The United States (US) secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to India underlined the strategic importance of India in Washington’s Indo-Pacific engagements. Although the US and India did not sign any specific agreements during the visit, defence minister Rajnath Singh and Austin provided, with their brief statements, a glimpse into the areas of collaboration that lie ahead.
For the maritime domain, the interesting takeaway was the specific mention in Singh’s remarks to “pursue enhanced cooperation between the Indian military and the US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and Africa Command”.
In terms of sub-regions, the priority is in the northern (Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal), and eastern Indian Ocean (Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca). The Indian Navy, on the other hand, defines the region in its entirety as its area of responsibility from the coast of Malacca to the eastern coast of Africa. While India has begun to rectify this division of the Indian Ocean, especially with the establishment of the Indian Ocean division in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) in 2016, the western Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa still continue to be in the maritime periphery in Delhi’s official worldview.
Since Independence, India has enjoyed an advantageous position in the Indian Ocean, primarily accorded through its geography. The lack of direct competition after the end of the Cold War allowed India to continue with its limited maritime approach while retaining the role of a key “Indian Ocean player”. In reality, Delhi ignored and misunderstood the geographic importance of its maritime environment.
In comparison, Beijing has consistently aimed to improve its diplomatic, political and military engagements in the region from Sri Lanka to the Comoros, spanning the Indian Ocean in its entirety. Through the Maritime Silk Road, part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, Beijing engages with littorals and islands across the Ocean. Over the years, Beijing has undertaken missions and activities to show both its interest and ability to emerge as a key player in the Indian Ocean — from the 2014 submarine docking in Colombo and assisting Maldives in its 2016 water crisis to establishing its military base in Djibouti in 2017.
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