India’s Maritime Wall in the Indo-Pacific Region

By Maherbaanali Sheliya (Author) and Hitakshi Joshi (Co-Author)


The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is an epicenter of rivalry amongst the Southeast Asian states for power and domination. The oceans are a fundamental source of power. India’s littoral zone is surrounded by one of the most strategic maritime regions; the Indian Ocean Region. India understands the importance of the Indian Ocean Region and the importance of developing the nation’s strong presence in order to protect its national interests (The World Factbook, 2018). Considering the regions importance geographically, all major powers have contended for its control, however only the British Empire was successful in the 19th century. The region is the a key focal point for global maritime trade, and oil and gas exploration creating a new found interest amongst western powers, and more importantly India’s littoral states (DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Why the Indian Ocean Matters, 2011). Majority of the trade in oil and gas that passes through the region, prevails from states that do not inhabit the Indian Ocean Region, and therefore free and open sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean Region are vital for major powers and the global economy (Pant, India in the Indian Ocean: Growing Mismatch between Ambitions and Capabilities, 2009). The presence of major powers has led to numerous conflicts and turmoil within the region. The Indian Ocean Regional conflict is the most burdensome and demanding conflict in Asia and scholars believe the conflict will extended for another 20 years remaining as an everlasting threat to peace and security in the IOR, and for the Association for Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN (Acharya, 2016).The geographic significance, energy trade, territorial sovereignty, maritime claims over the region, and maritime security are ever growing threats to the Indian Ocean Region. Nation-states such as China, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam and for extra-regional nation-states such as India security is a major national concern because of the nations-states’ economic interests and strategic presence. Despite the contentions and conflict India follow the defensive realist approach where it focuses on relative gains and undermining growth but not at the cost of other nations and envisions a peaceful neighborhood in Southeast. While India pursues a robust maritime policy, its expanding involvement in the region is attracting attention from its littoral neighbors through interactions and engagements in maritime cooperation and by creating strategic opportunities. India has become more active in the disputes over the Indian Ocean Region, and has been a vocal asset for the freedom of navigation and open trade in the IOR and has advocated for the peaceful resolution of disputes between China and its neighbors, because India sees its maritime security as a domain of major concern with China’s growing influence amongst the ASEAN nations and in the IOR. The Indian Ocean is becoming a stage of rivalry between India and China, and the question of a net security provider from amongst the two nations is a question unanswered for the nations in the Southeast Asia region. China’s contentions in the IOR are to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Strait of Malacca, and the Hormuz Strait. The Hormuz strait accounts for forty percent of China’s oil import and the Strait of Malacca accounts for eighty two percent of China’s oil import; scholars are calling it the ‘Hormuz-Malacca Dilemma’ and they have noted that China is attempting at encircling India by building a string of naval bases to surround India’s neighbors and various neighboring island states (Brewster, Looking beyond the String of Pearls: Indian Ocean is where India holds a clear advantage over China, 2013).

This article will analyze India’s role in the Indo-Pacific. It will focus on three aspects;

1.      India’s maritime interest and outlook in the Indo-Pacific Region.

2.     It will explore India’s Act East policy and its expansion with the littoral states of ASEAN and examine the nation-state as an indispensable asset to the region by maintaining high levels of strategic and economic cooperation with specific ASEAN nations; Vietnam and Indonesia to curb China’s rapid expansion.

3.     The presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific is a key factor in preventing China’s unilateral control of the region; will maritime cooperation between United States and India aid to the national interest of both nation-states and curbing Chinese expansion?

Literature Review:

The current literature regarding the Indo-Pacific concept is still under debate and a concrete structure is not present. The term Indo-Pacific describes the economies of the nation-states with these two ocean regions; Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean consists of nations that have developed economies and a regional stability unlike the Indian Ocean, in which there are numerous nation states in the process of developing their economies India being one of said nation-states. The Indo-Pacific is a region of continuous conflict as there is no established balance power in the region; it is an unstable region drowning in conflicts. There are numerous literatures available on the topic of the Indo-Pacific for instance South China Sea and India’s Geopolitical Interests, written by Nandini Jawli and published in the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs is literature which elaborates upon the dispute in the South China Sea between China and the littoral states of ASEAN. The paper expands upon the Chinese presence and their attempt to converge upon all sea lines of communication within the South China Sea and the impact this will have upon the United States and the littoral states in the region. She further explains the impact it will have on India and India’s struggle for preserving the South China Sea as international waters.

Furthermore India and the Allure of the Indo-Pacific is a research article authored by David Scott and published in the SAGE Journal in Vol 49. Mr. Scott focuses his article on the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the relevance this term has in the 21st century maritime domain. He elaborates upon the shift in geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region and the impact India’s ‘Look East Policy’ has had on the ASEAN nations. Moreover Mr. Scott further expands upon the strategic alliance between India, Australia, Japan and the United States of America; “QUAD”.

