Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region

Indian Ocean Region is more than twenty per cent of the world waterways. It gets its name from the longest river in Pakistan. The region is a concept broader than a maritime trade route. It is an interstate of shared values, cultures and communication. The region was relatively peaceful during the two world wars. It also has two nuclear-free continents on its eastern and western rims.

The peace that the region has endured is facing a threat from within. In the absence of any outstanding regional power, the IOR had maintained peace on the high tide of liberalism and peaceful co-existence. As the regional powers grow stronger, their influence will reach far and deep into the Indian Ocean often overlapping, converging and diverging from the interests of other regional powers. With the horrors of colonization in the hindsight, the visionary Indian diplomat KM Pannikar also weighed in ‘India cannot exist, without the Indian Ocean being free’.

The modern Indian policymakers consider it the ‘manifest destiny’ of India to wrest control of the ocean that lies around it. It is the driving force behind India’s imperialist designs in the 21st century.

Whether the Indian Ocean can truly become an Indian ocean remains a question. India aspires to be the hegemon of the IOR. It boasts the fifth largest navy in the world in terms of personnel and vessels. It has a nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant and two aircraft carriers, with the negotiations for leasing a third Russian aircraft carrier on a 15-year deal underway. India is obsessed with securing its maritime frontiers by expanding into the ocean. Since Colonization and then the Partition, there is an inherent sense of insecurity on land and in the maritime domain. Therefore, India is rapidly growing its ability to project naval power.

The pursuit of Indian manifest destiny comes with a catch. With a population as large as China’s, it has less than half the land and resources. Indian growth will be stagnated by the demographic constraints. It cannot expand on land. It borders two unassailable foes in the east and the north. In a situation where India does not have the ability to expand on land to sustain growth, it is falling into the trap of the ‘salt water fallacy’ of empires. Therefore, Indian policymakers see it fitting to have a fast mobile navy so that the Indian empire-building project can be hastened. But India lacks rich naval tradition. The Hindu scriptures forbid voyaging deep into the ocean. The Vedas mention only two seas; the eastern, Bay of Bengal and the western, Arabian Sea. India, the aspiring Indian Ocean hegemon, is not even the most dominant force in its immediate seas. At best, it can only influence a few actions of some of the actors in the region.

In comparison, the new look Pakistan aims at securing stability and shared economic growth in the IOR. It has the navy to serve this purpose. Pakistan has also stuck to American, French and Chinese technologies. Their sailors have a tangible and better man-and-machine synchronization merely in terms of sheer months embarked using one kind of switchboard. Pakistan’s navy also has limited resources but clearly defined goals. The command and control structure is elaborate. The sailors and admirals are trained by the best navy in the world. The Naval Special Services Group was trained by the US Navy SEALs. To cope with the Indian naval power, Pakistan has also struck a deal with China for the supply of eight attack submarines. Pakistan sees the Arabian Sea as indispensable to its strategic depth doctrine. Pakistan’s economic and geopolitical interests are bound to grow rapidly in the most important sea of the IOR.

Earlier this March, flying Ormara base a Pakistan Navy aircraft detected an Indian submarine and halted its advances during a time of great regional tension. Despite being conventionally superior, India fails to take advantage of its position mainly due to the lack of professional expertise of its sailors. Indian Navy regularly experiments with Russian, Israeli, American, French, German technologies, and also indigenization. The strategy has only provided poorly trained sailors. Constant tinkering with technology and the consequent deficiency in the training of troops is a taxing concern for Indian Admiralty. The ability of Indian admirals cannot be undermined. They are all qualified full-well for the job. But a British educated admiral will find it difficult to command the crew on a Russian aircraft carrier or a nuclear submarine. Despite the command being clear from the admirals, the sailors cannot comprehend and execute the orders properly. Sun Tzu will see it as a strategic error.

Strategic errors can lead to annihilation when nuclear submarines are operating.

We have already seen over half-a-dozen re-commissions of INS Arihant. Most recently, recommissioned late last year after a boiler bust lead to its sixth decommissioning in just over a decade. The INS Arihant has medium-range ballistic missile launch capability which is in the range of Pakistan’s defence systems. Thus, Indian sea-based nuclear capabilities are no threat to Pakistan.

Both countries understand the consequence of an escalated conflict will be a ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’.

The only purpose left for an Indian nuclear submarine is the projection of nuclear power in the nuclear free-zones on the rims of IOR. It will be hard for Australia and some capable African nations to resist the temptation for achieving a nuclear parity against the foreseeable Indian nuclear aggression in the IOR. America’s nuclear ally, India will be implicated in the nuclear proliferation in the region. The White House and the US Congress pursue short-to-medium term economic gains from such cooperation with India. However, India’s expanding defence capabilities in the maritime and space domains will ultimately threaten the United States.

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