Changing Dynamics of the Maritime Politics Concerning the Indian Ocean

Avishikta Chattopadhyay



India was inducted as an observer in the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) in March 2020, which is supposed to be significantly influencing India’s strategic and diplomatic presence in the Indian Ocean and also affecting India’s maritime trade and diplomacy. A significant shift has been noticed in the Indian policies around the Indian Ocean in the recent past. On dividing the region around the Indian Ocean into four cardinal directions, different divisions show variant geopolitical situations and unique strategies to ensure cooperation, peace and tranquility.

The Western Indian Ocean Region consists of ten East African Countries and is, therefore, is mostly dominated by African communities. The countries and the African Union (AU) together have initiated several operations for furthering the concept of “Blue Economy”. At the Delhi Declaration in 2015, India and the African countries promised their dedication towards forwarding the concept of Blue Economy.[1] Reference to the blue colour of the Chakra in the Indian flag added to the personal narrative of India to the Blue Economy initiative. The induction of India in the IOC which is a region around the Western Indian Ocean is a result of a number of initiatives taken by India to increase bilateral relationships with the member states. The Eastern Indian Ocean Region is important owing to its vast natural resources, fishing grounds, and critical choke points for maritime trade such as the Strait of Malacca. India has catered to the Eastern region mainly through its “Act East” policy. Maritime security is one of the important pillars of the “Act East” policy of India [2] whose groundwork was laid by Narasimha Rao in his “Look East” policy initiative in 1991. The Region to the north of the Indian Ocean is also a hub of several organisations such as The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Located at the centre of the Northern Indian Ocean region, India’s has a dominant maritime presence and has divergent relations with the different countries in the region. In the Southern Region of the Indian Ocean, the island continent is the most dominant actor. Australia’s strategy in the Indian Ocean has been defined as isolationist[3] in nature and its policies revolve around the Indo-Pacific rhetoric catering to diplomacy around both the water bodies.

Delimitation disputes around the Indian Ocean have been long-standing and several in number. One of the most prominent was the maritime delimitation dispute between India and Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal was resolved at the International Court of Justice. Another brewing dispute is between Kenya and The Republic of Somalia over a maritime region intersecting their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The area which is rich in natural resources is claimed by both the parties. The dispute was initiated in the court by Somalia in the year 2014 and is yet to be decided.

The Indian Ocean is an extremely important waterbody in all aspects. It abounds in natural resources; it links the most important water bodies with regards to maritime trade and connects petroleum chokepoints to the East. The geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean requires that no country gains absolute monopoly over it. Therefore, the counties carefully construct their policies to secure their presence in the Indian Ocean.

Multi-Polarity in the Indian Ocean

Rory Medcalf of The Australian National University had said, “The complex geostrategic beauty of this region, which no doublethink can deny, is that it is too big for one power to dominate. It’s meant for multipolarity and diversity of partnerships.”[4] The Ad-Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean by the General Assembly had declared the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace in the year 2017.[5] It was later adopted as a resolution of the United Nations. The Indian Ocean is considered to be such a vibrant source of income that countries like Seychelles have their own Department of Blue Economy.

From the time of the Cold, War China has adopted an expansionist policy which has also extended to nearby water-bodies. In addition to the claim over the South China Sea, China has already established its influence in the Indian Ocean Region through the Hambantota Port in Sri-Lanka, the China-Pakistan corridor and the infamous Maritime Silk route. The String of Pearls theory is used by China to denote its rightful passage over the Indian Ocean Region. However, the imaginary line covers most of the important maritime chokepoints in the Indian Ocean. It not only represents China’s intention of absolutism but also is deterring for India’s safety.[6] Therefore, Indian cooperation with the countries around the Indian Ocean is essential for ensuring maritime security and prevent encroachment by actors like China.

United States of America (USA) considers that a single Indian Ocean policy is difficult owing to the varying interests in and around the Indian Ocean. Therefore, USA has adopted different policies specific to countries around the Indian Ocean. In a nutshell the USA through its presence in the Indian Ocean ensures that there is no monopoly in the thoroughfare of petroleum. Through its presence it ensures that powers like China and the Gulf are not acting as deterrents to maintenance of peace. However, USA’s changing the “Asia-Pacific” term to “Indo-Pacific” narrative was not accepted well by the nations at large especially owing to its growing relationship with India.

