Originally Published 2021-01-02 10:24:19 Published on Jan 02, 2021
The Indian Ocean is important to China because Chinese trade and energy resources transit this route.
Countering Chinese assertiveness: India’s changing posture in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is once again at the centre of major geopolitical competition. China’s growing footprint and influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has made the contest for power and control in the region between China and the US and its partners significant. The Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs) are important for many Asian countries because it is both an energy and trade corridor, making these countries sensitive to any vulnerabilities. Now, undersea cables add to these vulnerabilities.1

India has long been wary of power-plays in the Indian Ocean but finds itself with few options today but to participate in securing a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In the process, India appears to be willing to reconsider some of its old concerns about external actors in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, there are also some questions about the terms of engagement between India and its partners about the focus of their common efforts. Resolving these could lead to greater synergy and easier cooperation.

Growing Chinese presence is cause for concern

India’s stakes in the IOR are obvious, despite India’s lack of attention to the maritime front. From a security perspective, since independence, India has not faced any significant maritime threat. Much of the Indian maritime security focus was in terms of the relatively minor naval threat from Pakistan and non-traditional threats including piracy and terrorism. While these concerns remain, they have been overtaken by worries about China as an emerging IOR power, with a growing footprint in the region.

Darshana Baruah argues that China’s growing Indian Ocean presence is not just about contesting India’s strategic role in the IOR, but it is part of a determined agenda to “emerge as a key player in the IOR” which feeds into “China’s larger objective of becoming a global maritime power1.” The PLA Navy’s growing strength means that it is shaping up to be a formidable force to reckon with. This is complemented by China’s growing maritime ties with countries in the IOR and increasing naval presence in the region.

India has multiple concerns about China in the Indian Ocean. One, already alive, is Chinese activities in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Speaking earlier this year, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said that both Chinese research vessels and fishing boats have been seen in Indian Ocean, including in the Indian EEZ.

For example, the Chinese ‘research’ vessel Shiyan 1, was seen near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in September 20193. Such occurrences are no longer isolated incidents.

In August 2020, even in the middle of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ladakh on the Sino-Indian border, China sent its Yuan Wang class research vessel in to the Indian Ocean4. An Indian Navy official was quoted as saying that there were “four to six Chinese research vessels known to be presently operating in the IOR5.” These research vessels are used for surveying various parameters, including currents and salinity as well as mapping the ocean floor, which will assist the PLAN in undertaking submarine operations in these waters. Though relatively less serious, Chinese fishing fleets have also been operating in the IOR. However, a slightly longer term and more serious concern is the likelihood of expanded Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is important to China also because Chinese trade and energy resources transit this route. So, it is natural that China might want to protect these SLOCs, but an expanded naval presence will also be a direct threat to India.

India’s perceptions of the Indian Ocean are evolving

While India has been used to a Chinese military threat along the land border and has built a large ground force to deal with this threat, a maritime threat would represent a new front with added complications for India.

As a result, India’s perception of the Indian Ocean has also changed. This became evident as early as March 2015, in speeches by Prime Minister Modi in Seychelles and Mauritius6. Modi outlined five changes in India’s approach to Indian Ocean security and diplomacy. These were a significant departure from India’s policies going back to the late 1960s, when India opposed the presence of external navies in the Indian Ocean. As Raja Mohan has suggested, India’s earlier stance may have been reflective of the Indian wariness of being engulfed in “the great power rivalry” at its doorsteps7.

A second element was deepening economic and security cooperation with “our friends” in the region to strengthen maritime security capacities. A third point Modi made was about the role of institutional mechanisms such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. The fourth point highlighted was the need for overall development of the blue economy, while also calling on the region to take a leadership role in dealing with the problem of climate change.

The fifth and final point in Modi’s was the most radical of all, a new approach to the role of external powers in securing Indian Ocean. He said that while “those who live in this region have the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean…we recognise that there are other nations around the world, with strong interests and stakes in the region.”

In essence, Modi was justifying and calling for cooperation with external partner powers in the Indian Ocean. These include the United States, Australia, Japan, France and others, and countries that have partnered with India in conducting security dialogues, military exercises and exchanges. The changed approach is possibly an Indian acknowledgement of the fact that India faces “serious capacity constraints” in managing the Indian Ocean by itself, especially considering the prospect of China becoming a major player there8.