The article India’s Maritime Wall in the Indo-Pacific Region analyses India’s maritime policy and the nation’s maritime interests in the Indo-Pacific region, a factor which was missing from two of the previous mentioned papers. This article seeks to analyze India’s maritime outlook in the Indo-Pacific region as well as in the Pacific Ocean Region. The article is further divided to elaborate on China’s expansionist policy and the dilemma’s it faces in the Indo-Pacific region including the South China Sea and China’s maritime policy to curb India’s growing power by building a string of pearls. Furthermore unlike the literature mentioned, this article focuses on India’s maritime cooperation with specifically two ASEAN littoral states who have proven to be of growing economic and strategic significance to the Act East Policy; Indonesia and Vietnam. Moreover this article does not analyze the “QUAD” rather it looks at the bilateral relation India has with the United States and the impact the emerging alliance will have upon the Indo-Pacific region and shifting the geopolitics in Southeast Asia.


This article is a research initiative to better understand the disputes in the Indo-Pacific region and the involvement of India as a regional security provider and anchor of stability with the help of ASEAN nations and Western powers. This article is largely based on secondary data sources such as governmental publications of conference proceedings between political leaders by the Ministry of External Affairs, maritime publications by the Indian Navy. Furthermore, online articles about the current scenarios were utilized to create a bridge between the past and the present and to create and assumption of the future. Articles from The Diplomat, The Economic Times, Forbes, The Hindu, and The Times of India are a few examples of the sources. Previous research articles by prominent individuals were utilized while conducting this research, prominent authors and policy analysts such as Harsh V Pant and his research publications, or research publications by the Observer Research Foundation and Stimsons were used to conduct this research. The web articles aided in providing updates on current actions and policies. Out of all the sources used, the various research articles were the most useful as they provided information regarding past events and policies and present maritime policies and actions taken by the various nations, along with an indepth analysis of each policy and action.

India’s Maritime Interest and Outlook:

As a nation-state undergoing rapid developments and growth in its economic and political spheres, the peninsular character of India with its littoral states and open coastlines which are particularly rich and fertile in resources, makes the Indo-Pacific region an area of particular interest and importance. India’s development will be closely linked to its maritime domain, as history shows the importance of maritime power in the strive for growth. “Freedom to use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy”, a naval publication emphasized the importance of a strong maritime environment, and the centralized focus on maritime security for national development. The publication provided an insight on the importance of freedom of navigation in the oceans for India’s national interests, with a central role for the Navy to serve as a catalyst for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The naval strategy further accounts for a rise in threats rise in mineral and energy sources and holistic approach to maritime security (Ministry of Defense, 2015). The elements which govern India’s maritime interests are its maritime security strategy which cover maritime security imperatives, these includes India’s central geographical position in the IOR, which is a hub for trade and global commerce, and second India’s relations with its littoral neighbors, and the role it plays in the neighborhood by adhering to international laws and a desire for cooperation. India’s economic activities have expanded over an array of fields, including fishing and shipping, energy security, and trade through the seas. It has an overwhelming dependence on the seas, and in particular the Indo-Pacific Region for its external trade and for sustaining its energy needs which include crude oil and hydrocarbon imports. Moreover India’s development of its deep sea mining areas, and aquatic research in Antarctica are dependent on the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC’s) (Ministry of Defense, 2015).  This factor has led to a pivotal role for the Indian Navy to provide security for the SLOC’s and emphasized the importance of sea routes, and freedom of navigation which is a prominent aspect of India’s Maritime policy and India’s national interest. 

India’s Maritime interests are summarized as follows: (Ministry of Defense, 2015)

1.     "Protect India’s Sovereignty and territorial integrity against threats in the maritime environment.           

2.     Promote safety and security of Indian Citizens, shipping, fishing, trade, energy supply, assets and resources in the maritime domain.

3.     Pursue peace, stability and security in the maritime zones, neighborhood, and other areas of maritime interest.

4.     Preserve and project other national interests in the maritime dimension.”

There are various strategies implemented by the Indian Navy for security of its maritime interests, we will look at two of these strategies; Strategy for Conflict which is centered around operational actions such as maritime maneuver, maritime strike, sea control and sea denial, SLOC defense, and defense of its coast and allies. The strategy for conflict is focused on employing India’s maritime forces in times of conflict.

The second strategy is the “Strategy for Shaping a Favorable and Positive Maritime Environment” (Ministry of Defense, 2015) which describes the Indian Navy’s contribution in forming a favorable maritime environment to enhance national security and promote stability at sea, to enhance the cooperation and coexistence with the maritime forces of India’s allies.

The maritime security strategy has considered various factors such as geo-politics, geo-economics, and the geostrategic environment. It creates an analysis of the changing threats and challenges and changes to the environment and provides for an assessment and direction to move forward. As the Nation moves forward, its employment of maritime power to safeguard the national interests will increase over the next decade.

Land has been a primary source of political, economical, strategic and traditional cooperation between nation- states and they have been influenced by the events which take place on the Oceans. Maritime developments and technological developments have altered the maritime environment. Maritime access through the oceans has become the central conduit of international trade and commerce, strategic alliances, and political cooperation. Maritime power is an important component of national power and these aspects have prompted a steady shift of attention and importance from land to the sea and have provided a Maritime Outlook for India.

India’s maritime outlook are driven by its strategic geographical location giving it an advantage over its littoral neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region, sustained economic growth, security of Indian domestic and foreign investments and the need to secure and ensure the safety of its Sea Lines of Communications.

