It has been a long-standing if poorly articulated desire of New Delhi to ensure that the Indian Ocean is, strategically, India’s Ocean. This means making the country’s maritime backyard safe and secure for the nation’s interests.
It does not mean ownership or domination. But it does mean that New Delhi would like the littoral countries to take it as normal to consult India about any major strategic decisions. It would also mean that the Indian military and security services would be the cornerstone of any oceanic security structure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sent an excellent signal through his ongoing visit to three island states in the Indian Ocean. Many of these islands, so crucial to India’s security and economic concerns, have not been honoured by a purely bilateral state visit in decades. For example, Rajiv Gandhi was the last prime minister to make such a trip to Sri Lanka. Though it is often said, it still bears repetition: If India cannot manage the nations on its periphery it cannot credibly claim a larger global role. That Modi had to drop a visit to the Maldives because of that island nation’s seemingly perpetual political problems is a reminder how difficult these seemingly innocuous dots on the map test India’s diplomatic mettle.
The Indian Ocean has become a greater concern for a number of reasons. One, India’s economic dependence on its maritime links has grown to enormous dimensions. Even low-tech Somali pirates have threatened the energy jugular vein of the country. Two, seaborne terrorism poses a clear and present danger to India. Three, and arguably the real game-changer, China has begun to establish itself economically and politically all across the region. The ‘string of pearls’ — a claim that China is setting up naval establishments around India — is exaggerated. Beijing’s economic clout and military influence across the region, including the island nations Modi is visiting, cannot be questioned.
Island hopping is important, but a recognition that ‘India’s Ocean’ would entail an engagement on many levels and for an extended period of time is needed. India’s economic footprint is less obvious than China’s. Its aid projects are largely renowned for endless delays and broken promises. India’s inability to make weapons and its de facto ban on arms exports have allowed China to be the primary military supplier across the region. But what damages New Delhi’s oceanic influence the most, however, is a widespread sense of an India that has no maritime strategy, only intermittent political interest in the littoral states, and a general lack of urgency about its own ocean.