Even if Indians have always had a unique vision of their role in the Indian Ocean and since a few years, in Pacific ocean as well, it is only recently that the Indian authorities have decided to develop a maritime strategy for the indo-pacific region on all its aspects: naval presence, maritime safety and security, blue economy. In order to implement this strategy, India has developed an original method, the alliance between the use of a maritime multilateralism through several fora or regional organizations, and a legal strategy in order to strengthen the cooperation.
Indians have always had a unique vision of the Indian Ocean and they believe that there is a special link between this ocean and India. As a paradox, they were focused on continental issues for decades due to major geopolitical factors that are the borders with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, things have changed since a few years.
Several factors can explain the recent change of mind-set and the evolution toward a better consideration of maritime issues. The first point is that India saw the increase of navy deployments within the Indian Ocean: counter piracy operations, naval deployments due to terrorist threats or the fight against drugs dealing, etc.. Secondly, India may have the feeling of a Chinese containment policy within the Indian Ocean. The fact that terrorists came from the sea during Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 probably played a major role.
A maritime strategy for the indo-pacific region
India began to develop a strong maritime strategy within the last decade with several main objectives. The first aim was to protect its maritime approach. Now, the ambition is more to grant freedoms of navigation within the Indian Ocean (including major chokepoint: Malacca strait, Ormuz Strait, Mozambique Channel or Bab el Mandeb).
The Indian ambition seems to be the development of peace within the Indian Ocean with a growing Indian influence without a too strong presence of the major western countries, and in opposition of the more aggressive Chinese strategy which has the ambition to control international sea-lanes. This strategy is now integrated to a larger geographical area and it involves several major partnerships. Since the Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in 2007 to the India’s Parliament about “the confluence of two seas”, the Indian strategy found a new development with the Indo-Pacific concept.
It has conducted new developments with the 2015 Indian maritime strategy called Ensuring Secure seas. In 2018, Narendra Modi developed his positive vision for the Indo-Pacific region as a free, open and inclusive region. One of his point was to express his belief that the common prosperity and security requires a common rules-based order for the region.
The program is clear : to “have equal access, as a right under the international law, to the use of common spaces on the sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law”. Hard not to compare with the Chinese behaviour in the China Sea.
A maritime strategy have always had several pillars: a naval strategy using navy assets, a strategy for maritime security and safety (generally using maritime administrations and coast guards) and a blue growth strategy. No matter what the pillar is, the Indian model is to use two things: maritime multilateralism as an expression of the Indian soft power, and the strengthening of the legal framework for bilateral cooperation.
A maritime multilateralism
Since the beginning of the Indian maritime investment, India decided to involve many partners and seems to have developed several relationship circles. Several neighbouring coastal States are part of a first circle. For example, India, Sri Lanka, The Maldives and Mauritius are members of the Colombo Security Conclave (Bangladesh and Seychelles are observers), a maritime security grouping that decided to enhance and strengthen regional security especially in the maritime safety and security domain.
The second circle is larger and involve several countries of the Indo-Pacific area. One key element of the Indian maritime multilateralism is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Narendra Modi consider as central to the future of Indo-pacific region. To enable the Indian Maritime multilateralism, the second circle use different tools.
Indeed, India developed two fora for maritime issues. The first one is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) created in 1997 in order to create Indian Ocean connexions, to develop economical and scientific cooperation or common maritime search and rescue operations. The second one is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) created in 2008 as a first step for regional maritime safety and security architecture.
This forum seeks to increase maritime cooperation among navies of the littoral States of the Indian Ocean Region. It serves to develop an effective response mechanism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) against natural disasters. All the members are coastal States of the Indo-Pacific region, including Australia, South Africa or France (due to the island of La Réunion). Other fora or regional organizations could be mentioned to highlight the Indian maritime multilateralism strategy. Western States (except France) are often not part of this Maritime multilateralism, but India has been trying to promote a shared vision of the lndo-Pacific area with Japan and USA since a few years, especially with the Asia-Africa growth corridor.
The aim is to enhance the link between Africa and Asia through a free and open area. It appears to be more inclusive than the Chinese Belt and Road initiative with the aim to bring economic development in Africa and growing economic exchanges between Asia and Africa through the Indian Ocean. On the military domain, the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) is an informal alliance between India, US, Australia and Japan whose one of the main aim is to collaborate on maritime security.
A legal strategy to support the maritime strategy
Even if the maritime multilateralism is an expression of the Indian soft power, India has to develop and strengthen its partnerships. A legal framework has to be implemented in order to strengthen bilateral relationships in a context of Chinese expansion. Several defense cooperation agreements have been signed with major partners. This is the case with France since 2006.
Since 25 years, Indian and French navies promote together a strong military cooperation especially with common exercises like Varuna (40th edition in 2023). One major step for navies is to be able to be supported everywhere. That is why India tries to conclude bilateral agreements or arrangements concerning mutual cooperation logistics and services support. It have been done with Singapore, which have a central position in Asia, or with France since 2018. Since a few years, an Indian aircraft is regularly sent to La Réunion for surveillance missions above the Mozambique Channel. India seeks to comfort its strategic military bases. It tried to negotiate an agreement with Seychelles for the use of Assomption Island in order to establish a military base. Several bilateral cooperation agreements have been signed with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, or Mauritius with the aim to share intelligence and data about maritime surveillance. Regarding maritime surveillance by satellites, an agreement has been signed with France in 2008.
However, on certain matters, especially regarding the blue economy, India prefers to sign soft law tools or non-binding texts. This is the case with the Memorandum of understanding signed with Mauritius or the one signed with Bangladesh in 2015. France and India have approved an interesting roadmap in February of 2022 regarding ocean governance and blue economy. The shared wish is to act together in accordance with international law (United Nations convention for the law of the sea, Paris agreement on climate, convention on biological diversity, etc.) and to coordinate themselves in order to defend common opinions within the international organizations.
By using maritime multilateralism and a bilateral legal strategy, India seems to have found a way to develop its idea of a peaceful, safe, and rules-based order in Indo-Pacific region while extending or developing its influence to face the Chinese threat.