India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Understanding India’s Spheres of Influence

By Japish S. Gill & Ryan Mitra

Executive Summary

India’s position of influence in the Indian Ocean is the primary driver of India’s maritime policy but, the increasing interaction of the IOR with its eastern neighbor, the South China Sea demands relevant considerations for the same. The current geopolitical scenario in the Indo-Pacific at large has the potential for major clashes between Asian and Pacific States-directly or indirectly, and to maneuver around this possibility, India needs to be aware of the detrimental consequences of keeping aligned with its age-old, littoral policy, which have become drastically reactionary in nature considering the far sea capabilities India’s ostensible adversaries have gained. India has enjoyed a long term of maritime influence, and has constituted a versatile naval force that projects power across the region. But India as a defensive realist State, has never looked to approach its projection as hostile or aggressive, it has instead used the capabilities at its disposal to ensure strong ties with other countries, and to leave a diplomatic footprint via the same.

In light, of this it is important to note that India has faced its share of maritime challenges, and has adroitly and sensibly responded to them. From an EEZ dispute with Bangladesh, to practicing the role of a ‘net security provider’ against non-traditional threats, India has served its role in achieving a peaceful neighborhood well. However, the increasing tensions in the Eastern region of the Indo-Pacific are spilling over, and traces of disruptive behavior can be observed in the IOR. The time now is crucial as India enjoys significant influence in the South Asian regional complex, with which it can build upon stronger relations in the South East Asian regional security complex. Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s role as host nations to ports in the passages connecting the IOR and the SCS are of huge strategic value. This is on the basis of sole Indian interests of safeguarding India’s trade routes and SLOCs, from traditional and non-traditional issues alike. Devoid of the current geopolitical scenario, India still should vehemently pursue stronger bilateral relations that are sustainable over the long course of the prevailing peacetime to protect Indian interests on the basis of mutual understanding and goals. The current push towards an Act East Policy needs this evolution to occur in the maritime domain, where India creates a nexus of common goals amongst different nations in South East Asia to exercise its role as net security provider beyond its current sphere of influence. Furthermore, there needs to be a continuation in the shift towards maritime cooperation in terms of refueling, restocking, and berthing permissions in foreign ports.

This paper perceives India’s Spheres of Influence in three different parts-The IOR, the South East Asian Regional Security Complex, and the Indo-Pacific at large. It elaborates on the need for restructuring the role India plays in all these spheres and specific countries it needs to focus on, on a bilateral level, which in itself will strengthen trilateral, and multilateral regimes in the spheres. Furthermore, based on its finding, it presents a three-pronged approach with which India can address multiple issues it is facing or may face in the spheres. A change in style of diplomacy with the aid of legal instruments at its disposal, will help in the required structuring of the relations between States, and furthermore, will academically and policy-wise establish the obligation India is binding itself to. Furthermore, a specific focus on the South East Asian nations, will allow a constellation of strategic points to Indian interests at the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Strait, where India could work extensively on a bilateral basis to increase cooperation and mutual understanding, (for the purposes of this paper) mainly with Indonesia. Indonesia’s recent shift towards upgrading its maritime standing has come at an opportune time, as the current geopolitical scenario in the region vis-à-vis China, presents India as the most suitable country to collaborate with, allowing a significant amount of room for negotiations and converging interests. A simple transactional style of diplomacy in itself could accomplish tremendously, something this paper has partly incorporated along with the a more symbolic and conducive approach to achieving this. Lastly, India’s consideration of a larger Indo-Pacific regime with major players in the region who face similar macroscopic issues like India, and who have vested interests in cooperating with India in order to be a part of the regime rather than be left out of it and face the risk of opposing it. India continues to face a high amount of non-traditional issues such as piracy, and maritime terrorism in the High Seas, and this cooperative institution of multiple parties not only has the potential to address that, but also offers vast room for development and far reaching possibilities; beyond the basis on which it was established on.


The oceans have held the key to international power and control since time-immemorial. And in today’s globalized world, India as a fast-charging revisionist power in the global order has correctly observed the importance of having its littoral areas surrounded by one of the most important maritime strategic regions in the world. India’s immediate access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), has consequently led it to become the most powerful presence in the same. The South Asian nation has achieved this by its versatile naval fleet, and its circumspect attitude towards securing its interests and integrity. Despite the omnipresent atmosphere of contest and conflict in its vicinity, the Asian giant, envisioned a peaceful neighborhood in the South Asia, and therefore its policies have always stemmed from a defensive-realist school of thought; whereby it denounces indulgence in zero sum strategy games, choosing instead to focus on relative over absolute gains, underscoring growth but not at the cost others. Fundamentally, staying aligned with a Waltz-ian ideology, it has prioritized and maximized the element of security, over the element of power.[2]

India has always seen its maritime security as a domain of major concern, therefore of major interest. It continues to implement a strong and durable presence in the IOR, and it views itself as a net security provider for the region.[3] Even though this role has allowed it unbridled access, India continues to take a benign approach whilst interacting with all relevant States in the region. India’s bilateral cooperative ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Seychelles are a testament to the expansive approval of the State’s role in the high seas. But it should be noted, that India’s position in the IOR is not unthreatened or unrivaled. Indian policy makers made an observation of India’s land neighbor China, slowly and strategically encroaching in India’s sphere of influence by establishing strategic positions in India’s neighboring States, and small island nations in the IOR. This was noted as the ‘String of Pearls’, where China is strategically trying to encircle India, with a simultaneous eye towards completing the ‘One Belt One Road’ project.[4]

Looking deeper into the String of Pearls theory, and the imminent need for India to find a response, a simple juxtaposition epitomizes the gravity of the situation. India and China, both face a certain maritime-trade related dilemma respectively. India faces, what the scholars have articulated as, the ‘Hormuz Dilemma.’[5] In which, Chinese naval presence near the strait such as in Gwadar presents a potential threat, the blockade of the SLOCs (and the vital oil that passes through them) by Chinese actors in times of tension. Similarly, China faces a dilemma in the Strait of Malacca, where India’s naval capabilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and now its presence near the Malacca Strait, and Singaporean and Indonesian ports are a constant threat to its oil and gas import.[6] Though a majority of China’s import and export, along with the rest of the world’s, flows through the Malacca Strait, it has been noted, the Lombok Strait, which is south of it, has also been used by China as an alternate route in cases of heavy traffic or high tensions in the northern, and more populous strait.[7] The very virtue of the existence of a route with which China can circumvent the dilemma, if needed, weakens the intended effect of Indian presence in the region, and therefore renders the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ incomplete. Thus, a need for further attention to the South East Asian (SEA) Regional Security Complex (RSC) needs to be given, with due diligence to active and versatile diplomacy with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. The South China Sea dispute has forced a diplomatic deadlock that has raised serious tensions between the regional complex and China, following which India has acknowledged the threat of having a hegemonic power in South China Sea, and the greater threat it poses to the freedom of navigation in those waters.[8] This geopolitical scenario may present an opportunity for India to formulate strong and lasting relationships with SEA nations that can serve larger purposes than the basis on which they were built in the first place.

Inspite of India’s ‘close-to-littoral’ policies of the past, India did realize the importance of far reaching maritime ties with other Indo-Pacific nations, and one nation in particular that India, since independence, has always shared a strong relation with is the Eastern Asian nation, Japan. 

India and Japan continue to enjoy healthy maritime ties underscored by amity and trust with the two nations conducting annual bilateral naval exercise-JIMEX since 2012 and the formal inclusion of Japan into the MALABAR exercise in 2015.[9] Their defence and maritime ties are a direct result of active participation by either countries and the convergence of their strategic interests in the shared sphere of the Indo-Pacific, precisely articulated by PM Shinzo Abe in his statement ‘confluence of the two seas’ in his speech to the Indian parliament.[10] Looking down south, India has taken note of Australia’s increasing relevance to its maritime interests. Bilateral relations between the two didn’t gain much traction up until recently when both sides saw Prime Ministerial visits and in 2012 when both countries concluded multiple MoUs including a substantive Civil Nuclear Deal.[11] Furthermore,  ever since the advent of the Modi government, defence cooperation especially naval collaboration between the two is blossoming as is evident in the launch of the joint bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX in 2015 which has already seen two editions.[12] Additionally it is noteworthy that their participation has progressed beyond the bilateral to a multi-lateral forum as in the upcoming RIMPAC.[13]

Furthermore, the U.S.A. recognising India’s strategic influence and prominence in the increasingly destabilising Indo-Pacific was a huge symbolic victory.[14] On the bilateral level India and U.S. have conducted Malabar exercises annually since 2002 (with Japan being included since 2015).[15] On a multilateral forum the two have participated in RIMPAC exercises in an attempt to increase naval co-operation and connectivity and to enhance naval capabilities in a collaborative fashion.[16] These exercises in addition to building goodwill and co-operation between the two States serve the additional purpose of countering rapid Chinese expansionism in the region. An alliance between the two based on the governing principle of strategic autonomy offers various possibilities including that of a counter force to the China threat in the geopolitical construct of the Indo-pacific.

