India’s Republic Day on 26 January 2018 was a unique occasion: Leaders of 10 ASEAN countries were chief guests at the grand parade in New Delhi. Their presence marked a major milestone in India’s outreach to East and Far East nations in a bid to mount a challenge to China’s dominance in the region. The contestations taking place in the broad Indo-Pacific expanse is the 21st century version of the Great Game of the 19th century between Great Britain and Russia and is pitting US, India and Japan against a rising and increasingly assertive China.
India’s Act East Policy—successor to the Look East Policy initiated by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1992—has received fresh impetus. Apart from rising competition in the ASEAN region, China’s increasing forays into the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal over the past decade has imposed greater responsibility on the Indian Navy. Consequently, its role has increased in India’s strategic decision-making. And for once, the government is putting its money where its mouth is. Since 2014, the Modi government has moved swiftly to plug gaps in India’s maritime sector and pushed the navy to do more bilateral exercises and send additional ships for overseas deployment in comparison to previous governments.
For instance, there were seven overseas deployments, Operational Turnarounds (OTS) and surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) for friendly countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives in 2014. That number quickly doubled in 2015 and 2016.
New Delhi has also reached out to the Indian Ocean littoral states, allocated more resources for bilateral and multilateral naval exercises and finalised the development of two islands for future Indian military bases in the smaller but strategically located countries—Mauritius and Seychelles—besides bolstering the development of military and civil infrastructure of its island territories, the Andaman and Lakshadweep islands.
After Prime Minister Modi’s three-nation tour of the Indian Ocean countries in March 2015 starting with Sri Lanka and then to Mauritius and Seychelles, India’s intention to further strengthen India’s long-standing ties with all the three countries got a boost. That time, Modi’s team decided to finalise the lease of two islands—one each in Seychelles and Mauritius—that had been under negotiation for some years. Located in the Western Indian Ocean, these small islands are now being developed with the required infrastructure needed for naval ships transiting through the waters of the western Indian Ocean. This is part of India’s plan to help the Indian Ocean littorals in strengthening their maritime domain awareness capabilities.
During the Modi visit—again a first by an Indian Prime Minister in more than three decades—four agreements, including one on maritime security, were signed.
India and Seychelles also declared that India will be leasing Assumption Island, one of the 115 islands that comprise Seychelles. It is an uninhabited island, near the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. Along with the Suez Canal, the Mozambique Channel is one of the two main routes for shipping between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Naval observers have noted that New Delhi’s plans in the Western Indian Ocean are in response to the increasing Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean and hiring Djibouti as the PLA Navy’s first overseas military base
In Mauritius too, India already has a foothold. Both the security adviser and the head of the Mauritian Navy/Coast Guard have been Indian Naval officers for decades, India had for long resisted basing Indian Military hardware on the Island. That has changed.
India is upgrading airfield and port facilities at North Agalega Island, located some 1000 km northeast of Madagascar, for use by the Indian military. This has long been discussed but never acted upon. Using Agalega as a staging point will substantially help India’s maritime reconnaissance efforts throughout the western Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy is accordingly gearing up for the upcoming strategic competition with the PLA Navy. Several new plans—from speeding up infrastructure building in Andaman and Lakshwadeep islands to acquiring more assets and inducting more personnel—are now taking off
India’s annual joint naval exercise with the United States—Exercise Malabar—is now officially a trilateral one with Japan joining the manoeuvre in the 2017 edition. India’s signing the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) in August 2016, after years of hesitation, was a breakthrough moment in Indo-US military ties. On the discussion table for at least 11 years, the previous government was unwilling to take the plunge for fear of being branded ‘pro-US’, but Prime Minister Modi and his national security team appears to have overcome the hesitation and signalled an unequivocal shift towards a greater defence, especially maritime, cooperation with the United States and its allies.
Part of the reason to go ahead and clinch the LEMOA is also perhaps New Delhi’s way of signalling to Beijing that India is willing to go further than it has gone so far, in maintaining a balance of power in Asia and disallowing China a free run in the geopolitics of the continent. In that context, a tailor-made agreement for India, the diluted LSA, now called the LEMOA, is just the right message to China in the ongoing tussle for influence in Asia. The clarifications notwithstanding, the implementation of LEMOA will be watched keenly by long-time India ally Russia. Moscow has been wary of the increasing India-US bonhomie for the past decade. Consequently, it has made its displeasure clear at being displaced as India’s primary military hardware supplier by the US a number of times. How it will react to the new development will be a matter of interest within the country and to the rest of the world.
The writer is a strategic affairs analyst, author and founder of BhartShakti.in, a specialised defence website