In March, PM Modi undertook a tour of Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka, signifying the growing importance of the Indian Ocean region for the Indian ruling bourgeoisie. This was the first visit by an Indian PM to the Seychelles in 34 years and to Sri Lanka in 28 years. In a significant development, the Indian government obtained the lease of the Agalega islands in Mauritius and Assumption island in the Seychelles. This was ostensibly for “infrastructure development”, but in fact these islands will serve as “listening posts” for the Indian state for surveillance purposes. On its part, India handed over an Indian-built Barracuda patrol vessel to Mauritius, and in the Seychelles Modi launched a Coastal Surveillance Radar Project. While making such gestures shown as contributing to these islands’ security, the Indian government has actually been trying to persuade these two states to join a larger security pact, such as the maritime security pact which already involves India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In the visit to Sri Lanka, the Indian state was keen to reinforce its ties with the new Sri Lanka government after the preceding government of Rajapaksa was seen as getting too close to China. Modi used the occasion of his tour of the 3 countries to declare the natural importance of the Indian Ocean region and the states in it for India, saying that their “destinies are linked by the currents of the Indian Ocean”.
In the strategy of the ruling Indian bourgeoisie to grow and extend its power and influence, the Indian Ocean has been assuming an increasingly important role. As early as 2007, the current President Pranab Mukherjee, who was then Foreign Minister, had expressed clearly the ambition of the ruling class to become a maritime power, saying “After nearly a millennia of inward and landward focus, we are once again turning our gaze outwards and seawards, which is the natural direction of view for a nation seeking to re-establish itself, not simply as a continental power, but even more so as a maritime power, and as one that is of significance on the world stage.” Not only does the major portion of India’s external trade and shipping and energy supplies pass through the Indian Ocean region, but a sizeable part of the world’s trade and energy movement passes through the Indian Ocean. Considering itself to be “the main resident power” in the Indian Ocean, with a coastline more than 4500 miles long jutting into the ocean, the Indian state has always considered the Indian Ocean as its own ‘backyard’. Moreover its control of over 1000 islands and island groups in the Ocean gives India effectively another 1300 miles of coastline, allowing it to claim an enormous Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.37 million sq. miles.
The relatively new feature in recent years is that the Indian state has given a special thrust to developing its capabilities to be a major player in this region. This has involved various aspects, such as developing its ‘blue water’ navy (i.e. navy with a capacity to operate beyond the coastal waters), developing territorial outposts or bases, and engaging in joint military exercises with other countries with a naval presence in the region. It has also sought to pay particular attention to the smaller island states in the region, trying to draw them closer into its political orbit, and exploring the possibility of maritime security pacts with them and other countries in the region.
Starting from 2001, there has been a steady increase in the budgetary allocations for the Indian Navy, currently the 5th largest in the world. The Indian Navy now has 2 nuclear-powered submarines, the INS Chakra (leased from Russia) and the INS Arihant, built by India which is due to be commissioned shortly. So far, only five other powers (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) have the capacity to build nuclear submarines. The Indian state has also purchased 6 Scorpene class submarines from France. It has acquired an aircraft carrier from Russia (INS Vikramaditya) and is building another indigenously, along with several stealth frigates. The military establishment on the Andaman and Nicobar islands has been upgraded and developed as a multi-services base, and the under-construction naval base at Karwar on the west coast is projected to become the biggest naval facility in Asia. These are just some of the ways in which Indian naval power is sought to be enhanced.
Soon after the end of the Cold War, the Indian state began joint annual naval exercises code-named “Malabar” with the United States, the main power in the Indian Ocean. By now, it conducts regular naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with a large number of other countries. Besides bilateral exercises with Russia, UK, France, etc, it also has participated in multilateral naval exercises, such as the one code-named “Milan” which it hosts at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, involving 14 countries. In the name of fighting piracy, disaster relief, and so on, the role and profile of Indian warships in the Indian Ocean has been enhanced in recent years.
Apart from the trilateral maritime security pact with Sri Lanka and Maldives, which it is seeking to expand with Mauritius and the Seychelles, India is also trying to develop a maritime security pact with the ASEAN countries at the eastern end of the Indian Ocean.
During the Cold War, the Indian state had been apprehensive about the US military presence in the Indian Ocean, and had tried to propose the notion of keeping the Indian Ocean as a “zone of peace” to counteract US domination. Since the 1990s, it has developed its ties with the US military forces in the region, but has at the same time sought to preserve its ‘strategic autonomy’ and develop ties with a number of other forces in the region as well. Currently, a major concern for the Indian big bourgeoisie is the growing presence of China in the region, both in terms of its naval presence and its increasingly close ties with states along the Indian Ocean rim, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and so on. Indian think tanks and strategists have latched on to the US-origin concept that China is trying to encircle India with a “string of pearls” (meaning port and other facilities in various locations in the Indian Ocean region). Now that the Chinese government under Xi Jinping has proposed its ambitious vision of building a new “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) involving numerous countries in the Indian Ocean region all the way up to Africa, the fears of the Indian bourgeoisie about a Chinese challenge to its preeminent position in the region have only increased. The Indian government has responded with the notion of a “Project Mausam”, stressing India’s historical cultural and trade ties with these same countries, but has not been very successful in promoting this. It has at the same time sought to increase the Indian presence in the waters near China, where it has had virtually no presence till now. India has concluded an agreement with Vietnam to explore oil reserves in the disputed area of the South China Sea. It has also since 2012 begun naval exercises in the Sea of Japan with Japan, which is also locked in a dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea.
All this shows that the growing ambitions of the Indian big bourgeoisie in the Indian Ocean region are being accompanied by increased militarization and tensions. At this point, Indian ambitions in the Indian Ocean, and even in what is called the “Indo-Pacific” region, are being encouraged by the dominant power, US imperialism, as a counterweight to China. However, the desire of the Indian big bourgeoisie to chart its own course to becoming a bigger power, and to maintain what it calls “strategic autonomy”, means that it can also come under US pressure sooner or later. With the smaller countries in the region, like Sri Lanka and Maldives, the imperialist ambitions of the Indian bourgeoisie are leading to pressure being put on them by the Indian state not to develop closer relations with some other powers, particularly China. This has only increased resentment against India among these close neighbouring countries.
The current Indian Ocean strategy of the Indian state is part of the efforts of the Indian bourgeoisie to be recognized as a global power and not just a regional South Asian power. It is trying to present this as a matter of pride for Indian people as a whole. However, it must be understood that these ambitions represent the self-serving expansionist aims of the rapacious ruling class, and do not serve the interests of the Indian people. Far from serving to make the region more secure and peaceful for the Indian and neighbouring peoples, it has the potential to turn the life-giving waters around India into a zone of rivalry and conflict.