Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2020-08-14 10:00:14 Published on Aug 14, 2020
Delhi sides with the U.S. and Japan vis a vis China in this strategic strait. But it needs substantial improvements.
India and the Malacca conundrum

1. Until the 1990s, when people spoke of the Asia-Pacific, they usually excluded India. Whether it was security policy, academic discourse or economic agreements, “Asia-Pacific” ended at South-East Asia. Just how much has changed is evident from the emergence of the term “Indo-Pacific”, deliberately situating India in the new regional dynamic. But, whether it is “Asia Pacific” or “Indo Pacific”, at the core of the concept has been the vast region comprising of the 10 nations of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), who form a vibrant economic community bridging east and west Asia.

As its western flank, India occupies a crucial position in the Indo-Pacific. This is evident from the fact that the bulk of the maritime traffic going through the Malacca Straits passes through, or proximate to, India’s maritime contiguous zone. Indeed, a great deal of traffic that reaches here comes from the Persian Gulf, sails past the tip of peninsular India to reach the Malacca Straits.

Geography and geopolitics play a significant role in India’s approach to the region which has several layers— history, cultural links, trade, security, investment and economic development. India’ connect to Southast Asia comes in two ways: it is linked overland through its 1600 km land border with Myanmar. Further, through the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain, India shares maritime boundaries with Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Fortunately, all these boundaries, including the one with Bangladesh are settled and there is no dispute on account of them.

Flanked by the Indian mainland and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lies the Bay of Bengal which is also the north-east quadrant of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India’s eastern seaboard hosts its Eastern Naval command, as well as its premier submarine base. It is also the site of the main testing facilities for its ballistic missiles. Given this location, India aspires to be the dominant power in the region and exert influence on its littoral.

Its major challenge comes from China, which is not on the Bay of Bengal littoral, but one that borders Myanmar, India and Thailand. As a major economy and a trading nation, China seeks secure maritime and land communications to and through the region. It is a major trade partner and investor in many of the countries of South-East and South Asia. It also has significant arms transfer ties with Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It has built and operates Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, and is building one in Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. There has been talk of grander plans of building a deep sea port at Melaka in Malaysia to undermine Singapore, or cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Kra to bypass the Malacca Strait.

Neither of these in themselves will reduce the physical salience of India in the adjacent seas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

2. Indic culture, or the Southeast Asian adaptation of Indian culture, was widespread—ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. The decline of Buddhism in India and the rise of Islamic political power cut the links between the region and India. Indian traders, scholars and adventurers were followed by the Dutch, Portuguese and the British who established political control over the region. India was transformed from an exporter of manufactured goods to a supplier of raw materials for Britain and the Europeans took over the trade in spices and textiles. Under the British Empire, India, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong were viewed as a single strategic entity though they were run by two different Secretaries of State in London.

India was made aware of the importance of the region to its security when Japan invaded the region in 1941, over-ran Malaya and Myanmar and arrived at the gates of India. Simultaneously, Japanese submarines and raiders came through the Straits of Malacca and began to operate in the Indian Ocean. India played a key role in shaping the post-colonial architecture of the region. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru articulated the vision emphasising Asian unity, advancement of decolonisation, anti-racialism and rejection of great power competition. This was done through the two Asian Relations Conferences in 1947 and 1949 and culminated in the Asia-African Conference at Bandung in 1955. Though India had “introduced” the People’s Republic of China to the Afro-Asian nations in Bandung, the two soon fell out. India’s military defeat at the hands of China in 1962, sent its stock plummeting in the region.

In the ensuing decade both India and China moved away from the region. China was feared because of its support the Malaysian insurgency, the national liberation movements in Indochina, and its links with the powerful Indonesian communist party. India went through wars with Pakistan, insurgencies and economic turbulence. Its pro-Soviet orientation kept it removed from the grouping called the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which had been shaped as an anti-Communist grouping in 1967. The market-orientation of the ASEAN economies and India’s persistence with “socialistic” policies kept the two regions apart in the 1970s, as did their contrary positions in relation to Vietnam and its intervention in Cambodia. But things changed thereafter as the Malaysian insurgency was defeated, the Indonesian Communist Party decimated in a pogrom and Communist states like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia admitted into the Association.