The economic growth of the nation is dependent on the open Sea Lines of Communication for a flow of goods through the Indo-Pacific region for commerce as ninety percent of India’s trade is reliant on merchant shipping, and considering the fact that India is a major energy importer a disruption in the flow of trade along the Indo-Pacific region will have a catastrophic effect not only for India (Pant, India in the Indian Ocean: Growing Mismatch between Ambitions and Capabilities, 2009) but globally, similar to the 2008-2009 crisis which rendered the global maritime shipping industry in a fragile state; India, Brazil and China were key factors in reviving the industry and bringing a semblance of stability to the global platform (Sticklor, 2012). According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), India’s exclusive economic zone is a two million square kilometer mile zone adjoining to its 7,500 kilometer coastline and more than 1,200 islands, while covering around thirty percent of the Indo-Pacific region (Pant, India in the Indian Ocean: Growing Mismatch between Ambitions and Capabilities, 2009) (NCPOR, 2016). Moreover the maritime access to the Indo-Pacific region is only possible through a few choke points, and the obstruction of these chokepoints would create a disaster for trade, instability of oil prices and will lead to consequences for the global economy. Contemporary threats such as piracy, organized crimes, and terrorist networks make it necessary for New Delhi to exercise control upon the Indo-Pacific region; the important choke points are the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el- Mandeb, the Mozambique Channel, the Cape of Good Hope, the Sunda Strait, the Lombok Strait and the Strait of Malacca (Chandramohan, 2016).

Figure 1: Important Choke Points for the Indian Navy  [i]

Figure 1: Important Choke Points for the Indian Navy [i]

Furthermore maritime interests for India lie in the Persian Gulf and its littoral states such as Iran; this is the largest source of India’s oil and gas imports. The Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, and the Red Sea are of interest to India as they provide a trade route into Northern Africa and the Southern Middle East as well as access to the West of the Persian Gulf.

An area of particular interest to India is the South China Sea. The South China Sea is an area of tremendous conflict between China and its littorals. It is a region that needs to be stabilized, and an area where there needs to be peace in order for there to be prosperity. The conflict arises over territorial claims of the South China Sea by China and various ASEAN members, and with the abundance of natural resources present in the region and its strategic location makes it essential to the agenda of many nations, including India. The region accounts for approximately ten percent of the global fisheries catch making it a hot spot for nations who are dependent on the fishing industry (Group, 2012). Furthermore the South China Sea is rich in oil and gas, leading to speculation that the region may be a prominent energy resource for the presiding countries. According to the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources, the South China Sea contains nearly thirty billion tones of oil reserves and sixteen trillion cubic meters of natural gas along with hydrocarbon gas reserves. The region is of utmost importance for India and its pursuit of energy resources in the Indo-Pacific Region and with the cooperation of Vietnam, for the exploration of oil hydrocarbon gas reserves, with India operating in the region, the nation acts as an anchor to curbing the Chinese unjust expansion. The geostrategic position of the South China Sea is crucial to India and its neighbors as it holds one of the most travelled sea routes for trade and commerce; the Strait of Malacca. Through this region India alone has approximately fifty percent of trade export and forty percent of trade import (Purushothaman, 2015). The Strait annually hosts sixty thousand to ninety four thousand cargo ships containing oil and gas, which are transported to the littoral states in the region. The Malacca Strait is an important choke point for India as it provides the quickest access between the Indo-Pacific region and the Pacific Ocean Region, however an alternative route is the Lombok Strait but that would mean an extra one thousand nautical mile journey resulting in an extra three day journey (Purushothaman, 2015).

Indian journalist C. Raja Mohan has stated five reasons why the South China Sea is of importance to India. First, India wants to be independent of major powers for its maritime goals for the West. Second, the Sea Lines of Communication are imperative to India as it has understood the importance of its trade with the various East Asian nation states, and the Western Pacific Region (Mohan, 2012). Third, India wishes to develop a presence in the IOR to follow developments in actions which may affect its national interests. Fourth, India is concerned with China’s claims over the entire South China Sea region and its vision of turning the region into its personal waterway. Fifth and foremost, the Indian Navy presents a forward maritime presence as a net security provider for India and its littoral neighbors, the ASEAN nations. Furthermore former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai defines three focal points for why the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region are important. First, India consistently advocates for peaceful resolutions to any disputes in the region in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS); second, the nation state stresses upon the importance of maintaining peace in the region so that each nation may benefit from the trade and commerce and exploration of natural resources. Finally, freedom of navigation; as mentioned earlier and repeatedly in the article, Freedom of navigation is important for India's national interests and central to its Maritime Policy and Maritime interest as a medium to prevent any conflict between the Indo-Pacific nation states.

The Red Dragon:

As previously mentioned the South China Sea (SCS) is an area of great contention between the Asian Nations because of its richness in natural resources and the access it provides between the West and Asia through its waterways. The littoral nation states of the South China Sea are Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and China. Along with these countries there are islands involved in the South China Sea dispute as well; Paracel Islands, and Spratly Islands. The sea is an area of dispute because different countries claim it belongs to them, and in reference to the islands, China, Vietnam, and Taiwan claim the Paracel Islands, and Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Philippines claim the Spratly Islands.

