India’s Race for Hegemony in the Indian Ocean

Indian SSM firing. Photo: Indian Navvy Website
Indian SSM firing. Photo: Indian Navvy Website

The Indian Ocean isn’t just a watery backyard for shipping and providence of salty air for India. The vast water of the Indian Ocean generates an indomitable vehemence in the Indian side to pursue the policies that allow them to dominate the whole waters of the Indian Ocean and the islands in its laps as a supreme power

Dubbed as the center stage of the 21st century by American writer Robert Kaplan, the Indian Ocean has more than 20 nations in its laps.  Among these countries, India stands geographically potential and in the top queue of leadership. Possible other countries like South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia are also capable members of the Indian Ocean rim family, but they don’t apparently have the longing to dominate the vast area of the Indian Ocean as India does.

Now, India’s contestant in the competition for supremacy in Indian Ocean China is willing to spread their footprints in India’s immediate neighborhood. India is not very pleased with it.  The Indian defense ministry in its annual security analysis released in 2015 made several observations about China’s dominance in the Indian Ocean that worries Indian policymakers and also listed out countermeasures. China is extending its lines of access towards the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and Pakistan. Its footprints in the immediate neighborhood of India have been increasing as a result of its proactive diplomacy.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2015 toured three Indian Ocean nations including Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka and initiated several development projects with the underlying purpose of countering Chinese influence in these islands.

The Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to above mentioned Indian Ocean countries was an attempt to consolidate India’s position in the Indian Ocean region.

What Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to accomplish in Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka is to affirm the Indian message that his country is the contemporary leader of the region with the resources necessary for effective leadership. He sent a signal to other Indian ocean hegemons, namely China, that India is unwilling to allow its strategic geographical advantage to go to waste.

Meanwhile, to subjugate Indian sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean regions, China has been actively working within the Indian neighborhood intimately. China has helped her decades-long regional ‘best friend’ Pakistan in building nuclear power plants and being the unhesitant backer of the Myanmar’s government by helping the latter to build several large-scale development projects, including a deepwater sea and an oil pipeline. The Chinese government also contributed to building a port in Sri Lanka in what it calls efforts to boost trade and economic ties. Now, India remains wary of China’s military intentions. India keeps protesting the presence of Chinese military vassals near the Indian coastline from time to time.  India’s coastline waters carry significant amounts of the world’s oceanic trade.

The presence of the Chinese nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean worries the Indian bloc. India has been looking to take steps to develop the requisite capabilities to counter Chinese capabilities and deter a growing Chinese hegemony in the Indian Ocean.

In 2015 when Modi visited the island nations, India increased its defense budget by 11 percent in pursuit of the building of six nuclear-powered submarines and seven new frigates. Over the last few years, the Indian navy has been making regular forays into the island nations surrounding  India’s waters.  But even with the new naval assets, India’s navy is no match for China’s fleet of around 50 brigades, approximately 25 destroyers, and almost ten corvettes in about 60 submarines.

Seeking equivalence with the Chinese is probably way too much to ask for now. But the Indian policymakers have no intention of stopping their pursuit of China, and to present India as a worthy player at the table with decision making power as far as its neighborhood, and its nearest coastline is concerned.

In the same note in an article published on The National Interest, C Raja Mohan writes,  “Beginning in the late 1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked all major powers to withdraw from the Indian Ocean out of concern for great power rivalry.” Mohan added, “The context which gave rise to the Gandhi approach began to change in the 1990s, as India embarked on a policy of economic globalization and ended its military isolation. India’s new maritime imperatives did not, however, translate into a vigorous national strategy.” Now, after Modi paid the visit to the Indian Ocean island countries in a single tour, it came to prove that Indian Ocean littoral is “at the top of Delhi’s policy priorities.”

The Indian aspirations for greater regional power and hegemony will keep the Indian ocean waters warm for years to come.


About Masum Billah 37 Articles
Masum Billah is a Staff Writer for The GeoStrategists. A Graduate from the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, Masum Billah is a human rights activist. He writes columns on human rights, foreign policy, and terrorism.
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