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China Is Not Alone in Adding to the Indian Ocean Woes

Atul Bhardwaj ( is a former naval officer and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.


The navalists of the world are ­smiling. The maritime domain is back in the reckoning. A new era of great power competition at sea has arrived. Existing, emerging, erstwhile, and aspiring empires are engaged in ocean-romance in the Asia–Pacific theatre. American carrier battle groups are making frequent forays into the region and struggling to fulfil the promise of “pivot to Asia.” China recently held its biggest naval combat drill in the South China Sea. The rise of the Chinese navy is manna for the American navalists who are constantly in search of a ­raison d’être to justify their massive budget of roughly $145 billion.

Naval enthusiasts from the West and their former colonies are also basking in the Chinese naval glory, asking their governments to give more for maritime domain awareness (MDA) to meet China’s increasingly assertive designs in sea lanes. The dormant overseas territories held by France in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific have suddenly come alive. The Royal Navy has woken up from its imperial grave to open its new military base in Bahrain. This is the first permanent British base east of the Suez Canal in more than four decades. They had handed over the HMS Juffair base in Bahrain (established in 1935) to the Americans in 1971. The United States (US) is bringing back Britain to Bahrain because it can no longer sustain its imperial possession alone. It wants to incorporate other navies in its scheme of things to ensure the sustainability of its “command of the commons.”

The Indian elite that harbours a deep desire to establish an empire is super-excited about the ongoing drama in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy is tweeting hard to inform the Chinese that their naval movements in the Indian Ocean are being tracked, and also reassuring the Americans that the Boeing P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft are being put to good use. The Indian Navy’s “mission based deployment” plan “from GULFDEP to MALDEP” is strewn all across the media. The “nautical neurosis” that is now afflicting Indian navalists is similar to what had surfaced in 1989 when Time magazine had put the Indian Navy on the cover page of its Asia edition and titled the lead story “Super India.” The reason for euphoria then was a few years of good gross domestic product growth and the acquisition of an old ­aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine from the two defunct empires of Britain and Soviet Union, respectively.

The Indian naval planners of the early 1990s, perhaps, failed to account for major disruptions in the world order. They also did not anticipate a relatively peaceful decade that followed after the end of the Cold War. India’s acquisition of two prestigious platforms gave us ample naval glory, but these were never tested in battle conditions. While the nuclear submarine helped us learn more about the unique machine, our investment in the carrier is questionable. The Indian naval pride floated on the high seas, largely for training purposes. We had shown similar lack of understanding of strategy in 1957, when we bought our first aircraft carrier from Britain.

The foreign exchange that should have gone into research and development, and indigenisation went into the purchase of an expensive platform. To avoid such pitfalls, we need an audit of the strategy that justifies the purchase of a particular weapons system. Before purchasing more weapons, we need to carry out a dispassionate evaluation of the objectives that a particular purchase is expected to achieve. For example, before embarking on a project to build two more aircraft carriers, the Indian Navy should have thoroughly analysed the use or disuse of its previous aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers cannot be bought just because they make our navy look more formidable and add to our prestige. Having a large navy merely to look as great as our erstwhile coloniser or like a miniaturised version of the US Navy is certainly not a good enough reason, because a seaborne military force” is just one instrument of controlling the oceans. The other important instrument for commanding the oceans comes from one’s ability to derive money and power from sea-trade.

The ocean strategy of medium powers cannot be derived from theoretical tools that define the strategy of a great power. The two are distinct because the geographies that define the spectrum of their engagement are different. A maritime power operates in the international domain, whereas a medium maritime power is largely restricted to the littorals and little beyond. Having a miniaturised version of a superpower’s navy does not qualify a medium naval power to be a maritime power.

Our strategic aims must match our economic capabilities. China switched its navy to an expeditionary mode only when its economy crossed the $10 trillion mark. Those who punch above their weight often end up being just another patsy, just as Pakistan has been used and discarded by the US.

Land-based Maritime Power

A maritime power conjoins sea power with political and economic instruments available on land. The “maritime power” tag is reserved for a global hegemon that exercises a relatively high degree of po­wer, both in the maritime as well as continental domains. A maritime power defines the hierarchies at sea. It determines the contours of collaboration and conflict at sea. The organisation of the order at sea is its sole preserve. Its main role is to maintain the primacy of oceans in the international political economy. A maritime power ensures that international trade uses sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) to the maximum extent. A maritime power has the financial str­ength to underwrite maritime trade and the navy to regulate the rhythms of international trade. More than managing the maximum number of ships and ports, a maritime power is at the helm of international finance and the global arms industry.

