Slow and Steady: New Delhi’s Response to PLA Navy in IOR

In recent years, China’s increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has become obvious within the Indo-Pacific. Designated in New Delhi’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy as the primary area of responsibility for the Indian Navy, India has long perceived the Indian Ocean as its traditional backyard. New Delhi had recently raised concerns to the Wickremesinghe Government about the increasing number of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels docking at the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.

To some, Beijing’s increasing economic footprint under the Maritime Silk Road component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) poses a strategic challenge for India, with China controlling strategically located ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Additionally, the PLA Navy’s only overseas military facility—a ‘logistics support base’ in Djibouti—further shows Beijing’s intention to establish a permanent presence in the region. With increasing maritime competition in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is concerned about the freedom of navigation in international waters and open seas critical for Indian trade.

Incursions by Pakistani warships into Indian territorial waters, the recent episode of the Chinese PLA-affiliated vessel Yuan Wang 5 finally docking in Sri Lanka and the former Maldives President and current opposition leader, Abdulla Yameen’s “India out” campaign all put questions on New Delhi’s ability to serve as an effective maritime security provider in the region amidst growing U.S.-China hegemonic competition. Although New Delhi has prioritized the IOR in its diplomatic engagements as seen through the ‘neighborhood first’ policy, leadership in humanitarian and disaster relief operations and the creation of an IOR Division within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which now includes all major island nation states of the Western and South Indian Ocean.

New Delhi’s strategic outlook is focusing on two interlinked avenues to increase its naval presence and emerge as an effective maritime security provider in the Indian Ocean. These are (a) focusing on capability development, and (b) upgrading and utilizing India’s strategic partnerships in the maritime domain. Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue that first presented New Delhi’s vision for the Indo-Pacific particularly stressed on the importance of strategic partnerships based on goodwill and shared prosperity.

These strategic partnerships with like-minded states in the Indian Ocean have and will continue to provide New Delhi the necessary diplomatic ground to gradually increase its naval presence in the region. New Delhi’s strategic partnerships in the maritime domain are also seeking to prioritize strengthening military to military cooperation by increasing port visits, joint exercises and concluding potential military logistics access and exchange agreements. New Delhi is also prioritizing the Indian Navy’s capability development by trying to increase and spend on military capacity and strengthening its maritime domain awareness (MDA).

Increasing Military Capacity and Maintaining Robust MDA

While maritime diplomacy is still new to India’s foreign policy engagements, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government under Modi has not neglected capability development. National initiatives such as Make in India have opened avenues for rapid growth in defense production and manufacturing. Consequently, the under-funded Indian Navy has benefitted from such schemes, resulting in the expedited commissioning of the Vikrant aircraft carrier as well as Kalvari-class submarines. Recently, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also commissioned the INS Mormugao—second of the four ‘Visakhapatnam’ class destroyers indigenously designed—further providing momentum to New Delhi’s maritime combat capabilities. The Indian Navy has also focused on enhancing its operational capacity with the procurement of maritime reconnaissance aircrafts such as the American P-8I Neptune which helps it to better understand and patrol the vast IOR maritime domain. The Indian Air Force regularly deploys and rotates Su-30 MKI, which are capable of carrying the BrahMos cruise missiles that further constitute a key component of India’s naval force projection capabilities.

In the aftermath of the 2020 Galwan clashes at the land border between India and China, New Delhi also scaled up its efforts to militarize the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The islands are strategically situated close to the Malacca Strait, a critical Indian trade route that carries the potential to enhance India’s Act East policy and serve as a maritime gateway connecting New Delhi to the ASEAN states. New Delhi has engaged in building military infrastructure on the island chain, such as building up capacity at Port Blair and completing a high capacity undersea internet cable. These efforts represent New Delhi’s intention to build infrastructure that will enhance the potential role of the island chain as a forward operation base. The geostrategic positioning of these islands provides opportunity for greater and more consistent Indian security presence in a region that splits the Indo-Pacific into two distinct theaters—the IOR and the Asia-Pacific.