Evolution of Indian maritime foreign policy is imminent, and India needs to do this in consideration of the larger Indo-Pacific region. India, being a security maximiser, has the opportunity to move past its littoral regions and find greater cooperation with like-minded States in protecting and securing common and self-interests. The authors have articulated the methodologies and the areas of interests that India could adopt in its policies in regards to bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and also to contain the threats presented by rising hegemonic Chinese powers in the South China Sea region. In lieu of this, the paper is divided in two parts:

  • India’s 3 Spheres of Influence: Understanding India’s mature capabilities in its first sphere-its littoral areas, and the IOR, along with two larger spheres that address opportunities of bilateral and multilateral ties with the South-East Asian Regional Complex nations, and major Indo-Pacific States.
  • ‘Trishul’ – India’s three-pronged approach: India’s multidisciplinary approach (legal, bilateral-economic, and multilateral-military and political) towards interaction with all relevant parties in the Indo-Pacific, and subsequently in the IOR and the SCS. This approach is to create a net of cooperation between India and other relevant States to protect its interests from traditional and non-traditional threats by the means of bilateral and multilateral frameworks for operations.

India’s 3 Spheres of Influence (SoI)

India’s prowess in the maritime domain allows it to employ a significant amount of influence over the maritime discourse in the IOR. The key to exercising this prowess is not through forceful display of its capabilities, but through harmonic efforts towards cooperation and co-existence. India accepts every country’s right to use their littoral areas in accordance with international law, and has continually reiterated the importance of protection of freedom of navigation in the high seas.[17] This State practice of diplomacy and soft power in its own region needs to be extended with same vigor and intention to larger spheres in the SEA Regional Complex, and the Indo-Pacific. India’s interaction with countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Seychelles has allowed India to pave benign image for itself, an image of cooperation and understanding. It is set in precedent for India to establish strong diplomatic ties with countries with mutual nexuses of interests, and to use soft power as the primary tool when addressing outstanding issues in its spheres. But in consideration of the larger Indo-Pacific region, which has now been accepted in international relations, and in domestic policies of various nations, India has noted that it cannot continue to implement, solely, the old notion of securing ones borders close to itself, and take a passive stance with regards to relatively distant international issues.[18] India’s area of interest, pertaining to economic trade, and political and military security has extended to far greater realms in this globalized age of interconnectivity. The mass dependence on imports and exports coming from both West and East Asia via sea, have been of great benefit to India, but its abrupt, forceful stoppage may prove to be fatally detrimental to India’s integrity and interests.

Therefore, with an increase in India’s areas of interests, and the growth of the importance of these interests, a change in its current policy seems beneficial whilst ensuring it does not tip the balance of tensions to unmanageable levels. India’s current priorities lie as: the chokepoints in South East Asia-Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok are primary areas of interest, whereas the South China Sea and Western Pacific as secondary.[19] It is not imperative that India reorient these areas of interests, but it is necessary that it strongly consider the importance of the secondary regions to the primary regions, and the interrelation between the two. For strategic purposes, a bifurcation between regions is prudent, but it is imperative to understand the policy implications of addressing developments in these regions as separate, individual areas of interaction-which are solely demarcated on the basis of proximity. Thus, this paper puts forward what it understands as India’s new maritime SOI in the Indo-Pacific age of international relations:


Figure: India’s Spheres of Maritime Influence[20]

First Sphere of Influence: Littoral regions and the IOR

The first sphere of influence extends close to its littoral regions, and a significant part of the IOR. India, since its independence has understood the threats posed to its sovereignty and integrity from the seas, and has actively looked to protect its borders by maximizing its assets, presence, and position in the region. Despite the imminence of conflict in such a closely-knit neighborhood, India’s resolution towards peaceful co-existence and conflict resolution continues to drive its interactions with other States with a bilateral preference and in a fashion amenable to international law. In recent times, India has, on certain occasions, moved past its long held policy of not allowing a third, supranational party to interject or arbitrate in any issues it may face with any other bordering nation. In 2015, India gave jurisdiction to the arbitral tribunal at The Hague, in a long standing issue in regards to its domestic EEZ with Bangladesh.[21] Despite losing the case, and a large proportion of the rewards going in favor of Bangladesh, India maintained its grace, and looked at the larger diplomatic objective it would gain by accepting what scholars called a significant setback to its use of its eastern EEZ.[22] The subsequent effects of the same will be addressed ahead in the paper.

The role of the ‘net security provider’ that India has adopted, with the tacit consent of majority of the States in the IOR, has allowed India to govern a significant amount of the discourse regarding maritime security, and the regional complex at large. In consideration of the fact that over 90% of India’s trade comes through merchant shipping, and the fast encroaching presence of China in the region, India’s need to exercise its influence and power as a soft power State in the region, with the backing of effective hard power has never been more imperative. India’s quick response to humanitarian disasters, piracy issues, evacuating civilians from conflict zones, and securing SLOCS, have displayed its capabilities as the net provider of security.[23] But it is prudent to deliberate on India’s ability as a sole actor in the regional complex to deliver on the symbolic promises of being this net security provider. Across academic literature, the concept of being a net security provider has been mentioned solely on the basis of mutual understanding, and India’s active response to non-traditional issues such as piracy, maritime terrorism, illegal fishing, and in the event of a natural disaster, and not in reference to any actionable event where India acted as a blanket guard for a South Asian nation against a direct foreign national threat or attack. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper the authors have interpreted the role of a ‘net security provider’ on two levels:

  • Grade 1-State driven, traditional issues: Direct conflict by foreign or alien elements in the region of promised security.
  • Grade 2-Non-traditional issues: Non-state actors, piracy, smuggling and trafficking, and HADR.[24]

Owing to the effects of the increase in trade, globalization, and overlapping state interests, the possibility of armed conflict breaking out between major States in the current international political scenario is miniscule. Therefore, a constructive opportunity to truly test and confirm India’s abilities as a Grade 1 net security provider is not readily available. The growing presence of Chinese assets in the Indian Ocean, at this point in time, in no way has posed a genuine and alarming threat to Indian interests and sovereignty. Mahanian thinking where competitive naval diplomacy, and emphasis on sea-control, whilst moving away from long standing State policy and practice is strongly emerging and becoming relevant. China’s increasingly assertive position over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas has been viewed by some as a harbinger of its potential behaviour in the Indian Ocean. China may elevate the protection of sea-lines of communication to a “core interest” (hexin liyi) on par with its security and sovereignty interests of reclaiming “lost territories.” India’s maritime doctrine has been even more explicit, stating that “sea control is the central concept around which the Indian navy is structured.”[25] Abiding by the fundamental principles of the security dilemma theory, India, rightly, cannot overlook Chinese State behavior in recent times, but there is no immediate indication of a drastic, hostile increase in Chinese presence in the IOR. Therefore, the very principle of a net security provider, for the purposes of focused, and streamlined policy and academic discourse, needs to be solidified in literature and, in penned down diplomacy between all relevant States and India. This is to bring about a better understanding for all parties involved to see what obligations India is bound to, and consequently what influence it gets to project.

In light of the politico-security framework that has loosely been established as ‘net security provider’, it befits India’s interests to secure first` a more pragmatic and concrete role in the Indian Ocean-that of a ‘Grade 2 Net Security Provider’. Such a role would entail dealing with non-traditional threats faced by India itself, and all States that constitute the IOR and have a common understanding of said threats. The relevance of such a doctrine is undeniable in that, globalization has brought economic interests of States into the realm of strategic interests. States are beginning to depend more on trade as a strong economy is turning into the primary driver of a state. As other interests begin to pale in comparison and fade into the background, state economic interests have assumed the center stage. Therefore, it would only be judicious of these States to prioritize conservation of these economic interests and to secure the primary lines for their development-trade. Any state that is able to provide security or an assurance for the security of these interests would then achieve a status of high regard and irreplaceable value.