War vessels and merchantmen are the two most visible elements of power at sea. However, the marine service industry, the most important arm of maritime power generally remains obscured. The marine service sector regulates and organises the diverse maritime cluster. This silent force operates in the realm of marine manufacturing, marine legal services, engineering, and technology, and supports the charter, insurance, sale, and purchase of maritime assets. It also determines freight and cargo rates. It is this sector that helped Britain sustain its empire for another 75 years, after the US had become the centre of international manufacturing by the 1870s.

Despite the departure of large-scale commercial shipbuilding from its shores, the United Kingdom (UK) is still a major sea power because it is the lead actor in the global marine services sector. The UK writes the largest share of all international marine insurance risks. UK-based Protection and Indemnity Clubs account for approximately 60% of the world’s share. In broking, the UK has more than half the global share of tanker charter business and up to 40% of dry-bulk charters. Therefore, one can say that the UK has a major economic reason for ensuring that oceanic order continues under the command of the US. However, Indian objectives in trying to prevent China from replacing the American hegemony are ambiguous.

Unfortunately, India, which boasts of a big navy, figures nowhere in the marine service industry matrix. India’s excessive security approach to marine matters is similar to Admiral Sergey G Gorshkov’s strategic outlook in the 1970s. Gorshkov considered the holistic development of the Soviet maritime assets, both the naval and merchant fleets. However, what he failed to give the Soviets was an understanding of the marine service industry. He never attempted to monetise the Soviet naval power by seriously competing with the West in the insurance and shipbroking sectors. The result was that the Soviets with their sophisticated carriers and submarines were a hollow sea power because they controlled nothing at sea. The Americans were happy with Gorshkov because their hegemony would have been nothing without a counter hegemonic force provided by the Soviet navy.

The big question is that India, with a non-existent presence in the global marine ecosystem, is flexing its naval muscle without much purpose. We are afraid of the Chinese empire-in-the-making while being oblivious to the dangers that the existing American empire poses to the Indian Ocean region. We are so bothered about the Chinese developing a base in Djibouti, but have been oblivious of the fact that France and the US already have a base over there. Our strategic community and the media are perturbed about Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s linkages to China. However, his opponent, the former President Mohamed Nasheed’s connections to Western powers lie unexplored. President Nasheed was cultivated as a green-warrior at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. In the run-up to the conference, a video showing him working underwater with his cabinet to highlight the issue of global warming was prepared by his communications advisor, Paul Roberts, the owner of a New York-based communication and advocacy firm, Roberts+Rich. Time magazine elevated Nasheed to the top of their “Leaders & Visionaries” list of “Heroes of the Environment.” The United Nations awarded Nasheed its “Champions of the Earth” award. Foreign Policy magazine named Nasheed on its list of top global thinkers. Roberts served as communications advisor to President Nasheed for six years (Madsen 2012).

The French territories in the Indian Ocean (Réunion and Mayotte Islands) and the South Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) have “given France the largest exclusive economic zone in the world (11 million square kilomet­r­e­­s)—6­­2 percent of which is in the Pacific and 24 percent in the Indian Ocean. The Indo–Pacific is home to nearly 1.6 million French citizens and approximately 7,000 permanent French military personnel” (Mohan and Baruah 2018). Now, if we can think of deepening our maritime bonds with France, an existing occupier of the Indian Ocean, then what stops us from imagining maritime cooperation with China, which is still an infant power in the Indian Ocean? We do not know how Chinese hegemony will work in the future, but we know the exploitative and heinous character of the French and the British Empires. The question is, why are we not as afraid of the West as we are of the Chinese?

The British used the bogey of a Russian invasion “to disguise the motives behind projects of expansion in and beyond India” (Yapp 1987: 647). The Americans are now employing the bogey of the Chinese threat to befool India again. We cannot move ahead on the presumption that the Chinese empire will be bad. Who knows, it may be a little better and more peaceful than the wretched, iniquitous world that Anglo-American capital has created. The Indian navalists must be a little more judicious and not allow the Indian Navy to be used as a projectile to counter China.


Madsen, Wayne (2012): “The Purpose of US Soft Power Themed Revolutions: Disunity and Power Projection,” Strategic Culture Foundation, 14 February, viewed on 15 April 2018,­s/2­­­­­0­­­­­1­­­­2/02/14/purpose-us-soft-power-themed-revolutions-disunity-power-projection.html.

Mohan, Raja and Darshana Baruah (2018): “Deeping the Indo–French Maritime Partnership, Carnegie India, 23 February, viewed on 15 April 2018, https://carnegieindia.o­rg/­201­­8/­­­­­02/­­­­23/deepening-india-france-maritime-partnership-pub-75630.

Yapp, M A (1987): “British Perceptions of the ­Russian Threat to India,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 21, No 4, pp 647–65.

Updated On : 2nd May, 2018


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