Figure 2: The Nine Dash Line [ii]

Figure 2: The Nine Dash Line [ii]

China claimed the South China Sea along the Nine Dash Line, which is the entire region of the Sea in one loop (Resmi, 2017). The map above shows the demarcation of the Nine Dash Line and its claimants, therefore the five other countries were in uproar when China claimed the entire Sea region as theirs. Over the years the dispute between china and the five nations intensified and with the introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which states that a nation state has rights to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline which is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), for the nation’s economic utilization (Office of Legal Affairs, 2018). Since 2012, China controls all Paracel Islands and eight Spratly Islands whereas Vietnam controls the majority of the Spratly Islands. Furthermore the South China Sea is an important geographical area for China because of its vast oil reserves. China claims the South China Sea to be the next Persian Sea as it produces nearly 1,367,000 barrels of oil every day (Jawli, 2016). China believes the SCS will yield 130 billion barrels of oil, which means that the SCS holds the second highest amount of oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. Acquiring oil reserves are particularly important for China because they possess one percent of oil reserves in the world, where as they consume approximately ten percent of global oil reserves. China acquiring new oil reserves, especially reserves in the SCS will allow it to become more energy independent and less reliant on the West and Middle East (Kuo, 2018). Further, controlling the geostrategic location will allow China to develop hegemony in East and Southeast Asia by controlling the waterways for trade and commerce, the oil and mineral reserves and the fisheries of the nation-states present in the South China Sea region. In order for China to secure its hegemony the country has militarized the entire South China Sea region. After China created its artificial islands in the SCS they have begun to develop military infrastructure such as missiles, radars, signal jammers, patrol boats, warships and aircraft carriers on these islands (Kaplan, 2015). China has deployed YJ-12B anti ship cruise missiles on the artificial island of Woody, Fiery, Mischief, and Subi, allowing the Chinese to attack ships within 350 miles and the only naval ships which travel around these four islands are US Naval warships which travel this area to conduct their freedom of navigation operations. Chinese naval capabilities have also advanced with the introduction of the Type 055 destroyer, China’s first 10,000 ton domestically built surface combatant. The Type 055 is a generation of new destroyers equipped with the latest dual band radar systems and mission systems. China deployed the aircraft carrier Liaoning along with a flotilla of warships towards the SCS region in a move to showcase maritime strength and their superiority over the local rivals claiming the SCS as well, and to match the United States aircraft carrier deployments in the SCS region (Pradhan, 2018).

The Chinese in 2013 introduced the Maritime Silk Road to pursue the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR); the belt refers to the land route across Eurasia, and the road refers to the Maritime Silk route. The Road is a geo-economic project to increase Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific Region.

Figure 3: China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative [iii]

Figure 3: China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative [iii]

A high level OBOR forum took place on May 2017 where 11 major countries participating in the Maritime Silk Road were present; Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, The Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The Maritime Silk Road presents a vision of interlinked ports going across the Indo-Pacific region. China has created a network across the South Asian Coast nations through massive investments, naval trade, and focused port development projects which are acting as a security provider, second Chinese merchant shipping is growing in vast numbers and the Maritime Silk Road presents an opportunity to deploy its naval power and underpin local and international powers ((NDRC), 2017).

The development of ports across the Maritime Silk Road is referred to as the String of Pearls theory. The string of pearls hides Chinas larger military and commercial aspirations under economic development and has attracted nations out of India’s strategic orbit, for example Abdulla Yameen’s sudden shift to the Chinese from being a Pro-Indian supporter, actualizes the aggressive elements of Beijing's prophetic technique and imprints an emphasis in Indo-Sino relations. New Delhi needs to make bold policy decisions as the Maldives was a key topographical area in the Indo-Pacific for India, and to control the infringement of China in the locale (Mukherjee, 2018). The String of Pearls is a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities in the Indo-Pacific region between Mainland China, and the Port of Sudan. China has employed military tactics, political patronage, and a list of economic dependents to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia, a foothold which the traditional South Asian naval power India cannot match strategically or economically. China has provided naval assets and infrastructure to Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, all countries which are a pearl in the String of Pearls theory (Dabas, 2017). China has been keen to develop cordial relations with Malaysia and Singapore because of their access to the Malacca Strait, through which a majority of China’s energy trade occurs. China is developing the Kyaukpyu deep water port in Myanmar situated in the Bay of Bengal, and has invested in a 2400 kilometer gas pipeline connecting Kyaukyu and Kunming. This port allows China maritime access as a military facility. Also the China has presence in the Coco islands situated just north of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, granting China strategic presence near India in a time of conflict.

Furthermore, China’s most useful development has been the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Gwadar port is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will assist Pakistan in the development of its navy through this port and will launch an offensive against India in a time of Sino-Indo conflict. Gwadar port and the Kyaukpyu port are of strategic importance to China as they will possibly produce a solution to the Malacca Dilemma, whereby Chinese imports coming across the Indian Ocean into the Strait of Malacca could be cut off by the Indian Navy once again as it had occurred in 1971 during the Indo-Pak war, and by the US Navy (Scott, 2017).

China’s has produced a port in Bangladesh located in the heart of the Bay of Bengal, the Chittagong Port. One of India’s long lasting partners, Sri Lanka has granted China permission to develop and control the Port of Hambantota, another strategic position for China against India in the Indo-Pacific.

The most recent pearl by China has been the Maldives, an archipelago lying at the end of India’s exclusive economic zone. China has promised to develop a new economic zone in the northernmost part of the Island- Ihavandhippolhu, the iHavan project. Chinese presence in the Maldives is a nightmare for Indian Strategist because a naval base there would allow China to monitor the strategic corridor which links India’s western and eastern coastlines.