Second Sphere of Influence: South East Asian Regional Complex

India’s Second Sphere of Influence encompasses parts of Indian Ocean territory, various strategic choke points in the SEA regional complex, and even dips into the contentious waters of the SCS. However, the states of primary concern in regards to this paper are: Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. India enjoys cordial relations with the three States already but the authors observe that there remains some room for development and more importantly strategic development, mainly with Indonesia. The authors’ focus on these States is in line with strategic interests of these states as well as India. Furthermore, India’s pre-established amicable relations with these states serve for New Delhi as an entryway through which to access the SEA RSC.

The SEA RSC is riddled with various issues within individual countries, and of international stature both-traditional and non-traditional in nature. Being one of the busiest regions in terms of maritime traffic, it inevitably attracts the attention for political maneuvering and Non-State activity. India saw a total of $66 billion worth of exports via the SCS in the year 2016, and constitutes of 30.6% of all trade that goes to and from the SCS and IOR.[26] These numbers epitomize the increasing importance for India to move past its littorals to protect its growing interests, and adopt a more extensive diplomatic policy of securing strategic points. It is to be noted, that these strategic points are now part of India’s primary area of maritime interest.[27] Considering the on-going attempts of China to defuse tensions with SEA nations on a bilateral level, it is important India take note of these developments and push for a stronger soft-power, cooperative dialogue with the same, in order to not be caught in a cycle of pure reaction to further Chinese control in this vital region. Despite, of this, it is important that India look at such initiatives devoid of a Chinese variable as the sole driver of it, and rather place its own strategic protection at the center of its extended maritime policy. The second sphere offers various avenues of cooperation considering the assets available in the first sphere in Andaman Nicobar Islands, and the diplomatic standings of India vis-à-vis the SEA regional complex. Countries like Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia which are geographically placed around the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Strait hold the key to establishing a safe guard of India’s maritime interests in the region. India cannot extend its net security provider capabilities all the way to this region as a sole operator. By the means of cooperation and agreement, penned down in word, India can lead a bilateral or multilateral security regime against Grade 2 threats, such as piracy which is reaching astronomical levels in the region.[28]

In consideration of Chinese presence in the SCS, and its encroaching behavior in the SEA regional complex, the recent adoption of the term Indo-Pacific in Indian Foreign Policy, shows how the IOR and SCS are being perceived as a single larger region, therefore, forcing restructuring in both national interests and regional complexes. India’s acceptance of the unification, changes the way it perceived the SCS-as a separate tier of international interaction that was secondary to Indian interests. This adoption brings it closer to China in the maritime area, economically, politically and militarily. Therefore, the previously dormant security dilemma in the maritime arena against Chinese presence and obstinacy in the SCS is now a looming issue over the heads of policy makers in India. China itself has recognised the importance of the blurring borders of the IOR and SCS, and in return has already started exercising its dominance in the regions it believes to hold vital strategic importance to its security. The naval exercise conducted by China in 2014 in the Lombok Strait, where it also deployed its largest landing ship, Changbaishan is a significant signal in evolving Chinese State behaviour-where it is looking to diversify and distribute its presence in the region around the three Straits.[29] Furthermore, its bilateral interaction with Indonesia, specifically regarding the Malacca Strait and the Lombok Strait, which connect the two regions, shows Chinese pro-activeness in securing its interests on multiple planes, and also initiate its control over the regional security complex. India’s insecurity with Chinese presence in those straits is not unjustified. The fact that China can circumvent its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ whenever it chooses to through the utilisation of the Lombok and Sunda Straits draws the stress away from said dilemma. Yet, India’s Hormuz Dilemma remains absolute, offering no feasible alternative. A simple look at the discrepant consequences the States face from their respective dilemmas from a defensive-realist lens, makes it abundantly clear that to preserve its own national interest India needs to equalise this dissimilarity. At the same time, it should also be made explicit that such an equalising action, if India were to take one, would not stem from a mind-set of antagonism or aggravation but with a simple motive of maximisation of security by establishing capability but not intention. The economic opportunities offered by Indian presence in the Lombok Strait are elucidated in a later section in this paper.

India needs to move past its littoral based maritime policies, and needs to place strong focus on the gateways to the SCS in Indonesia. Indonesia’s recent declaration of a ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ is a unique, and valuable opportunity to which India should seriously deliberate over and capitalize upon.[30]  The reformation of the security complex in India’s favour needs to be a priority for it, for in the coming future it could hold the key to deterring China from transgressing further into the IOR, that directly threatens Indian interests.

The concept of the ‘Crescent of Cooperation’ (CoC) as posited later in this paper relies heavily on India’s relations with the states in question, and its precedent is based in the urgent need for India to fulfill the gaps in the incomplete ‘Malacca Dilemma’ its East Asian neighbor faces.

The CoC envisions the institution of jointly developed ports at strategic locations along the coastlines of the aforementioned SEA nations to promote trade, interconnectivity, maritime patrolling (against piracy and terrorism) and the dissemination of the principles espoused in UNCLOS 1982. Furthermore, such joint ports in straits such as the Lombok and the Sunda (which offer China the ability to circumvent the Malacca Strait) would offer India the opportunity to foster ‘capability through cooperation’ in the region thereby serving the collective interests of these nations.

Third Sphere of Influence: Larger Indo-Pacific ties

The third sphere of influence spans the waters as far eastward as Guam and as down south as to include the end of the Indian ocean and the Australian coastline as delineated in the map above. Owing to its enormity and distance from India’s littoral regions, it would not be in India’s interests to project dominance in this area. However, it would behoove New Delhi to establish a presence in the region by way of sustaining relationships in the area on Bilateral and Multilateral levels with allies already exercising considerable influence in the region such as- Japan, United States and Australia. To ensure simplicity, the sphere is divided into three sectors- Eastern, Western and Southern. In accordance with the scope of this paper, the western section will not be further stressed upon despite the vital chokepoints in its domain.

With regards to the waters in the eastern sector of the sphere, primary co-operation would have to come from India’s Asian ally to the north, Japan, and the U.S. which already maintains a several bases including Guam and a major fleet presence in the region.[31] Further, Japan- U.S. maritime trade utilizes the SLOCs established in the Pacific Ocean. If an Asian nation with not-so-amicable intentions were to seek to expand its influence beyond its conventional boundaries and sow the seeds of dominance in the Pacific region, this would prove hazardous to the enormous amount of trade conducted between the two long standing allies. The probability of such a threat, provides incentive for these nations to ally with India in overseeing this sector.[32] Towards the furtherance of this objective, the three nations have already conducted numerous naval exercises with the latest edition being based around the U.S. naval base of Guam thereby providing them with collaborative experience in the area of concern.[33]

Shifting attention to the southern sector of the sphere, it is apparent that Australia would prove to be the most suitable ally for the region. India’s budding relationship with the South Pacific nation would therefore be of much interest to both Indian and Australian policymakers. Regionally, the ideal way to go about it would be for the two nations to emphasize on increasing cooperation and building goodwill through established structures such as AUSINDEX (for naval collaboration).[34] The secondary means involve strengthening the trilateral framework already in place between Japan, India and Australia which has so far stressed on “the need for greater collaboration on maritime security and domain awareness and disaster response capabilities”.[35] This statement verifies the congruence of motives of the involved maritime States highlighting the ease with which they would be able to further their cooperation.

A more holistic view of the third sphere of influence demands a larger cooperation primarily centred around (at least in the current scenario) India, Japan, U.S. and Australia. It is fortunate then that a structure that could accomplish the common goals of the Indo-Pacific littoral countries is already in the making.[36] The resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue can prove to be of immense value to these States and their maritime ideals. The Quad, while still in its nascent stage, has set such goals for itself as the development of HADR capabilities, emphasis on freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, and tackling maritime terrorism to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.[37] Establishment of a ‘rules based order’ in this system, would help facilitate the ease of conducting trade and thereby boost economies of the developing nations by alleviating them of the setbacks caused by perils such as maritime piracy, maritime terrorism and A2/AD devices employed by State actors.

‘Trishul’-India's three-pronged approach

India, to achieve its goals in these spheres, and to maximize its influence, needs to adopt a contemporary, evolved strategy that spans across various disciplines and operates on multiple planes and levels. India being a soft power exercising State, would benefit immensely by indulging in reinvigorated diplomacy with all and any relevant parties in the spheres, and also by articulating clearly what is being achieved and agreed upon. The use of legal mechanisms in international law in the form of treaties and MoUs need to be exercised when interacting on a multilateral forum to clearly indicate what India’s role is in the said forum, rather than simply acting on goodwill, and commonplace mutual understanding, over a prolonged period of time. Trishul is a three-pronged mechanism whereby India initiates multiple levels of diplomatic tracks and uses international jurisprudence to its benefit, in achieving the goals as mentioned below. Furthermore, considering the geopolitical scenario in the Indo-Pacific, and more specifically the SEA RSC, a specific bilateral and trilateral initiative with objective and field specific approach needs to inculcated into India’s diplomatic culture and practice. Countries like Indonesia, Japan, USA, and Australia are prominent figures in India’s strategic pursuits in the maritime region.