Modi continued in his speech to again indirectly reference China. He emphasised the need to have a “climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues; and increase in maritime cooperation9.” This shows that, in addition to getting rid of India’s old approach of partnering with others when it comes to the Indian Ocean, India was also clearly identifying the threat: China.

The words and catchphrases used clearly referred to China, such as the need for “trust and transparency” (because China has been accused of lacking these) and the “peaceful resolution of maritime issues” (a clear reference to China’s actions in the South China Sea).

Deepened Indian Ocean cooperation requires close coordination

Australia’s participation at the 2020 Malabar naval exercises is a clear recognition of India’s changing attitude towards foreign navies in the Indian Ocean. It is a step towards fulfilling Modi’s call for cooperation with like-minded strategic partners, fuelled by India’s changing posture towards China.

It is also an indication of the increasing synergistic approach among the major Indo-Pacific powers — Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The expanded Malabar exercises demonstrate the common strategic endeavour among the four to develop cogent responses to the many security challenges in the Indo-Pacific including China. The naval exercises could go a long way in creating greater confidence and interoperability among the four navies, which will be key in ensuring a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

But cooperation with such partners will also require some common terms of understanding, most basically of the relationship between the ‘Indian’ and ‘Pacific’ components of the Indo-Pacific. Even though the concept of Indo-Pacific has gained greater traction over the last couple of years, there have been differences in the understanding of what constitutes the Indo-Pacific.

The geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific in particular has been a topic of considerable debate. India, Japan and France have similar perceptions that the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ covers the area from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of America. Others, especially the US, appear more focused on the Pacific component. The Pacific powers, including Japan, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, appear to be more focused on countering China’s power in the Pacific and South China Sea, whereas Indian worries have been around China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. There clearly needs to be better coordination between these two sets of concerns. Only when there is better coordination between these two sets of focus areas would it be possible to consider burden-sharing between the partners.

Hopefully, a clearer enunciation of India’s Indian Ocean strategy will also translate into efforts for coordination between India and its partners in dealing with maritime challenges, especially those posed by China.

There is a precedent for cooperation, though, at a smaller scale: India has worked with others to cooperate in anti-piracy operations. These, of course, included China also. Cooperating to deal with the security challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific will be at an entirely different scale and seriousness. This would require a sustained dialogue involving the different partners to evolve some sort of division of labour and burden sharing in order to effectively monitor China’s naval activities in all theatres of the Indo-Pacific. This could lead to arrangements in which India bears a greater burden in the Indian Ocean, while others bear a similar burden in the eastern waters. Other minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific are exploring such options of burden sharing in order to address capacity gaps — the India-France-Australia trilateral is a case in point10.

There is little doubt that China’s growing naval capacity affects all Indo-Pacific powers. New Delhi appears to recognise the difficulties involved and thus appears more keen to cooperate with other maritime powers in maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region. This is a good first step to greater Indo-Pacific cooperation, but further coordination is clearly needed.


1 Centre for the National Interest and National Maritime Foundation (2011), Maritime Security Challenges in the Indian Ocean Region: A Workshop Report, February 23-24, , New Delhi; Nadia Schadlow and Brayden Helwig (2020), “Protecting undersea cables must be made a national security priority,Defense News, 1 July, 2 Darshana M. Baruah (2020), “Strengthening Delhi’s Strategic Partnerships in the Indian Ocean,” Center for a New American Security, 23 October. 3 Liu Zhen (2019), “Chinese research vessel expelled by Indian warship for operating near Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” South China Morning Post, 4 December. 4 Times of India (2020), “Amid tensions on border, Indian Navy tracks Chinese research vessel in Indian Ocean,” 17 September. 5 Shaurya Karanbir Gurung (2020), “Alarm over Chinese research ships in Indian Ocean Region,” The Economic Times, 30 January. 6 Ministry of External Affairs (2015), “Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius (March 12, 2015),” 12 March. 7 C. Raja Mohan (2015), “Modi and the Indian Ocean: Restoring India’s Sphere of Influence,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 18 June. 8 Darshana M. Baruah (2020), “Strengthening Delhi’s Strategic Partnerships in the Indian Ocean,” Center for a New American Security, 23 October. 9 Ministry of External Affairs (2015), “Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius (March 12, 2015),” 12 March. 10 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (2020), “Rise of the Minilaterals: Examining the India-France-Australia Trilateral,” The Diplomat, 17 September.

This analysis originally appeared in Perth US-Asia Centre.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

Read More +