In attempt to protect its coastlines and strategic positioning India has extended a grant and credits worth one billion USD to Myanmar; Prime Minister Modi and President Abdul Hamid are collaborating on a project initiated by India to develop a deep water port in Sonadia. In order to provide an answer against China’s Gwadar Port, India and Iran are in a bilateral relation for the development of Chabahar Port. Chabahar Port is a key element in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy as it creates a gateway for connectivity in Eurasia (Chaudhury, 2018). The port is also geo-strategically important because it is located on the mouth of the Hormuz Strait from where Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE conduct oil trade to Asia.

Figure 4: Chinese Naval Bases- String of Pearls [iv]   [Chinese Naval Bases and Maritime Projects L to R: Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan; Ihavandhippolhu, Maldives; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Chittagong, Bangladesh; Kyaukpyu, Myanmar; Kra Isthmus, Thailand]

Figure 4: Chinese Naval Bases- String of Pearls [iv]

[Chinese Naval Bases and Maritime Projects L to R: Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan; Ihavandhippolhu, Maldives; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Chittagong, Bangladesh; Kyaukpyu, Myanmar; Kra Isthmus, Thailand]

 Additionally, the concept of buffer zones in the naval domain is preserved in power politics. The United States of America and China have established cushions to prevent adversaries from being granted access into strategic locations. The Eastern Pacific is the cushion for the USA, and for China the SCS acts as its cushion, similarly India needs to define its Cushion. The nation must disregard its historical ideology of maintaining strategic autonomy and recognize the benefit of multilateral relations with nonresidential maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region, or else India will not be able to stand against China economically, or defensively. India’s ability to maneuver in the Indo-Pacific region is threatened by Chinese naval bases in the Bay of Bengal and near the Indian Coasts and therefore India needs to establish its presence for the security of its national interests (Jawli, 2016). Therefore India needs to operationalize logistical agreements with the USA and France to gain berthing rights in Diego Garcia, La Réunion, and the Mayotte Island. Also India can gain rights to Australia’s naval base in the Coco Island by granting Australia berthing rights in Indian ports. This naval cooperation will benefit New Delhi by creating a logistical support station in Seychelles and Mauritius. The Indian Navy will have a larger operational base if it connects offshore stations with on-shore naval forward operating bases and ergo help establish India’s cushion in the Indo-Pacific region. India must also reach out to Southeast Asian nations on diplomatic terms which are being courted by China to increase the Indian foothold in the Indo-Pacific and these military and strategic tactics may not be enough to curb Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific however it will make sure that India is not held down by the Chinese in its sphere of influence.

India’s Act East Policy:

India’s approach towards Southeast Asia has begun to expand from a partnership dominated by trade and commerce, to one in which strategic partnerships play a complementary role. This initiative is called the Act East Policy (AEP); it is an expansion to include all Indo-Pacific nation states (Rajagopalan, 2018). The Act East Policy was launched in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar. The policy is an adaptation from the Look East Policy (LEP) which was formed in 1991 with the objective of shifting India’s trade focus and economic cooperation from the West to the Southeast Asian Nations (Singh H. , 2018)The objective of the Act East Policy has been to enhance economic cooperation, technological developments, cultural ties, and strategic relationships between India and the Southeast Asian and East Asian nations. The AEP has allowed India to develop its relations with the various ASEAN Nations, as well as integrated development with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore (Singh G. D., 2015).

India recognizes the importance of the Southeast Asian nation states for trade and commerce and for creating a security net around the Indian peninsula and is therefore strengthening its partnership with ASEAN. India and the ASEAN nations share mutual security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region; this has built a foundation for a defense and strategic partnership to better protect their individual national interests (Mansingh, 2012).

India’s expansion through the Act East Policy has led to the growth of deeper roots in the Indo-Pacific region, and a shift in geopolitics towards Asia has imparted new momentum for India’s engagement with individual nation-states which are multifaceted relations (India G. o., 2012).

A central component of the Act East Policy has been maritime engagement with nations in Southeast Asia specifically Vietnam and Indonesia. Naval exercises, port visits, and maritime capacity building programs have been a key area of focus for New Delhi to lift India’s geopolitical profile in Southeast Asia. Regular warship deployments in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal have exemplified Prime Minister Modi’s neighborhood first policy and New Delhi’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific regions (Cheney-Peters S. , 2018).

The year 2018 marks the 48th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam and blossoming into a comprehensive strategic partnership; Prime Minister Modi has stated that Vietnam is a very important pillar in India’s Act East Policy (Pant, India and Vietnam: A Strategic Partnership In The Making, 2018). The multifaceted relation between India and Vietnam is to work towards stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region, initiate economic growth and protect India’s oil exploration initiatives in the South China Sea. The two nation-states have increased their economic trade to 5 billion USD from the period of 2010-2016. Bilateral trade in 2017 increased by 43 percent compared to 2016, with an increased investment in textiles, petroleum and gas exploration, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, leather, and garments; the two nations have set the target of 15 billion USD as their trade target by the year 2020 (Chi, 2017). India has maintained a trade surplus with Vietnam which has increased from 506.1 million USD to 2.7 billion USD in ten years; India has accomplished this growth by being the leading country in exports to Vietnam, currently ranked as the 10th largest source of imports for Vietnam. India exports machinery, steel and iron, meat and poultry, fabrics and defense equipment (Sinate, 2017); total trade has seen a continuous rise for ten years between the two nations and this partnership allows India to increase its global trade in the Southeast Asia Region. 