This paper analyses the method with which India has operated its soft power tools whilst manoeuvring the tricky, and sometimes dubious waters of the SEA regional complex. In light of the recent developments with countries like Singapore, and Indonesia, the authors have taken note of the maritime port developments in the region, particularly around the Malacca Strait. Signing of the Defence Cooperation (DCA) in November 2015, and the Singapore-India defence minister dialogue in 2016, cover several areas including increased maritime cooperation for increased security, joint exercises, mutual logistics support, and temporary deployments in each other’s naval facilities.[38] This sets a strong precedent in India’s policies, ambitions, and diplomatic abilities in achieving bilateral goals, and strategic positions around the passage between IOR and SCS. India’s interaction with ASEAN has been tumultuous due to internal conflict within the regional structure, and due to India’s non-deliverance in countering China’s growth in the Indo-Pacific region so far.[39] India needs to address the constituting States as single units within its diplomatic approach more vigorously, and interact with these States on a fundamentally decentralized and bilateral level. Prime Minister Modi’s consecutive visits to individual ASEAN States is a step in the correct direction,[40] but it is merely a small step in the picture the authors look to articulate about India’s relations with these countries.

A large part of the academic and policy discourse has occurred around China’s ‘String of Pearls’, and about India’s possible avenues of response. The term was coined in 2005 by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, which identified a pattern of Chinese naval presence throughout the IOR.[41] According to Booz Allen Hamilton, China has been establishing a civilian maritime infrastructure along the South China Sea (Hainan, the Paracels and the Spratlys) and in littoral ports along friendly States including Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Kenya and recently Djibouti. Here, India’s response, as the dominant player in the South Asian RSC, has precisely been fostering good relations with SEA States—all surrounding China, that is, re-casting the LEP as AEP.[42] For the purposes of common understanding, the authors interpreted the ‘String of Pearls’ theory, solely from the Chinese security perspective, and have thus formulated, the ‘Crescent of Cooperation’ theory in a similar manner, solely from an Indian security perspective. Furthermore, the unbridled growth of the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific, poses a genuine threat to a lot of States for different reasons which allows there to exist a vast space for cooperation in building a strengthened coalition to rival the East Asian giant’s influence and presence. Larger cooperation on a bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral level with major Indo-Pacific States holds the key to securing the region from traditional and non-traditional menaces. Thus, the paper put forwards what it believes should be India’s three pronged approach in the Indo-Pacific:

The First Prong: Versatile Diplomacy and Use of Legal Instruments

India has achieved various diplomatic victories in regards to achieving its self-set goals in international relations. The current standpoint with Singapore, and Vietnam in South East Asia is a testament to the resurgent attitude of India to actively pursue strengthened relations with countries with whom mutual progress and security can be achieved. The South Asian nation is seen as a benign operator of the seas; whose philosophy stems strongly from a defensive-realist school of thought. This philosophy has strongly engulfed and has been a principle driver of all major platforms and tenants of Indian Foreign Policy, including its maritime policy. India at no point in time has looked to gain relative power or security at the cost of other States, and has respected the rights and sovereignty of all other States in times of peace. Consequently, India in itself, has expected States to treat it in a similar manner, and respect its rights, views, and also its reservations in the discourse of international affairs. The outstanding reservations to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of India in regards to movement of foreign national warships in its EEZ and territorial areas without a notification continues to be an area of dispute between the West and itself.[43] But India’s approach and State behaviour in itself shows how in practice it has operated in a bonafide manner to ensure the larger sanctity of the UNCLOS, and principles of freedom of navigation are intact and sterile. India’s unprecedented behaviour in giving the Tribunal at The Hague jurisdiction over an EEZ dispute with Bangladesh, and graciously accepting the decisions being given against it, which almost tripled the size of the EEZ of the opposing party is a stark example of India’s growing sensibility in the legal-maritime domain in the region, and it giving credence to a rule-based structure in the same.[44] Despite losing a large chunk of its EEZ to Bangladesh, the South Asian giant willingly, of its own volition accepted the decision of the international body, and used the rewards as a medium to establish stronger diplomatic ties with its eastern neighbour. The Ministry of External Affairs of India, pursuant to the decision, stated:

“Arbitration Tribunal for Delimitation of Maritime Boundary between Bangladesh and India, established under Annex VII of the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), rendered its award on July 7, 2014. We respect the verdict of the Tribunal and are in the process of studying the award and its full implications. We believe that the settlement of the maritime boundary will further enhance mutual understanding and goodwill between India and Bangladesh by bringing to closure a long pending issue. is paves the way for the economic development of this part of the Bay of Bengal, which will be beneficial to both countries.”[45]

A strong, unilateral display in support of a rules based structure in the maritime domain alleviates the encumbrance on India’s need to build confidence amongst relevant States and an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. Considering that the Indo-Pacific region is rapidly turning into a game of cross-diplomacy; where shifting alliances are visible, efficiency in soft power diplomacy and benign projection of power is very essential. The India-Bangladesh case provides a stark juxtaposition to the Philippines-China case. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in regards to the territorial dispute between the SEA nation, and China. China being a party to the UNCLOS was well aware of Article 9 of UNCLOS Annex VII, which clearly States: the absence of a party, or its failure to defend its case, does not bar the proceedings in anyway.[46] In lieu of this, China could have been a part of diplomatic and legal proceedings in regards to the issue, as India was in its case. And its reluctance to be a part of this dialogue, or even be present at the table, epitomises its obdurate modus operandi when facing an international dispute.[47] Chinese means of sending a message to relevant parties, and the international community at large is increasingly becoming by not participating in diplomacy altogether, at its own discretion. Its continuous attempts to thwart the efforts of the tribunal, and crying foul when the ruling of the same was against it, shows the obtusely uncooperative nature of the East Asian nation. Despite being aware of the mandate of the tribunal, and of being given the opportunity to participate to have its case heard in a legitimate forum, it chose to flood television and media channels with propaganda about the illegitimacy of the tribunal, the alleged corruption by Manilla; handpicking the judges who would rule against China, and the US’ role in the issue; of instigating Philippines to initiate the case in the first place.[48] Chinese misplaced steadfastness is both disconcerting, and concerning as the issue of the SCS continues to elongate itself, diplomatic channels may soon start to sour, forcing more coercive measures from parties within the issue. India being a proponent of soft power, will and needs to push the pedal on diplomatic measures, and implore China, to allow International law to have its day in the sun. No other country appreciates the nest security dilemma of the SCS and consequently that in the IOR than India, and therefore is well aware of the importance of equanimous diplomacy with China, and of finding a single track of dialogue that may break the deadlock. But a certain measure of force; indirect in nature, needs to be present, to help validate the soft power efforts of India.

These indirect measures should in no way be projected as hostile powers against China, and overthrow the balance of tensions between the two countries, but considering the inherent Chinese opposition to liberal maritime order it is in India’s interest to pursue strategic cooperation with SEA nations to secure its own assets and trade that flows to and from the SCS. India’s role in the IOR and the SCS is already seen as benign, but it also quite unstructured and heavily deals in the current status-quo of peace time. As earlier stated, the possibility for direct conflict between two nations in this day and age is miniscule, but raising of tensions and uneasiness has become a chronic phenomenon in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s role of a ‘net security provider’ needs to be stressed upon more, and a conducive deliberation must ensue to articulate what exactly entails this responsibility. Furthermore, analysing the current drivers of international maritime security, States are more at risk of facing non-traditional issues such as piracy and maritime terrorism, and therefore the role of a Grade 2 net security provider, considering India’s capabilities and reach in the IOR, and now, the SEA RSC is a feasible avenue for bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The following years are crucial to India’s maritime policy, as the region is rapidly evolving, and India’s policy needs to too. A strengthened diplomatic force, with a penning down attitude to understand and accepting its responsibilities in the region will work strongly to the benefit of the country, and create a sounder and safer environment for all countries within the purview of the net. India’s role as a net security provider has only been tested in certain avenues, and that may soon change. Therefore, it is in its best interests to structure the role of all nations, and the obligations it is taking up on itself, with a clear mandate and framework of operations and gains. India should also heavily invest in its budding relationships with Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam.[49] The proximity of these countries to the Malacca and Lombok Strait is invaluable to India’s economic and strategic interests. India’s recent interactions with Singapore and Vietnam have borne beneficial outcomes where India’s presence in the passage is increasingly being solidified, albeit only diplomatically and symbolically. An increase in footprint; exchange of naval ships with ports in these regions will bolster the relations between India and these countries and will pave the path for further strategic cooperation in peace time, and bring credence to India’s image of being a responsible maritime force, and an able security provider.