Sri-Lanka (SL) has always been a harbinger of peace in the Indian Ocean. SL maintains that multi-polarity in the Indian Ocean is essential to ensure development. The Zone of Peace Decal ration was tabled in the General Assembly by Sri-Lanka. SL encourages the countries to accept the Hub of the Indian Ocean policy leading to peaceful cooperation. Britain has its own Britain Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Historically it has been one of the important sea routes for Britain and it maintains its presence in the Indian Ocean Region in the present day as well to ensure commercialisation that the Ocean resources have to offer. France has maintained close cooperation with India and has introduced a three-pronged policy to tackle the Southern Indian Ocean Region[7] and similar bilateral cooperation measures towards the Western Indian Ocean region[8] as well.

Apart from the countries, there are several multilateral organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which harbour centrality in the Indian Ocean Region. Furthermore, The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an important organisation consisting of most of the countries which share the Indian Ocean as their shore-line. India has been actively participating in the IORA since 2011 when India framed six proposals to enhance cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. India’s presence in the IORA enhances with the 2015 speech of Shri Narendra Modi at Mauritius and further the ten-point approach towards improving cooperation. Since then India has been actively pursuing its increase in presence in the IORA.

Indian Maritime Diplomacy and policies around the Indian Ocean Region

Since independence maritime trade and diplomacy has not been given due attention in India. The Indian Ocean Region was considered to be “peaceful parameters” not to be indulged unless agitated by external circumstances.[9] Despite being a coastal country with a 7,500 km long coastline and 95% of the EXIM traded through sea[10] India was majorly outperformed in maritime trade by other countries in South Asia.[11]The the maritime sector is largely neglected by the successive governments since Independence.[12] However, proactive steps were taken to augment and evolve the maritime industry since the 16th Lok Sabha. Steps such as the creation of sustainable relations with the countries around the Indian Ocean, introducing policies to improve relations, increasing the maritime trade policies, relaxation in the trade formalities etc. were taken. Subsequently, in The Logistics Performance Index (LPI) Global ranking by the World Bank, India ranked 35 in 2016 which was an improvement from rank 54 in 2014. However, India was placed at 44th position in the year 2018, which proves that India had to work harder to improve the maritime trade sector. In addition to that, India was ranked 68 in the Trading Across Border parameter of Ease of Doing Business rankings released by World Bank in the year 2019 which was an improvement from the previous Rank 80.

Indian’s had inherent cultural ties with the Indian Ocean. The route of the Indian Ocean led the Portuguese to India. The British travelled through the route of the Indian Ocean to reach India. Although it is through these waters that India has faced its most cruel terrorist attacks the Indian Ocean serves as a blanket of blue protecting India and giving it the required natural resources. Through its dynamic diplomacy and policies in recent past India has tried to increase its prominence in the Indian Ocean region.

In the year 2016, the Sagarmala project was initiated which undertook to create sustainable growth in the maritime region by modernizing, enhancing connectivity and increasing brotherhood among the coastal communities to uplift the maritime industry in its entirety. The first Global Maritime Summit partnering with South Korea was organised by India in the year 2016. Even before inaugurating the ambitious Sagarmala Project, Prime Minister Modi had referred to the SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) doctrine during his Mauritius visit in 2015[13] for maintenance of peace and tranquillity through cooperation among countries and navies around the Indian Ocean. He further mentioned the importance of the doctrine during the International Fleet Review in the year 2016. In addition to diplomacy, the government with the intention of portraying the ancient maritime ties of India is set to inaugurate the first maritime museum in India in Gujrat.[14]

The Indian Ocean Policy of India is based on the SAGAR doctrine.[15] India had previously signed an accession pact to the Trans-Regional Maritime Network to accrue maritime information of thirty of its member states in the Indian Ocean.[16] The increasing relationship of India with the states around the Indian Ocean is often connected to preventing the hegemonic intrusion of China in the Indian Ocean.