3. The collapse of the Soviet Union and a deep economic crisis compelled India to rejig its economic and foreign policies. On one hand, there was a rapprochement with the United States and on the other, an opening up of its economy. India inaugurated a “Look East” policy and has developed a strong institutional relationship with ASEAN as an organisation and its individual countries ever since. India was invited to become a “sectoral partner” in 1992, a Dialogue Partner in 1996 and a Summit-level partner in 2002. Linkages relating to security were established through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meetings (ADMM) and organisations like the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific CSCAP.

For India, Look East and Act East have not turned out to be the kind of economic dynamo that they were expected to be. ASEAN is India’s fourth-largest trading partner and accounts for 18 percent of the investment flows into India since 2000. But a lot of this is an outcome of India’s ties with just Malaysia and Singapore. The latter accounts for over 90 percent of India’s in and outbound investment from the region. (1) On the other hand, China has built huge economic links in South-East Asia, despite the issues that several ASEAN members have with the country on account of its exaggerated maritime claims in the South China Sea.

For the ASEAN nations, China looms large as a neighbour, trading partner and investor. As for India, its imprint is much weaker. One indicator of the difference has been the Indian decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an agreement between ASEAN and its free-trade partners – China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The agreement which could come into force in 2021, has been pushed by China since it will gain enormously in influence as well as economically.

But India has developed important security ties with the region. It began in 1995 with hosting the Exercise MILAN which took place in the Andaman Sea and saw the participation of major ASEAN navies. Since then India has held bilateral and trilateral exercises with various nations of the region, such as the Simbex with Singapore and the Sitmex with both Singapore and Thailand. (2) ASEAN states like Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia are happy to have India into the role of balancing China.

So far exercises are more confidence-building events featuring search and rescue and countering piracy operations rather than purely military episodes. India also has bilateral CORPATs (Coordinated Patrols) with navies of Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar.In 2018, India sought to become part of the Malacca Sea Patrol through which countries that bordered the Malacca Straits—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia— carry out coordinated aerial and maritime patrols through the straits. New Delhi had to be politely informed that under UNCLOS only states bordering the straits can patrol them. (3)

India and Singapore have one of the most consequential relationships in the region. Both have similar institutions inherited from Britain, as well as the use of English as an official language. They have a healthy economic relationship and close ties on security issues. They have an annual ministerial and official level dialogue on security issues, as well as staff level talks between the three wings of the armed forces. Singapore Army and Air Force use Indian facilities for training. The two countries have also signed a pact to access each other’s bases and provide reciprocal logistics support for warships.

4. In the Bay of Bengal quadrilateral, the Indian mainland and the Straits of Malacca form one diagonal and Myanmar and Sri Lanka the other. India has the added advantage of having forward location in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the western entrance of the Strait. These are a group of 572 islands, of which 37 are inhabited and were the only territory of India occupied by Japan in World War II. They are spread some 850 km in a north-south orientation adjacent to the western entrance of the Malacca Straits, a major Indian Ocean choke point. The northern-most point is just 40 km from Myanmar and the southernmost 170 km from Indonesia.

In many ways, the islands are the hinge on which India’s Indo-Pacific strategy swings between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Recognising their importance India established its first joint military command, known as the Andaman and Nicobar Command headquartered in Port Blair in 2001.

The islands have three roles in India’s defence strategy. They are, first, an advance outpost to monitor ingress of hostile vessels from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Second, they are the flank of a vast and deep portion of the Bay of Bengal where India will maintain its nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarines in a bastion mode Third, they are the springboard upon which India expand its strategic space and project power into the western Pacific Ocean, with a view of balancing China’s role in South-East Asia.

But a lot of this is work in progress. As of now the force levels of the Andaman and Nicobar joint military command are not very significant. They are aimed at surveillance, more than anything else. But India has the potential of building up a significant military presence there. While the Indian Eastern Naval Fleet is a substantial one, it is still primarily aimed at controlling the ‘near seas’. As for the nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, they are in the process of being developed. At the moment, the lone Indian submarine INS Arihant hosts short-range missiles with little strategic significance in the Chinese context. As for the western Pacific, though India participates in military exercises with Japan and US there and is a member of the Quadrilateral Grouping or Quad along with Australia, its deployments there are not significant.

Myanmar is a key country for India. It is the land bridge that connects the country to South-East Asia. India has a 1600 km land border with Myanmar and a 725 km maritime boundary as well. Insurgent groups from the northeastern part of India have often found sanctuary in Myanmar, while the latter also suffers from several separatist insurgencies.