The Second Prong: 'The Crescent of Cooperation’


The ‘Crescent of Cooperation’ is an original thesis by the authors on the strategic methodology India can assimilate in its ongoing effort in creating a more durable diplomatic base with SEA nations. The thesis derives its name from the crescent like shape of the constellation of strategic points that is seen across three different countries, and three different straits. Considering the current relations of India with the countries through which the crescent passes, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore are of special interest.[50] The CoC is for the purpose of strategically safeguarding India’s trade interest coming to and from the SCS from traditional and non-traditional issues it may face. Right from the offset, it is important for policy makers to understand the correct nature of the CoC, and make it clear in execution of the non-hostile intent behind the same. The authors do not give credence to the ‘String of Pearls’ theory, where China is strategically surrounding India with a hostile intent, and to gain at the cost of the South Asian nation.[51] By the simple application of security dilemma sensibility, and the current nature of the Chinese strategic points in the IOR, it can be seen that they pose no credible threat to India’s integrity or sovereignty, and furthermore, are most likely in place for the protection of Chinese trade coming through the region. There are two lessons to be learnt here. The first being that the Chinese in themselves seem to be operating in a misconstrued, obdurate form of defensive realism in the IOR vis-à-vis India, something India can replicate in the SEA regional complex in a better and bonafide fashion. Second, the Chinese have failed to verify or deny the theory in the first place, leaving a deep sense of ambiguity and anguish amongst States who are predominantly alerted by Chinese activity beyond their littoral areas. This vacuum of information has led to a uniformed interpretation on State behaviour in academic and policy circles which has consequently accentuated the narrative around the threat. India’s current diplomatic standing amongst the SEA nations, and its benign approach towards exhibiting its maritime influence needs to be exercised in clearly establishing the narrative around its growing presence in region, mainly with the three countries earlier state. The paper has extensively stated the need for bilateral relations to be focused on, over multilateral regimes in the maritime domain, and for the same purposes, this paper shall focus on Indonesia. After a thorough consideration of the current standing between India and the countries in subject, Indonesia holds vital importance to what the authors deem as India’s strategic goals, and also displays the largest room for improvement, progress, and negotiations.

The three Straits-Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda act as sole passages between SCS and IOR, and all of these flow throw Indonesia thereby highlighting the strategic importance of the archipelagic State to India’s security concerns. It is to be noted here that, India’s defensive realist policy mind set will orient it to only focus on safeguarding its trade assets and interests entirely, devoid of the kind of threat presented to it; traditionally State driven, or non-traditionally in the form of piracy and maritime terrorism. India’s need to establish stronger maritime relations with Indonesia is vital for it to complete the CoC, as naval presence in the Malacca strait via Singapore and Vietnam is already in progress.[52]

Vietnam and India share what has been dubbed as a ‘Comprehensive and Strategic Relationship’.[53] Indo-Vietnamese ties have conflated economic and strategic interests as is evident in the ONGC Videsh deal between the two countries for oil exploration for which Vietnam designated Block 128, an area that falls well within both its EEZ and China’s Nine Dash line claim.[54] Scholars could claim that the location of the block is both strategic and convenient in that, it serves as an act of defiance against attempted Chinese hegemony in the region, besides the strategic implications of the location aren’t lost on anybody with an ONGC official going on to state that “interest in the block was strategic rather than commercial, given that oil development there was seen as high-risk with only moderate potential.”[55] An Indian presence in Vietnamese waters would then be of both economic and strategic benefit, serving as the crown at the head of the crescent.

India and Singapore relations are perhaps the healthiest among the three, the two enjoy a robust ‘Strategic Partnership’.[56] The two states also observe extensive bilateral naval cooperation the collaborative ability of which is only accentuated by this statement by Singaporean Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen in-"I would respond categorically - not only would we be more comfortable; we would encourage the Indian Navy to visit Changi Naval base more often".[57] Singapore’s advanced ports provide harbour to the countless ships that pass through the Malacca Strait and its involvement in the CoC would help boost the economic aspect of the cooperative endeavour.

The authors earlier mentioned the present importance of Indonesia in the SEA RSC, and the CoC. In lieu of this importance, India’s bilateral focus on the archipelagic nation needs to be extensive and thorough. Indonesian President Joko Widodo made what he calls the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (GMF) a point of primary emphasis in his campaign, then formally launched it in Indonesia’s Sea Policy presidential regulation in 2017.[58] If one were to take a look at its primary areas of focus, they would include- maritime infrastructure and connectivity, protection of maritime resources, maritime diplomacy, and maritime defence, the popularity and relevance of this policy is then apparent.[59] Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world yet it bases much of its security on a land army, the logical discrepancy in this is unmissable. Indonesia also suffers from poor interconnectivity between its islands which has further led to an economic inequity between these islands with the western Indonesia being more developed than its eastern counterparts, this is further accentuated by the underdeveloped port infrastructure in the State with a shipment from Padang to Jakarta costing more than 3 times the cost it takes to ship the same from Jakarta to Singapore.[60] Factors such as these have sucked away from the development of Indonesia’s economy and strategic policies. With this in light, a policy such as the GMF is crucial for the SEA State and India’s contributions would be appreciated. India then in good faith and with the intention of a friendly favour, with an eye towards its own strategic interests as well could help in the development of a maritime port around the Lombok Strait. Such an approach can be traced to previous Indian policy as established in Chabahar port, in Iran, where it provided logistical, and capital support.[61] And in the bilaterally beneficial relationship India has developed with Singapore in the Changi naval base whereby, the Indian navy has been provided with restocking and refuelling provisions.[62] Furthermore, the recent $100 million line of credit India has offered to Seychelles to boost the latter’s military infrastructure also acts as a strong precedent for cooperating with strategically valuable States.[63] The Seychelles president, despite of facing domestic tensions has, stated that the country will be looking to work with India on the Assumption Islands “bearing each other’s interests in mind.”[64] Though India’s approach towards Indonesia wouldn’t necessarily conform to these same models, an incentive for India would be a provision for berthing rights, restocking and refuelling capabilities and possibly even preferential treatment for Indian ships traversing the area. Furthermore, in light of the congruent security interests of the two states in the region, establishment of procedures for intelligence sharing, and a boost in collaborative maritime patrolling would benefit both states.

Focusing on the development of the shared port in the Lombok, India’s role would include providing Indonesia with aid in infrastructure development, and possibly technological equipment and infrastructure when necessary along with a mutual involvement of engineers from both states and the technological expertise they bring with them. Such a relationship would be of great benefit to Indonesia -

  1. Employing the local workforce would help provide jobs to numerous skilled and unskilled Indonesian citizens.
  2. Lombok strait lies geographically in the centre of the SEA State. Development of a high tech port there would promote connectivity within the State establishing closer ties within the disparate regions of the state. The port would also provide as an excellent host for joint patrolling exercises such as the ones the two already engage in.
  3. A high tech port could invite high foreign direct investment and private investment from players such as Adani (which previously contributed to the Chabahar port).[65] The rapid inflow of capital into the State could boost the developing economy of Indonesia.
  4. The developed port would offer itself as a lucrative option for ships crossing over from the Indian Ocean as the Lombok is a wider and deeper strait than the Malacca.[66] This would also help alleviate some of the heavy traffic that passes through the Malacca Strait.
  5. Berthing rights for the Indian navy would ensure that it would be ready to assist the Indonesian navy if it were to ever need assistance in tackling piracy and maritime terrorism in the region.
  6. Development of a port in the region could lead to ‘collateral development’ in the region surrounding it which would attract tourism and the massive trade revenue associated with it.

Such bilateral interaction between India and Indonesia is bound to get international attention and reactions. States exercise restraint, but degrees of this restraint differ internally vis-a-vis the past and precedent, and the interpretation of this restraint by other States, may differ from the intended purpose.[67] This interpretation often is the driver of the security dilemma. Applying basic security dilemma sensibility, should show is how China which in itself is in a state of paranoia due to alien presence of the United States in SCS, will strongly react to the crescent, especially the ports in Indonesia. In order, to control this reaction, India needs to show and prove that the crescent is being established to serve a greater purpose and is not just a strategy for the furtherance of its defence objectives. The Crescent should exist devoid of Chinese transgressions, and shall serve a multidisciplinary purpose of securing Indian and regional trade, tackle non-traditional issues, and ensure smooth economic flow through the Indo-Pacific.

