Opportunities and Challenges

The Indian Ocean Region is no longer what it used to be

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

A heady mix of geography, diminishing options on the land, an illusion of converging geopolitical interests with the United States and a well-crafted practice of self-projection has propelled the Indian Navy into the enviable cusp of diplomacy and military. No mean feat for the smallest military service in India, long regarded as the silent force that operated well away from the public eye.

The Indian Ocean Region is no longer what it used to be

Not any longer. Today, the Indian Navy is seldom out of mind, even if it still remains out of sight most of the time. If on the one hand, an increasing number of foreign navies and coastal forces seek the Indian Navy for joint exercises, the service has also ensured that the citizenry remains aware of what it does and how through a series of public events, quality films outsourced to professional filmmakers and musicians, as well as celebrity brand endorsements. In a country, where a film actor is almost there amongst the pantheon of Gods, getting a couple of them to put their weight behind the navy really drives home the message that this is the service with the right dose of patriotism, adventure and fun.

It was nearly a decade ago, despite the subsequent setback of the 26 November 2008, when 10 terrorists held not just the city of Mumbai but the entire nation to ransom for almost three days, that the Indian Navy’s and the government of India’s visions more or less converged on the Indian Ocean. With the land borders boxing in the aspirations of a growing nation, the ocean promised the possibility of breaking out of the confines of the military lines. Bilateral and multilateral exercises with friendly navies intensified, benign support to smaller nations in the form of joint patrolling as well as exclusive economic zone (EEZ) patrolling gained fervency and the navy expressed its desire to take on greater responsibilities of military diplomacy. The ministry of external affairs (MEA), however, remained circumspect about letting the navy run away with the script. As long as it held the strings, navy could put itself out there.

The navy’s first bold initiative came in the form of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which, broadly inspired by the US-led Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) was launched in February 2008. The inaugural session, held in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan, was opened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. An extremely ambitious idea, IONS 2008 saw a nearly full house of all Indian Ocean littoral nations, including the apparently inimical ones like Pakistan. Yet, India’s own MEA gave the symposium a cold shoulder and did not attend it. Little wonder then, over time government of India lost interest in IONS, leaving the navy to plod along on its own. Recently, the navy has been trying to infuse fresh purpose into the meandering forum.

In an off-the-record conversation with FORCE two weeks ago, a senior naval officer insisted that all is not lost as far as IONS is concerned. “It was because of our not so friendly neighbour that we decided to pull our hand back. It used to object to everything we did. But now other nations have realised that what India can do others cannot match. You will see the difference now,” he promised.

Additionally, the navy launched another multilateral engagement called Goa Maritime Conclave this year. Held in Goa, it was inaugurated by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. While there would be nuanced differences in the overall objectives of this and IONS, organisationally they are poles apart. While IONS, as the name and its inspiration suggest, is a collective of all Indian Ocean nations whose chairmanship rotates among all members, Goa Maritime Conclave is an exclusive ‘By Invitation’ only club, permanently chaired by India. Hence, India gets to decide who ought to be invited and who deserves to be dropped.

The navy’s outreach in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which encompasses its primary area of interest (from the Straits of Hormuz in the west to the Straits of Malacca in the east) as well as the secondary area of interest (from the eastern tip of the Mediterranean in the west to South China Sea in the east) has become more intense, a bit akin to a fulsome embrace.

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