First Things First

India must secure its stronghold in the IOR to have primacy in the larger Indo-Pacific region

Cmde Anil Jai SinghCmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)

In his four years since becoming Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has unleashed a series of initiatives to propel India into the big league on the international stage. The conversion of the Look East policy into the Act East policy with unprecedented prime ministerial visits to nations in the region, both big and small, and an active effort to engage extensively with the western Indian Ocean littoral and the island states has led to greater demands being made on the establishment to deliver on the positive outcomes of these visits.

As India celebrates 71 years of its hard-won Independence and seeks a greater role in world affairs commensurate with its size and stature, its credibility to deliver on the big stage often comes into question. Four years is perhaps too less a period to assess the effects of these foreign policy initiatives in the medium to long-term, but it may be worthwhile examining if the current trajectory of progress provides an indicator to the likely success of these.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on INS Vikramaditya with CNS Admiral RK Dhowan in 2014

The Indian Ocean has always been central to India’s fortunes. While the marauding cavaliers from across the Himalayas exposed the myth of Himalayan invincibility as a natural sentinel, most thereafter made India their home. It was only after the Europeans arrived by sea from the end of the 15th century onwards that India truly lost its independence and came under the yoke of colonialism. Jawaharlal Nehru articulated this on board a visit to the cruiser INS Mysore where he said, “We cannot afford to be weak at sea. History has shown that whoever controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.”

However, despite India’s maritime credentials being clearly understood and reiterated from time to time this acknowledgement of the importance of the maritime domain, and the undisputed fact that India is primarily a maritime nation which is reiterated from time to time, the view from New Delhi, located 900 miles from the sea has always been continentally inclined. This has been driven primarily by India’s pre-occupation with her western and northern neighbour and their shenanigans across the land borders over the years and partly due to India’s inward-looking isolationist foreign policy for the first 45 years of its independence which was largely suspicious of any extra-regional engagement.

The year 1991 heralded a paradigm shift in our foreign policy when a balance of payments crisis stared India in the face. India began looking beyond its shores towards greater engagement in an increasingly globalised world and the Look East policy took effect. This also coincided with the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union and the unpredictability of the emerging world order, the successful rise of the Tiger economies of South-East Asia and the benefits being accrued by China through its ‘Four Modernisations’. It was time for India to leverage its size and strategic location as a leading Indian Ocean nation to shape the contours of the region. The navy began its maiden ASW exercises with the Singaporean Navy soon after and the MILAN series of exercises with South-East Asian navies began. The success of this initiative can be gauged from the fact that from humble beginnings in 1994 with the participation of four navies, the last edition saw the participation of 17 navies.

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