Furthermore to create a strong strategic partnership between the two nations, Vietnam has allowed the Indian navy access to its southern port Nha Trang located in the Cam Ranh Bay. Access to Cam Ranh Bay is a major stepping stone in New Delhi’s objective for maritime security because the bay is located near the Malacca Strait, allowing India to impose a larger influence over the important shipping route and act as a roadblock for China from claiming absolute control of the South China Sea. The bay also provides a strategic location to overlook the conflict in the Spratly Islands and for India to act as a mediator between Vietnam and China. Vietnam has allowed ONGC Videsh to explore for oil and hydrocarbon in the South China Sea in block 128 and block 6.1 (Sajjanhar, 2016). India has invested forty nine million USD in block 128 and three hundred and forty two million USD in block 6.1. Block 6.1 has produced two million cubic meters of gas, and 0.036 million metric tons of condensate gas. Vietnam has extended the lease for oil and hydrocarbon exploration until 2018, and the significance of this is the block lies in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic zone, which China claims as its own.

Vietnam and India signed a strategic partnership in 2007 which included a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation. India has extended a credit line worth 500 million USD to Hanoi to expand their maritime relationship. Hanoi will purchase 10 patrol boats and begin a project for the modernization of Vietnam's Petya class frigates. India will also train Vietnamese submarine crews for six new kilo-class submarines and Vietnamese pilots for Sukhoi Su-30 jets which Hanoi acquired from Russia (India P. T., India extends $500 million to Vietnam to bolster defence ties, 2016).  New Delhi is also considering the sale of Indian made Akash surface to air missiles to Vietnam. Vietnam understands that it cannot stand against China, but it believes that it can inflict enough damage to China by bolstering its arsenal and India is a willing provider as India wishes to become a leading weapons exporter to maximize its strategic positioning in the global defense market, and a defense bilateral relation with Vietnam is the beginning of this foundation as according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Vietnam is the world’s eighth largest weapons importer (Clark, 2017).

Indonesia and India have shared two millennia of close economic and cultural ties. Indonesian culture is strongly influenced by Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The shared culture, post independent goals, economic sufficiency, and political sovereignty have a unifying effect on the bilateral relations. The India-Indonesia relationship extends back to the cold war period. For a long period of time both countries were hostile towards one another, Indonesia's increasing tilt towards communist China aggravated its relation with India. President Sukarno’s radicalism against neo-imperialism and its third world supporters led him to seek Chinese support, and this meant support against India. Indonesia even presented a threat to India in the 1960’s when they attacked Indian Embassies in Jakarta (Pathak, 1990). However after Sukarno was overthrown the new government raced to improve its damaged relation with India. Indonesia ceased to pursue hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and supported the creation of ASEAN. Indonesia further withdrew its support for Pakistan, and backed India in the Kashmir conflict. India recognized Indonesia and Vietnam as distinguished regional powers in archipelagic and mainland Southeast Asia, seeing them as cornerstones to curbing Chinese expansion in the region (Ayoob, 1990).

In the ASEAN region, Indonesia has emerged as the largest trading partner for India; bilateral trade between the two nations has increased from 4.3 billion USD in 2005-2006 to 17 billion USD in 2016-2017 (India M. o., 2017). Besides economic cooperation, Indonesia is of strategic importance to India in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia is significant in several ways; it is the largest Southeast Asian nation state and is regarded as the primus inter pares in ASEAN. India will benefit by improving its relationship with Indonesia as it will help develop relations with ASEAN institutions. Second, Indonesia and China’s historical conflicts make the nation a potentially crucial member in curbing Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific. Third, Indonesia’s cooperation with the United States fits well with India’s strategic approach. Fourth and foremost, Indonesia’s geographical location. Indonesia is located between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean with three major choke points listed by the Indian Navy passing through it; the Strait of Malacca, the Lombok Strait, and the Sunda Strait. The archipelagic state is of key significance for India’s maritime security and interests in the Indo-Pacific region (Brewster, The Relationship between India and Indonesia, 2011).

President Joko Widodo created the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” vision, and made it a primary focus in his campaign by launching it in Indonesia’s Sea Policy in 2017. The primary focuses of the Global Maritime Fulcrum are maritime governance, maritime environment, maritime diplomacy, maritime security, development of maritime infrastructure, and protection of maritime resources (Marzuki, 2018). As Indonesia wishes to become a maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region, the importance of freedom of navigation is of strategic focus for the nation- state and Indonesia has not hesitated in clashing with China in its expansion in the Indo-Pacific (Kaura, 2018).