The second component of New Delhi’s effort in capacity-building is to strengthen its MDA. An effective MDA strategy will provide and disseminate information on all developments and movements across the IOR, which will further help New Delhi identify key trends and challenges to better inform policy choices at both the diplomatic and military levels. New Delhi’s domestic information gathering capabilities remain robust which further builds an element of information sharing with key partners. The Modi government established the Information Management and Analysis Centre in 2014, which links Indian Naval and Coast Guard stations. It also launched the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region in collaboration with 11 partner states in 2018.

The center promotes regional MDA and builds a coherent maritime situation picture, which is fundamental to furthering New Delhi’s agenda of Security and Growth of All in the Region (SAGAR). Under this agenda, New Delhi has also developed an Integrated Coastal Surveillance Network, connecting coastal radar and surveillance systems of partner states such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Seychelles, and with talks ongoing of including Bangladesh, Maldives, and Myanmar in a similar arrangement. These radar systems enable the detection, location, and monitoring of activities across the Indian Ocean and further connect to the Information Fusion Centre in India, providing real-time strategic awareness of the region.

Strengthening Military Cooperation and Negotiating Logistics Access

New Delhi’s maritime diplomacy in the Indian Ocean is focused on utilizing its strategic partnerships by increasing naval port calls, exercising more and utilizing defense logistics access arrangements with partner states. New Delhi’s evolving defense diplomacy with Washington is equally important.

Washington and New Delhi are members of the Quad and share similar core interests in maintaining an open and rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific as well as preventing Chinese hegemony in the region, which makes them key partners. In 2016, India was designated as a major defense partner to the United States and in 2018 this partnership was elevated, allowing New Delhi license-free access to a wide range of military and sensitive dual-use technologies. New Delhi considers the U.S. naval presence on Diego Garcia as a useful element in its quest to maintain the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. It is, therefore, a likely possibility that New Delhi will request reciprocal military access to the naval base in the disputed Chagos Islands, capable of further enhancing India’s maritime security capabilities in the region.

While the Andamans provide a strong position to monitor Chinese activity in the Straits of Malacca, access to naval facilities in the Southern Indian Ocean will give New Delhi leverage over Chinese vessels entering the region through the outer rims of the region. Both Quad members have also concluded agreements on logistics exchange (LEMOA), which creates conditions for exchange and use of military logistics and bases such as Diego Garcia; promoting interoperability between the militaries through agreements such as COMCASA; and sharing geospatial intelligence through BECA. Lastly, with the US vessel USNS Charles Drew docking in India last year, it further displays Washington and New Delhi’s intention for utilizing their maritime partnership with increased port calls. Another key partner for New Delhi is France.

Taking Forward a Partnership with France

France, the sole European resident naval power in the Indian Ocean has also intensified its military-to-military cooperation with India. In June 2021, the Indian Navy (IN) and the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) conducted high tempo exercises in the Gulf of Aden which saw the participation of five warships from four navies led by India’s INS Trikand, and France’s FS Tonnerre and FS Surcouf. New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Paris has also resulted in the implementation of a logistics support agreement that gives the Indian Navy reciprocal military access to the French-administered Reunion Island in the Southwestern Indian Ocean. Furthermore, France has also hinted at reviving the Paris-New Delhi-Canberra trilateral (IFA).

While India currently has military logistics agreements with each Quad member as well as France, Singapore, and South Korea, its much-awaited Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS) with Russia is yet to be signed. The Modi government has also secured similar logistics arrangements at strategically located ports in the IOR—Agalega Island in Mauritius, Duqm in Oman, and Sabang in Indonesia—and efforts are ongoing to secure similar arrangements at Assumption Island in Seychelles. The scope of such arrangements is not limited to the IOR, with presence in the broader Indo-Pacific through Singapore, and potential agreements with Vietnam and Australia. New Delhi’s evolving strategic outlook under Modi will continue to prioritize defense diplomacy by utilizing strategic partnerships. For IOR states, who are more affected by non-traditional security threats such as climate change, illegal fishing, and humanitarian disasters and seek to avoid entanglement in the growing Sino-U.S. hegemonic competition, New Delhi could prove to be an effective maritime security provider in the region and should solidify its position as such.