India in the Indian Ocean

By Berlin, Donald L. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

India in the Indian Ocean


Berlin, Donald L., Naval War College Review


One of the key milestones in world history has been the rise to prominence of new and influential states in world affairs. The recent trajectories of China and India suggest strongly that these states will play a more powerful role in the world in the coming decades.1 One recent analysis, for example, judges that "the likely emergence of China and India ... as new global players-similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century-will transform the geopolitical landscape, with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the two previous centuries."2

India's rise, of course, has been heralded before-perhaps prematurely. However, its ascent now seems assured in light of changes in India's economic and political mind-set, especially the advent of better economic policies and a diplomacy emphasizing realism. More fundamentally, India's continued economic rise also is favored by the scale and intensity of globalization in the contemporary world.

India also is no longer geopolitically contained in South Asia, as it was in the Cold War, when its alignment with the Soviet Union caused the United States and China, with the help of Pakistan, to contain India. Finally, the sea change in Indian-U.S. relations, especially since 9/11, has made it easier for India to enter into close political and security cooperation with America's friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific.3

Much of the literature on India has focused on its recent economic vitality, especially its highly successful knowledge-based industrial sector. The nature and implications of India's strategic goals and behavior have received somewhat less attention.4 Those implications, however, will be felt globally-at the United Nations, in places as distant as Europe and Latin America, and within international economic institutions. It also will be manifest on the continent of Asia, from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Japan. Finally, and most of all, the rise of India will have consequences in the broad belt of nations from South Africa to Australia that constitute the Indian Ocean littoral and region.

For India, this maritime and southward focus is not entirely new.5 However, it has been increasing due to New Delhi's embrace of globalization and of the global marketplace, the advent of a new Indian self-confidence emphasizing security activism over continental self-defense, and the waning of the Pakistan problem as India's relative power has increased. Other, older, factors influencing this trend are similar to those that once conditioned British thinking about the defense of India: the natural protection afforded the subcontinent by the Himalayan mountain chain, and the problem confronting most would-be invaders of long lines of communications-the latter a factor that certainly impeded Japan's advance toward India in World War II.6

The December 2004 tsunami that devastated many of the coasts of the Indian Ocean (IO) turned the world's attention to a geographic zone that New Delhi increasingly sees as critically important and strategically challenging.7 The publication of India's new Maritime Doctrine is quite explicit on the central status of the Indian Ocean in Indian strategic thought and on India's determination to constitute the most important influence in the region as a whole. The appearance of this official paper complements a variety of actions by India that underscore New Delhi's ambitions and intent in the region.8

WHY THE OCEAN IS INDIAN

Why does New Delhi care about the Indian Ocean region? India is, after all, a large nation, a subcontinent in itself. Why is it driven to exercise itself in a larger arena, one larger in fact than the South Asian subregion?

The reality is that while India is a "continental" power, it occupies a central position in the IO region, a fact that will exercise an increasingly profound influence on-indeed almost determine-India's security environment.

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