As mentioned earlier, Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the Southeast Asia region, however the majority of its military is land based, the discrepancy in this fact cannot be missed. Indonesia suffers from lack of connectivity between its eastern and western islands and this has caused the western islands to be more developed than the eastern (Liow, 2014). Similarly Indonesia’s port structure has suffered largely from a lack of finance and neglect; due to this a majority of Indonesian ports are in poor conditions and obstruct the nation-states maritime commerce in the form of revenue loss. For instance, according to the World Bank, it costs Indonesia three times more to ship a container from Padang to Jakarta than to ship a container from Jakarta to Singapore, consequently Indonesia’s maritime commerce has not reached its full potential (Sandee, 2013).  A policy such as the Global Maritime Fulcrum is a prime factor in the development of Indonesia and securing its maritime sphere, and India’s aid would be appreciated. India in good faith and a goal to accomplish its own strategic interests could help develop maritime ports in Indonesia around the Lombok strait which could be used as an alternate route into the Southeast Asia region besides the Malacca strait. India has previously developed maritime ports; Chabahar port in Iran where it provided logistical aid, and capital inflow (Stobdan, 2017). Furthermore India has extended a 100 million USD line of credit to Seychelles for the development of its military infrastructure, and has gained access to the Changi naval base in Singapore (Gurung, 2018). India’s approach with Indonesia would be different compared to its relation with the former countries. In particular India’s incentive would be berthing rights in Indonesian ports, capabilities for restocking and refueling in the Indian navy, gathering intelligence on Chinese movements in the Indo-Pacific region, and collaborate in the sphere of maritime security for the Malacca region which would benefit both the Nations as well as the remaining ASEAN members. Another important fact is that along with a port near the Lombok strait, Indonesia is willing to provide India access to the strategic island of Sabang located near the Malacca strait, where India is likely to invest in a maritime port to create a forward presence in the Malacca Strait and an economic zone to bolster the Indonesian economy (Kaura, 2018). The collaboration between India and Indonesia is largely a result of the geographic location of the both nation-states. Indo-Indonesia partnership allows the countries to protect and monitor the sea lines of communication and ensure freedom of navigation between Europe, The Middle East, and Asia; together they control the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait (Pant, India and Indonesia Come Together in the Indo-Pacific, 2018).

The Indo-Pacific region is a hotbed for conflict and power politics; India’s emerging partnership with Indonesia, as their relation becomes a comprehensive strategic partnership can provide a foundation for the two nations to collaborate more closely and advance the Indo-Pacific strategy. New Delhi and Jakarta have agreed to multiple economic and strategic treaties to maintain security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As both nations share an identical maritime threat it is imperative for both the nation-states to collaborate for the maintenance of regional security and to protect the sea lines of communication by promoting freedom of navigation.


A Democratic Anchor: Indo-US

The United States of America renamed its largest and oldest maritime port, the Pacific Command to the “Indo-Pacific Command”; this was a symbolic gesture by the United States to signal to India, their importance for the United States military amid high tensions with China over the militarization of the Indo-Pacific region. This gesture symbolizes the United States recognizing India as a strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific which has been a huge victory for India (Gady, 2018). India and the United States have participated in the annual Malabar naval exercises since 2002, and on a multilateral level have participated in the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise at Hawaii in an attempt to increase naval co-operation with 26 different countries and enhance naval capabilities (Pubby, 2018). Naval exercises in addition to a strategic alliance between India and the United States governs the possibility of a close bilateral cooperation to curb the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Indo-Pacific region extends from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean impacting the trade and commerce of Pacific nations such as the United States. Over the years the United States and its allies have recognized the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and the importance of freedom of navigation in its waters to promote a free market as the sea lines of communication are responsible for 1.2 billion USD worth of trade annually (Ghosh, 2014). America’s economic strength in the Indo-Pacific is best exercised by its private sector engagement that is catalyst for economic transformation. United States Vice President, Mike Pence stated that to advance the vision of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, the United States are building new and stronger bonds with nations expanding from India to Samoa (Kim, 2018). The trump administration has elevated the Indo-Pacific to top level regional priority in order to combat China’s predatory economics of Chinas one belt one road initiative, and its use of military might to persuade Indo-Pacific nations to pay attention to its political and strategic agendas. The United States is an economic superpower in the Indo-Pacific region and in order to maintain this status it must encourage the free flow of goods across the seas. Furthermore in March 2015 the United States published a new maritime strategy titles ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea power’. The new strategy focuses more on the Indo-Pacific in a twofold manner, one it focuses on the security dilemma and emerging geopolitics of economics in the regions and second it focuses on the United States playing a larger role in the region with Indo-Pacific partners (Khurana, 2015).

Furthermore to understand the United States relationship in the Indo-Pacific it is important to understand its goals in the region. The fact that the USA wishes to rebalance the Indo-Pacific symbolizes that the USA recognizes the free flow and open Indo-Pacific as an indispensible asset for its economic strength. While the United States may lack territory in the Indo-Pacific it is far from an uninterested actor. One area in which the USA has achieved universal success in the maritime domain in terms of naval presence and regional initiatives is the signing of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and an increased participation in multilateral humanitarian assistance/ disaster response (HA/DR) exercises (Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, 2016).  The United States has its own overarching goal in the Indo-Pacific; stability. Stability in terms of economic stability, environmental, and political, because a stable region ensures protected shipping, yields trading partners and aids in preparation for natural and unnatural disasters. The United States pursuit of regional stability can be divided into three sections; first stability through deterrence, stability through development, and stability through regional cooperation, this article will focus on stability through regional cooperation.

