states is an important aspect of bilateral relations and these interactions have resulted in defense MoU that envisage naval exchanges, training and joint exercises and also provide for military related hardware. 

India’s East African engagement came by way of the Indian Navy’s deployment for water front security and surveillance assistance during the African Union Summit held in Maputo, Mozambique in July 2003 and anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia since 2009. Similarly, Indian Navy engages the South African and Brazil navies in trilateral naval exercises under the IBSA ((India-Brazil-South Africa) partnership off South Africa. Over all, India has expanded its engagements with the African – Indian Ocean littorals through several maritime initiatives.

In the East, the ‘intermediate Mandala’ focuses on Southeast Asia with whom India has enduring economic, trade and diaspora ties. As part of the “Look East” and now “Act East” policy, India is engaged in the region through political and strategic dialogue centered on a number of bilateral and multilateral arrangement and institutions such as the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), East Asian Summit (EAS), ADMM Plus and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). At the functional-operational level, the Indian Navy has developed bilateral relations with all Southeast Asian navies that are premised on ship visits, high level exchanges, joint exercises and coordinated patrols to maintain order at sea. These exercises have been incrementally gaining complexity in terms of platforms through fielding of multi-mission asset and tactical/operational contents and proved to be a success story.

India’s strategic engagements with the ‘outer Mandala’ i.e. Japan, the United States, Australia and Russia and have been determined by strategic convergences. Dialogues at both political and security level have strengthened ties.  Since the mid-1990s, India and Japan have been discussing common security concerns focused on safety and security of sea-lanes, combating sea piracy and search and rescue particularly in the Indian Ocean through which bulk of Japanese oil transits. With regard to maritime cooperation, the Japanese and Indian maritime forces (navy and coast guard) visit each other’s ports and undertake joint exercises.

The India-US partnership emerges in the form of vigorous maritime cooperation between the two navies involving dialogue, operational exercises and supply of naval hardware. Besides, a number of joint statements such as the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ defines the convergent strategic geography encompassing maritime space from Africa to East Asia and both sides have agreed to work together to “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. These statements and initiatives are noteworthy and identify common maritime interests and ways to advance them.

India-Australia bilateral maritime cooperation is still evolving after a long hiatus following the Australian sanctions post India’s nuclear tests in 1998. However, at the multilateral level, in June 2015, the representatives from Australia, India and Japan decided to explore a trilateral naval engagement. Likewise, the India-US-Japan trilateral exercises have progressed well and found resonance among the partners. Though not stated explicitly, China appears to be on the agenda.

As far as Russia is concerned, India’s zestful military technical cooperation with Russia with the strong objective of building a robust military platform base has reinforced their bilateral relations. India’s defence industrial complex has a large Russian contribution and the Indian Navy has relied on Soviet Union/Russia for a large number of defence acquisitions including the lease of a nuclear submarine (INS Chakra) and purchase of the aircraft carrier (INS Vikramaditya). The India-Russia naval exercises codenamed INDRA have further strengthened cooperation, trust and reinforced the strategic relationship.

Transformation and Expanding Geography

India’s Military Maritime Strategy identifies Indian Ocean as the primary area of interest and operations encompassing the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb – Strait of Hormuz- Straits of Malacca and Cape of Good Hope. Indian Navy’s engagements in the Indian Ocean are noteworthy and are exemplified by its leadership role in establishing the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) which addresses common non-traditional maritime security threats and challenges such as piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling and gun-running. The Pentagon report states that the US is “seeking to reinforce India’s maritime capabilities as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and beyond”.

The Indian Navy has two aircraft carriers, 14 conventional submarines, 23 destroyers and frigates, 11 major amphibious platforms and a large number of smaller vessels fitted with missiles and torpedoes for conducting complex naval operations on the high seas and the littorals. Further, 48 warships and submarines are under construction which include one aircraft carrier, 6 submarines and a number of frigates and corvettes. The current force structure and future acquisitions of the Indian Navy are indicative of the extended strategic reach of the Indian Navy from the littorals into the high seas.

Concluding Thoughts

In the 21st Century, India’s strategic interests exhibit transformation overcoming years of ideological rigidity to an interest driven autonomy clearly showcasing a systemic transformation. These strategic choices and the new economic strength have resulted in significant opportunities for increased transactions with the great powers that are fast evolving into new partnerships, multilateral and bilateral engagements and cooperative initiatives focused on naval interactions that offer tactical-operational engagements exemplified by interoperability among the navies.

The Indian Navy has been nurturing an ascendant strategic profile with engagements with the navies in the ‘immediate’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘outer’ mandalas. It draws liberally from its ancient school of political thought and engages in furthering Indian foreign policy objectives.