But relations between the two countries are good. They have carried out joint military operations against insurgents in their border region and in 2018, have had their first bilateral naval exercise. India also sold a refurbished Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in 2017 and is helping train the Myanmar navy. (4)

But Myanmar has equally good relations and an even deeper economic engagement with China, which has built an oil and gas pipeline connecting its landlocked Yunnan province with the Indian Ocean. China is deeply engaged in Myanmar and is a major supplier of military aid including jet fighters, armoured vehicles and naval vessels. But Naypitaw is careful to maintain an even-handed approach with both New Delhi and Beijing and seeks to leverage its location to its own benefit even while jealously guarding its autonomy.

In recent years, China, India and Japan have undertaken large-scale connectivity schemes in Myanmar. The Chinese ones aim at opening up its land-locked southeastern regions, while those through India such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project, are aimed at linking India to the rest of ASEAN. From the maritime point of view, China has helped Myanmar upgrade its ports and is building a new one at Kyaukpyu. India has also chipped in with the construction of the Sittwe port and is in the process of completing its ambitious Kaladan Multi-modal project aimed at linking Kolkata to its eastern Mizoram state, via a road and river link in Myanmar.

Sri Lanka is just about 30 km from the Indian mainland, separated by a shallow Palk Strait which ensures that Indian maritime traffic goes around the island. The main sea lanes of communication going to the Malacca Straits go through the island’s contiguous zone. Its port of Colombo is a major transhipment hub for India. India has a long cultural and ethnic connect with Sri Lanka and between 1987-1990, it sent an expeditionary force to fight the terrorist Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The fear of domination and the support the LTTE got from India has made the Sri Lankan leadership, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist and of Sinhala ethnicity, wary of India. India’s refusal to get involved in the last phase of the Sri Lankan civil war against the LTTE, led to China assisting the Sri Lankan government in the mid-2000s.

Subsequently, Beijing increased its presence on the island. Besides providing loans for infrastructure construction, China built a port at Hambantota, the extreme south of the island, making it the closest port to the sea lanes between the Malacca Straits and the Straits of Hormuz. In addition, China is funding a huge reclamation scheme on which it will build a new financial centre adjacent to Colombo.

Since 2014, Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean has increased including growing naval traffic and submarines visiting Sri Lankan ports. This was a matter of concern for New Delhi and it reacted by supporting an opposition grouping to displace the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajpakse. Though the Rajapakse family is back in power, they are more careful about unnecessarily stirring up Indian concerns. Especially now since the US has also indicated its concerns over the Chinese activity.

South of Sri Lanka, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the US maintains a powerful naval base in Diego Garcia. In recent years, worried about Chinese influence in the island state, the US has been seeking to enhance its military presence on the island. Since it has a major base in Diego Garcia, south of Sri Lanka, it does not want a base, but to use Sri Lankan ports and airports as logistics hubs.

India is now seeking to work along with another existing initiative which has implications for the South-East Asian region. This is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) established in 1997. Five of the seven states that make up BIMSTEC are rim countries of the Bay of Bengal—India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar. Bhutan and Nepal are two landlocked states which use its maritime links for their trade. (5) India is the lead country in dealing with the sectors of transportation and communications, tourism, environment and disaster management and counter-terrorism and transnational crime.

In 2019, Prime Minister Modi invited all the leaders of BIMSTEC to attend the swearing-in ceremony for his second term. Considering he had invited leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for his first swearing-in ceremony in 2014, this was a signal of India’s determination to double down on its Act East policy. Note that barring India and Bhutan, all other countries are also participating in China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). The challenge for New Delhi is to find the resources to underpin the grouping, if not on the scale of China, but somewhere near it. Relations between the countries of BIMSTEC are generally good, but its core country, if we can call it that—India— has a continental, rather than maritime orientation. (6)

5. India lacks the capacity of taking on China by its own in the Southeast Asian region. However, over the years, it has been building ties with the US, Singapore and Japan which have important implications for the region. In addition, India has its own important bilateral ties with Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

To balance the Chinese in Hambantota, Sri Lanka has asked India to develop Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. SKIL Infrastructure has assessed the potential of the port and says that it would require a $ 1 billion investment. Japan has also evinced interest in participating in the project. (7) There is considerable potential in India-Indonesia relations. Despite claims that Indonesia has no disputes with China on the maritime border issue, the two countries have clashed in the Natuna Islands. Jakarta has good economic relations with Beijing, but its vast archipelago with key choke points makes it a key player in any Indo-Pacific strategy.