Evolving geopolitics has created an opportunity for the United States of America and India to become key partners in an open and stable Indo-Pacific. Washington has on multiple occasions stated that it believes India has the potential and capability to play a weightier role in the Indo-Pacific region. As a nation-state India has invested in free and open order in the Indo-Pacific and as a democracy it can anchor a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific, and it is, according to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the United States responsibly to ensure India plays that role and becomes an even greater influential partner in the region (India P. T., In Indo-Pacific Region, India Can Play A More "Weighty" Role, Says US, 2018). The bilateral relationship between India and USA cannot be limited to maintain a balance of power in the region; it must extend to enabling peace and protecting the sea lines of communication and developing an open Indo-Pacific. The following domains are key areas where India and the United States can have a influential impact on the Indo-Pacific (Singh, et al., 2018); Defence and technology, Blue Economy, Connectivity, Digital technology and connectivity, and Maritime freedom and security. To maintain stability in the region the domain with the greatest influence and impact is Maritime freedom and security. The maritime freedom and security is crucial for the countries to act as anchors of stability in the region. The areas for the strengthening cooperation between the two nation-states are operational cooperation; liaison officers between both navies can provide an exchange for information between the nation-states. USA can aid India in training its navy under the International Military Exchanges and Training and the Personal Exchanges Program to create a stronger and disciplined naval force. Furthermore combined exercises such as RIMPAC and the Malabar exercises should increase. Combined exercises help build confidence and interoperability and India has kept an expanded Malabar exercise on hold because it is viewed as an axis tactic by the Chinese, however an exercise of such an ordeal is just what the Indo-Pacific requires to warn the Chinese expansion and increase Indian interoperability (Ghosh, 2014). HA/DR exercises and maritime law enforcement is another area of increasing cooperation. Another opportunity is to encourage India to involve naval assets at within the Malacca Strait to partner with United States naval assets in the Malacca Strait. For instance the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is a hub for India’s maritime engagement and an access point for operations in the Bay of Bengal; this could serve as an anchor to the western approaches towards the Malacca Strait (Andaman And Nicobar Command, Pursuing Perfection Through Jointness, 2013). The USA can help transfer technology and architecture to aid India in constructing a larger and stronger capacity in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover the USA could partner with India in the Ocean-5 grouping to increase maritime domain awareness, including formal linkages to information and strategy exchanges (Cheney-Peters L. S., 2014).

The importance of a strategic relationship between the United States of America and India is indisputable. The need of the hour is to strengthen maritime capabilities of India with the aid of the USA and to invest in more regional integration and explore opportunities for multilateral engagement and collaborations where India and the United States may continue to act as anchors of stability and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region.     


Maritime challenges and threats in the Indo-Pacific region have increased over the years and have the potential to create serious impediments to exercise freedom of navigation in the region. India has a crucial stake in the Indo-Pacific region, as it represents a cross road between the eastern and western hemispheres and is a critical corridor for economic trade and commerce. Nearly 50 percent of India’s trade travels through the Indo-Pacific region, and security of this region is vital for a smooth flow of seaborne trade. Furthermore the growing power and influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region through predatory economics and a threat of military power has garnered support from many ASEAN and Pacific nations. China’s one belt one road initiative is another access route for China to conduct trade and build a strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region across land, as it has already created its strategic presence across the ocean with the String of Pearls. Moreover with its rise as a major power, India has been called upon by its neighbors to act as a net security provider for the Indo-Pacific region. India’s geographical positioning will ensure that it plays a pivotal role in the actions of region. India and the world have realized the importance and strength of the Indian navy to be used as a powerful tool for ensuring India’s foreign policy agenda. The navy’s modernization initiative is geared towards emerging as a world class navy equipped with meeting regional and international threats, such as the hostile Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific. China’s expansionist approach to control the seas for energy security and total control of commercial trade presents a threat to the national interest of India, ASEAN and the United States and her allies. China’s encirclement of the Indian peninsula is a matter of national security for India, as China has developed its presence and capabilities for war in the Indo-Pacific, however India has allied with the United States, and her allies, Indonesia, and Vietnam to protect its national interest in Indo-Pacific region and to ensure freedom of navigation in the region by protecting the sea lanes of communication.

With considerable expansion of its engagement with the littoral states in the Indo-Pacific, India is an indispensable asset to provide stability and peace to the region. Provided the nation maintains high level of economic growth and nurtures the partnerships it has established in the Indo-Pacific region India can be seen as responsible and determined stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region. Further in order to maintain peace and stability and to curb Chinese expansion, India’s bilateral partnerships with Indonesia, Vietnam, and the United States are crucial. The littoral state of Vietnam provides India access to energy resources in Indo-Pacific in the disputed area of the nine dash line preventing China from accessing energy security, and India-Vietnam have a rapidly growing economy. Indonesia and India together control the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait and it provides India with multiple naval ports to present a forward offensive in the Indo-Pacific region against China. Finally the US-India bilateral relationship is cooperation for the development of the Indian navy, and to achieve the United States Indo-Pacific strategy. Together the nation-states present a formidable threat to Chinese expansion in the region and a continued relation between the two nations and the littoral nations is indisputable to curbing Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific region by building India’s maritime wall and protecting freedom of navigation along the sea.


Maherbaanali Sheliya is a third-year undergraduate student of International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India.

Hitakshi Joshi is a third-year undergraduate student of International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India.

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