Third Prong: India’s role in the wider Indo-Pacific

The following will deal with India’s role in what has previously been established as its ‘Third Sphere of Influence’. The third sphere remains a predominantly maritime domain, encompassing large expanses of water. Therefore, an increased emphasis on India’s maritime strategy is only appropriate. In accordance with the sections established previously in this paper, India’s maritime strategy in this sphere will also be analysed in a similar fashion. Beginning with the Eastern section, the States of note there would be -United States and Japan. Indian maritime strategy in this section would then require employment and utilisation of Bilateral and Trilateral relationships with said States. Indo-Japan relations have since the time of formal establishment enjoyed active involvement from both parties with both maintaining a healthy respect for each other. This relationship has only grown in recent times especially with Japan establishing tremendous goodwill with New Delhi by playing a critical role in ensuring India’s role as a founding member of the East Asian Summit 2005.[68] This helped establish acceptance of India in the SEA Region. Furthermore, Indo-Japanese bilateral defence relationship has also seen institutionalisation of annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue, the National Security Advisers' dialogue, the “2+2” Dialogue and a Defence Policy Dialogue representing deeper commitment of the two States towards inculcating and developing defence policies that stress upon the accomplishment of joint interests in the Indo-Pacific.[69]

The Indo-US bilateral relationship has despite its previous pitfalls developed into one based on mutual recognition of respect and even utility. The U.S. already maintains a prevalent presence in the Indo-Pacific with its 7th fleet being based in Japan.[70] It also conducts despite Chinese condemnation numerous FONOPs in the region to highlight the importance of sustaining a culture based in Freedom of Navigation in the area.[71] Following this, the U.S. has underscored the importance of India playing an “increasingly weighty role in the region”.[72] India on its part believes in the importance of a rules based order in the Indo-pacific so often championed by the U.S. and such a congruence of interests has resulted in the two States coming closer to each other. India too has been a vocal advocate of FON/FOO and the principles espoused in UNCLOS 1984 as these serve its economic interests and conveys a clear message to state actors in the region who seek to disbalance the status quo in their favour.[73]

It is however important to note that the development of Indian maritime strategy in this sphere, solely through bilateral relationships would be folly. While it serves Indian interests to further develop bilateral relationships with the two States, individually, they would serve a far higher utility if they were used as an immovable bedrock upon which trilateral co-operation between the three could be built. Japan’s assistance and traditionally strong relationships with both States has made it inextricable from any collaboration within these States therefore, while bilateral relationships play a vital role, it is key for policy analysts to develop maritime strategy and plan its implementation with a specific focus on the Trilateral Relationship among these States. The India-Japan-U.S. Trilateral Meetings with their focus on enhancing “cooperation in the areas of connectivity and infrastructure development; counter-proliferation; counter-terrorism; maritime security, maritime domain awareness and HADR” are definitely a step in the right direction.[74] The goals emphasized by the States in their joint statement fall smoothly in place with the prescription of India’s development as a ‘Grade 2 security provider’ stressed upon by the authors previously. This also serves the purpose of widening India’s influence in a benign yet untamed fashion in that, its presence there would ensure quicker HADR responses and maritime security while at the same time would be aggressive towards neutralising the perils of maritime piracy and terrorism in both an independent and collaborative fashion so that the collective interest of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is maintained.[75] The Malabar exercise conducted in these waters has thus proved to be of immeasurable utility in providing the Indian Navy with valuable experience and emphasized interoperability among the States. [76]

In the Southern sector, Australia stands out as the prominent actor and likely ally. Australia, like India features an extensive coastline on the Indian Ocean which align much of its national security interests with its maritime interests. Traditionally however, it hasn’t had to put much weight on its defence sector, this was due to the ‘hub and spokes’ policy followed by the U.S. and Australia’s dependence on it.[77] The surprising election of Trump and his unique form of transactional diplomacy, combined with his insistence on maintain independent U.S. interests has left its spokes unsure as to how much they can depend on their biggest ally. This has prompted Australia to focus on developing independent capabilities to be able to deal with a potential threat in the future. Further, reports on increasing Chinese influence in Australian politics has caused some unease in the Australian political environment.[78] Australia’s shift in policy can be seen in its 2017 Defence White Paper where it subtly hints at China- “...newly powerful countries want greater influence and to challenge some of the rules in the global architecture established some 70 years ago.”[79] It then further goes on to say- “While it is natural for newly powerful countries to seek greater influence, they also have a responsibility to act in a way that constructively contributes to global stability, security and prosperity. However, some countries and Non-State actors have sought to challenge the rules that govern actions in the global commons of the high seas, cyberspace and space in unhelpful ways, leading to uncertainty and tension.”[80] Statements such as these make apparent Australia’s stance on rising powers with revisionist tendencies and Australia’s inclination towards maintaining the status quo.

Australia’s recent change in defence outlook has seen it alter its policy towards India. Ever since the formalisation of ties as a ‘Strategic Partnership’ both States have started moving towards each other.[81] Australia now considers India a key economic and strategic partner with whom it has “common interests in upholding international law, especially in relation to freedom of navigation and maritime security”.[82] In lieu of the Indian ocean hosting a large chunk of maritime trade and the two States’ reliance on it, the two States have placed emphasis on increasing maritime cooperation an example of which would be the joint bilateral navy exercise-AUSINDEX.[83] The exercises result in greater interoperability, capacity building and familiarity. Indo-Australian relationship has another facet, that is the India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue. The liberal economic policies followed by these States have ensured that most of their interests converge thus espousing cooperation within the States. The Trilateral stresses on the need for “greater collaboration on maritime security, domain awareness and disaster response capabilities” and spoke of the need for development of counterterrorism capabilities.[84]

The bilateral relationships spoken of till now along with the trilateral dialogues in place- India-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Dialogue and India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue are only pegs on which stands the bigger platform of a multifaceted initiative of a quadrilateral design. In all the Trilateral dialogues and bilateral relationships mentioned, the stress that each of these place is on the development of cooperative capabilities in maritime security, HADR and other similar goals towards the establishment of a ‘rules based order’ and promoting democratic ideals in the region is undeniable and unmissable. This only goes towards reinforcing these ‘pegs’ and the unmistakable congruence of interests within these States which would cement the security framework established between these collective States. A gestalt perception of the third sphere of influence warrants a collective response capability. Therefore, the resurrection of the ‘Quad’ is most fortunate. First formulated by PM Shinzo Abe in 2007 as a Quadrilateral Security Initiative, the Quad was a collective of like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific that wished to inculcate and promulgate a culture of peace in the Indo-Pacific with the end goal of maintaining a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. The quad also came with the implication of regulating China’s unchecked rise in the region. Though it only ever saw an informal meeting along the side-lines of ASEAN and a joint military exercise between the nations, China soon reacted by issuing demarches to the parties involved. Now cautioned and fearful, the States took a step back with the Kevin Rudd led Australian government unanimously pulling out of the security framework in 2008.[85] That marked the end of the Quad. Until a decade after it first started, the 4 States met in Manila in 2017 and issued independent statements all largely based around the indoctrination of a ‘rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific.[86]

But will the Quad last this time or will it buckle under Chinese pressure again? What is markedly different now is the resolve of the participant States in that what was earlier the China’s closest friend- Australia is now wary of growing Chinese presence both within and without its domestic borders. Furthermore, Chinese actions with regards to the South China Sea such as territorial acquisition and the flagrant disregard of the Permanent Court of Arbitration award since then have completely gone in the face of the values championed by these States. But, though it may be reborn the Quad still lacks energy, invigoration and even direction. Developments seem to be moving at snail’s pace.

All States deem it necessary to endorse and inspire the principles of UNCLOS 1982 especially with regards to FOO/FON, and also to instil respect for international law in the Indo-Pacific region but these principles are already in place within the region and numerous nations’ commitment towards it has even been formally documented.[87] Despite this, there are those who comply with these norms only when convenient or when in their interest. It would then be imperative for the Quad to take a firm and bold stand against any actions that violate these norms and it would be in their interest to dissuade state actors who seek to violate said norms. That being said, when addressing the issue of China, it would not behove the Quad to directly admonish the Chinese beyond simple condemnation or take collective action against it under the aegis of the Quad as this:

  1. Would distract from the good the Quad is capable of doing in the region
  2. Could lead to an unwarranted escalation in the relations between these States which would have highly detrimental effects for all the parties involved. Additionally, Collective action should not be a policy decision taken by the Quad in the short run as the Quad is still at a nascent and volatile stage.