Two key achievements of Modi’s visit to Indonesia in May 2018 were a document on a “shared vision of maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” and a Defence Cooperation Agreement. As part of this, India would not only gain access to the north Sumatran port of Sabang, at the head of the Malacca Straits, but also help to develop it. (8)

Japan is an important player here as well. It has been a major investor as well as funder of infrastructure projects in the ASEAN region as well as India. In fact, despite the BRI, Japan-backed projects are worth one and half times more than those of China in South-East Asia. (9) Tokyo is also seeking to establish important ties with New Delhi, based on their mutual antipathy to China. As part of this, Japan is a major provider of Overseas Development Assistance to India and is also associated with the country in a larger scheme called the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. This project aims at developing connectivity and trade in an arc from South-East Asia to India and Africa and seeks to compete with the BRI.

In the immediate term, however, it is not India’s economic heft that could play a role, but its military capabilities. Though India has a large military, resource problems are affecting its modernisation. The Indian Navy, for example, has been left with important gaps in its force structure. Last December it was announced that instead of a 200-ship force, they would only be 175 by 2027. Given the COVID-19 induced economic contraction, even that figure looks optimistic. (10)

In the longer term, India may like to see itself as the dominant power in the north-east Indian Ocean, but in the immediate, it must cope with issues like piracy, maritime terrorism, separatist movements within its boundaries as well as in Thailand and Myanmar. And, of course, it must keep an eye on China which has strong ties with the countries of the region and whose navy has now begun conducting regular forays into the Indian Ocean, entering mainly through the Malacca Straits.

In the past few years, despite its resource problems, India has laid the groundwork for a more active role in the region around the Straits, using its important bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The ties it has developed with the US and its strategic partners, Japan and Singapore have been a key asset. India has emerged as a new entrant into this relationship. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that the Washington and New Delhi have signed is a signal of the larger role India can play. The country also has similar agreements with Singapore, France and South Korea, and is negotiating one with Japan.

India had been using American-made P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft for some years now. But after India signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, it will be able to get communications equipment used by US platforms and seamlessly communicate between other users of the platform. Already, the two countries have been collaborating on information sharing relating to the movement of Chinese ships from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean via the Malacca Straits. In the future, there is talk of India becoming part of the Fish Hook network that the US has established to track Chinese submarine movements. Underwater sensors along the Andaman and Nicobar chain to Indonesia would be linked to an existing chain in the western Pacific, would effectively track all Chinese submarine movements. (11)

But a lot of this remains a work in progress and depends on the policy choices that New Delhi makes. In recent years it has become more active, besides the steps outlined above, it has also agreed to increase the level of its Quad commitment. The fallout of covid-19 could see an India weakened further and this, in turn, could encourage it to reach out more strongly to the US and aid its agenda in the Indo-Pacific. This could result in a serious effort to give teeth to its Andaman and Nicobar Command which will hold the key to any significant Indo-Pacific commitment that New Delhi is willing to make.

1. "Strengthening Asean-India Partnership: Trends and Future Prospects", Export-Import Bank of India, Jan. 2018. 2. "India, Singapore strengthen military ties", New Strait Times, 26/11/2019. 3. D. Mitra, "Indonesia Told India Its Quest to Join Malacca Strait Patrols Isn’t Feasible", The Wire, 31/5/2018. 4. H. Siddiqui, "Act East Policy: India gives Myanmar Kilo Class submarine and trains their sailors", Financial Express, 16/12/2019. 5. S. Ramachandran, "India’s BIMSTEC Gambit", The Diplomat, 31/5/2019. 6. C. Xavier, "Opinion – India needs to walk the talk on Bimstec", liveMint, 28/8/2018. 7. "India frm’s interest in Sri Lankan port upgrade advances", Joc, 17/9/2018. 8. A. Beo da coSta, "Indonesia, India to develop strategic Indian Ocean port", Reuters, 30/5/2018. 9. "Japan still leads in Southeast Asia infrastructure race, even as China ramps up belt and road investments: report", South China Morning Post, 23/6/2019. 10. V. Thapar, "Budget crunch forces Indian Navy to cut down on its plan for a 200-ship Navy by 2027", Sp’s Naval Forces, 3/12/2019. 11. A. Singh, "India’s “Undersea Wall” in the Eastern Indian Ocean", Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 15/6/2016.

This commentary originally appeared in Limes: The Italian review of geopolitics .

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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