Any strategic action taken in response to Chinese acts of aggression should come through either bilateral action or through policies endorsed by the UN. Such as the conduction of independent FONOPs in the Indo-Pacific already being taken place by the U.S. and by strengthening interoperability through naval exercises such as Malabar, JIMEX and AUSINDEX within the confines of bilateral and trilateral frameworks. Also, strategic policy planning in this regard should be conducted through the established Trilateral and Bilateral relationships established within India, U.S., Japan and Australia as their nature would avoid or diminish perception of large scale aggression and antagonism therefore maintaining Chinese response at a decreased level.

With this in mind. India’s maritime strategy in the third sphere should be looked at through the lens of the Quad. The first step would involve increased cooperation and collaborative exercises to promote HADR response capabilities. The Indo-Pacific is prone to natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, such disasters can and do have catastrophic effects on the nations in the Indo-Pacific. An effective HADR mechanism if set in place would go a long way towards diminishing the after effects of these events. Additionally, considering that the Quad has its roots in the joint relief the States provided after the 2004 tsunami, this would help establish the credibility of the Quad as not an ‘Asian NATO’.[88] However, the participant States will have to arrive on a consensus on whether the 1994 Oslo guidelines will be followed, with an additional discussion on their stand on R2P to avoid build-up of tensions later. All the participant states in the Quad except India support and have supported the policy of R2P, India on the other hand has continued to press emphasis on the prevention aspect of R2P and the victim state’s explicit request being the only legitimate procedure.[89] While the west allied nations may consider R2P as a fundamental and legitimate part of HADR, the general perception in Asia has usually succinctly characterised the practice as intervention. The 1994 Oslo guidelines on “The Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief” state that “Humanitarian assistance must be provided with the core principles of Humanity, Impartiality and Neutrality (Para 20) and must also fully respect the sovereignty of states (Para 21).”[90] The component of sovereignty emphasized in para 21 has proven to be the bone of contention as those following Westphalian idea of sovereignty put emphasis on its inviolability, post-cold war ideologists may argue on the importance of R2P and its inherent humanitarian soul. Although the authors do not prescribe any certain policy, they do stress upon the need for the participant States to resolve this issue.

A second area of focus should be interconnectivity. Most States present in the Indo-Pacific have scattered islands that fall under their purview, better interconnectivity would aid proportionate development of the various regions and better trade. Providing capital and infrastructure development in these regions would help in the furtherance of this objective. Also, better interconnectivity would mean that States would be better able to exercise sovereignty over their islands and avoid the usurpation thereof along with better control over non-state entities who may incite violence in the form of terrorism.

Maritime security especially with regards to checking maritime piracy and terrorism needs to be kept high on the list of priorities of the Quad as well. The Indo-Pacific with its large trade interaction suffers from numerous bottlenecks in the form of straits. These critical chokepoints can easily be manipulated by state and non-state actors to cause harm to the trade passing through the Indo-Pacific. Poor policing of the SLOCs in the Indo-Pacific domain invites jeopardy and injury to the trade and the tradesmen traversing the region. If the participant nations in the quad could debate and decide upon the feasible logistics of such an endeavour perhaps by inviting participation and support by the States present in the Indo-Pacific, such events can be brought down to a minimum and the detrimental nature of them can be diluted. With a mind towards these objectives and the application thereof the Quad can progress into the future with coherence and precision.


The importance of the IOR, the SCS, and the Indo-Pacific at large is immense to the subject of international relations. The geopolitical scenarios that are rapidly developing in the region are defining State behavior for the coming quarter of the 21st century. The immeasurable dependence on trade, energy imports, and economic relations with foreign economies is forcing a shift in outlook towards the kinds of risks and threats States are facing in the high seas. India, as a principal State in the IOR is on the brink of seeing the region evolve into a form it has never witnessed before, and to ensure it continues to keep the influence it has enjoyed since independence in the previous century, it needs to help its policies to evolve with the changing tides and time. The littoral oriented policies of the past were responsible and correct in a time where maritime prowess of any State apart from a handful were extended beyond their littorals. But in recent times, and in light of developments in this century, power projections in the maritime domain have shown far sea capabilities by countries like China, a country that India has always faced an aggressive security dilemma with. The roles the South Asian giant has adopted for itself need to be more streamlined, and structured for its own benefit, and enable itself to project its image in a benign manner in the correct realms of the maritime domain. India’s capabilities as an adroit naval State is in no way to be underestimated, but it is important for the policy makers in Delhi to understand the far reaching possibilities that would open up with penning down diplomacy and multiform cooperation with South East Asian nations, and larger nations in the Indo-Pacific. This would involve penetrating and being accepted into the South East Asian Regional Security Complex, a strategically compound and intricate strategy to say the very least but India’s reputation as a security maximizer will work to its credit here. The institution of the Crescent of Cooperation would be a vital step in this direction and an essential part of said step would be precise strategic growth between the two NAM veterans. The Crescent would also serve as a principal agent towards maturing Indian Naval capabilities beyond its immediately proximal zones. The expansive waters of the distant Indo-Pacific would require the Indian cooperation and collaboration with Japan, Australia and the U.S. Utilization of the Quad to serve the collective interests of the Indo-Pacific states with a focus on tackling non-traditional issues should remain the primary objective in this maritime domain. This would in effect be an expansion of the prescribed locus of India as a ‘Grade 2 Net Security Provider’ (in its proximal regions) to farther maritime horizons. 

India’s relations with States like Indonesia, United States of America, Japan, and Australia in the near future is crucial in ensuring its strategic goals, and securing the right position in the Indo-Pacific region. Indian maritime strategy requires adaptation to a more liberal and inclusive approach when dealing with foreign nations. Therefore, strategic freethinking and maneuverability when dealing with the multiple planes of issues that present themselves on the high seas, in conjunction with collective action with these nations, rather than solely off of one’s own capability needs to be the new avatar of India’s larger maritime policy-beyond its littoral areas.


Japish S. Gill and Ryan Mitra are undergraduate students, majoring in international relations at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University-School of Liberal Studies in 2018-19. The former is in his fourth and ultimate year, and the latter is in his penultimate.


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[8] Ulises Granados, India’s Approaches to the South China Sea: Priorities and Balances, Asia and Pacific Policy Center, Vol. 5, No. 1 (December 2017), p.128.

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[10] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan, Confluence of the Two Seas, Regional Affairs (Accessed on 12 June 2018).

[11] Ministry of External Affairs of India, India-Australia Relations, Foreign Relations, (Accessed on 12 June 2018).

[12] Franz-Stefan Grady, “Indian Warships arrive in Australia for Military Exercise,” The Diplomat, 13 June 2017, (Accessed on 14 June 2018).

[13] Manu Pubby. “Quad will sail together across Pacific in largest military drill,” The Economic Times, 10 June 2018, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).

[14] Department of Atomic energy of India, “Progress in INDO-US Nuclear Deal,” Press Information Bureau of the Government of India, 20 July 2017, (Accessed on 21 June 2018).

[15] Franz-Stefan Grady, “India, US, and Japan conclude ‘Malabar’ Military Exercise,” The Diplomat,19 June 2018, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).

[16] Manu Pubby. “Quad will sail together across Pacific in largest military drill,” The Economic Times, 10 June 2018, (Accessed on 15 June 2018).

[17] Iskander Rehman, India, China, and differing conceptions of the maritime order, Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, June 2017, p.18.

[18] Nandini Jawli, South China Sea and India’s Geopolitical Interests, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 1/2 (June-December 2016), p.90.

[19] Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, Naval Strategic Publication, NSP 1.2 (October 2015), p.32.

[20] Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, Naval Strategic Publication, NSP 1.2 (October 2015), p.18.

[21] Iskander Rehman, India, China, and differing conceptions of the maritime order, Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, June 2017, p.11.

[22] Ibid, p.14.

[23] Harsh V. Pant, India in the Indian Ocean: Growing mismatch between ambition and capabilities, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Summer 2009), p.291.

[24] Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, Naval Strategic Publication, NSP 1.2 (October 2015), p.37.

[25] Chietigj Bajpaee, China-India Regional Dimensions of the Bilateral Relationship, Strategic Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4 (WINTER 2015), p.122.

[26] China Power Team, “How much trade transits through South China Sea?” China Power, 2 August 2017, (Accessed on 21 June 2018)

[27] Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, Naval Strategic Publication, NSP 1.2 (October 2015), p.32

[28] Lim Min Zhang, “More piracy, robbery cases in Malacca and Singapore straits in 2017, as in rest of Asia,” The Straits Times, 16 January 2018, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).

[29] Darshana M. Baruah, “The Small Islands Holding the Key to the Indian Ocean,” The Diplomat, 24 February 2015, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).

[30] Dhiana Puspitawati, Urgent need for national maritime security arrangement in Indonesia: Towards Global Maritime Fulcrum, Indonesian Journal of International Law (2017), Vol. 14, No. 3, p.324.

[31] Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erikson, “Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance,” The Diplomat, 2 May 2014, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[32] Iskander Rehman, India, China, and differing conceptions of the maritime order, Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, June 2017, p.19.

[33] Franz-Stefan Grady, “India, US, and Japan conclude ‘Malabar’ Military Exercise,” The Diplomat,19 June 2018, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[34] Ministry of Defence of India, “Eastern Fleet Ships enter Freemantle to participate in AUSINDEX-17, a bilateral maritime exercise with Australian Navy,” Press Information Bureau of India, 13 June 2017, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[35] Ministry of External Affairs of India, “4th India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue,” Media Center, 13 December 2017, (Accessed on).

[36] Ankit Panda, “US, Japan, India and Australia Hold Working-Level Quadrilateral Meeting on Regional,” The Diplomat, 13 November 2017, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[37] Ibid.

[38] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Why the new India-Singapore Naval Pact Matters,” The Diplomat (India), 30 November 2017, (Accessed on 15 June 2018).

[39] Suyash Desai, “Revisiting ASEAN-India Relations,” The Diplomat (India), 18 November 2017, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Benjamin David Baker, “Where is the ‘String of Pearls’ in 2015?” The Diplomat (India), 5 October 2015, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).

[42] Ulises Granados, India’s Approaches to the South China Sea: Priorities and Balances, Asia and Pacific Policy Center, Vol. 5, No. 1 (December 2017), p.130.

[43] Iskander Rehman, India, China, and differing conceptions of the maritime order, Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, June 2017, p.4.

[44] Ibid, p.14.

[45] Ministry of External Affairs, “Official Spokesperson’s response to a question on the award of the Tribunal on the Maritime Boundary Arbitration between India and Bangladesh,” Media Center, 8 July 2014, (Accessed on 20 June 2018)

[46] Convention of the Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397, Annex VII, Article 9.

[47] Shannon Tiezzi, “Why China Won’t Accept International Arbitration in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 9 December 2014, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).   

[48] Iskander Rehman, India, China, and differing conceptions of the maritime order, Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, June 2017, p.17.

[49] Prashanth Parameswaran, “India-Vietnam Defense Relations in the Spotlight with Bilateral Visit,” The Diplomat, 18 June 2018, (Accessed on). Also: Prashanth Parameswaran, “Why the new India-Singapore Naval Pact Matters,” The Diplomat (India), 30 November 2017, (Accessed on 21 June 2018).

[50] David Brewster, The Relationship between India and Indonesia, Asian Survey, Vol. 51, No. 2 (March/April 2011), p.224. Also: Indian Navy, ‘Visit of Indian Warships to Camp Ranh Bay, Vietnam,’ 30 May 2016, (Accessed on), Indian Navy, ‘Indian Naval Ship & Aircraft Arrive at Belawan, Indonesia,’ 3rd IND-INDO CORPAT, 6 June 2018, (Accessed on), and Indian Navy, ‘SIMBEX 15 – India-Singapore Navy Bilateral Exercise,’ 23 May 2015, (Accessed on 21 June 2018).

[51] Robert D Kaplan, Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean, Foreign Affairs, Vol.88, No.2 (March/April 2009), p.22.

[52] Prashanth Parameswaran, “India-Vietnam Defense Relations in the Spotlight with Bilateral Visit,” The Diplomat, 18 June 2018, (Accessed on). Also: Prashanth Parameswaran, “Why the new India-Singapore Naval Pact Matters,” The Diplomat (India), 30 November 2017, (Accessed on 21 June 2018).

[53] Ministry of External Affairs of India, ‘India-Vietnam Relations,’ September 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[54] Mai Nguyen, Nidhi Verma, Sanjeev Miglani, “Vietnam renews India oil deal in tense South China Sea,” Reuters, 6 July 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).


[56] Ministry of External Affairs of India, ‘India-Singapore Relations,’ January 2018, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[57] Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “Navy gets access to Singapore’s Changi naval base,” The Economic Times, 30 November 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[58] Keoni Indrabayu Marzuki, “PacNet #14A- The Meaning of Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum,” Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 22 February 2018, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[59] Ibid.

[60] Vibhanshu Shekhar, Joseph Chinyong Liow, “Indonesia as a Maritime Power: Jokowi’s Vision, Strategies, and Obstacles Ahead,” Brookings, 7 November 2014, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[61] P. Stobdan, “To make Chabahar a ‘Game Changer’ Central Asian states need to be roped in,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 12 December 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[62]Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “Navy gets access to Singapore’s Changi naval base,” The Economic Times, 30 November 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[63] Press Trust of India, “India, Seychelles agree to work on Assumption Island project, respect concerns,” CNBC TV18, 25 June 2018, (Accessed on 26 June 2018).

[64] Ibid.

[65] P Manoj, “Adani, JM Baxi and JSW Infra in race for Chabahar port deal,” The Hindu Business Line, 8 December 2017, (Accessed on 22 June 2018).

[66] Mohd Hazmi bin Mohd Rusli, “Maritime Highways of Southeast Asia: Alternative Straits?” RSIS Commentaries, 10 February 2012, (Accessed on 23 June 2018).

[67] Robert Jervis, Security Regimes, International Organization, Vol. 36, No. 2, International Regimes (Spring 1982), p.369.

[68]Swaran Singh, Lilian Yamamoto, “Quads and Triangles: Locating Japan in India’s Act East Policy,” Global Outlook, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2016), p.115.

[69] India-Japan Joint Statement, “Toward a free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India, September 14 2017, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[70] 75th Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, “The United States Seventh Fleet,” Fact Sheet, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[71] Ankit Panda, “China Condemns US FONOP Near Mischief Reef in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, March 25 2018, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[72] U.S. Department of State, “Briefing on The Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Press Releases, April 2 2018, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[73] Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement on Award of Arbitral Tribunal on South China Sea Under Annexure VII of UNCLOS,” Press Release, 12 July 2016, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[74] U.S. Embassy & Consulates in India, “India-Japan-US Trilateral Meeting Joint Press Release,” Press Release, 4 April 2018, (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[75] Ibid.

[76] Abhijnan Ren, “Reclaiming the Indo-Pacific: A Political-Military Strategy for Quad 2.0,” Observer Research Foundation, No. 141, p. 17. (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[77] Sophie Eisentraut, Bart Gaens, “The US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” Finnish Institute of International Affairs Briefing Paper, May 2018, p. 3.

[78] Abhijnan Ren, “Reclaiming the Indo-Pacific: A Political-Military Strategy for Quad 2.0,” Observer Research Foundation, No. 141, p. 7. (Accessed on 18 June 2018).

[79] Department of Defence of Australian Government, 2016 Defence White Paper (2016), ISBN: 78-0-9941680-5-4, p. 45, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).


[81] Ministry of External Affairs of India, ‘India-Australia Bilateral Relations,’ 31 August 2017, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[82] Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (2017), p. 42, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[83] Indian Navy, “Exercise AUSINDEX,” Naval Operations, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[84] Ministry of External Affairs of India, “4th India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue (December 13, 2017),” Press Release, 13 December, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[85] Swaran Singh, Lilian Yamamoto, “Quads and Triangles: Locating Japan in India’s Act East Policy,” Global Outlook, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2016), p.118.

[86] Ankit Panda, “US, Japan, India and Australia Hold Working-Level Quadrilateral Meeting on Regional,” The Diplomat, 13 November 2017, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[87] “Declaration on The Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” Association of South East Asian Nations, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[88] Tan Ming Hui, Nazia Hussain, “Quad 2.0: Sense and Sensibilities,” The Diplomat, 23 February 2018, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[89] Press Trust of India, “India says in UN, the key to responsibility to protect must be ‘prevention’,” Business Standard, 9 September 2015, (Accessed on 19 June 2018).

[90] Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India’s National Strategy,” Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2012, p. 91, (Accessed on 20 June 2018).