By Rear Admiral Dr S Kulshrestha
Two incidents in the recent past reflect the benevolent relationships India shares with countries in the Indian Ocean Region. First was supplied by fresh water to Maldives through INS Deepak and INS Sukanya when the Maldivian desalination plant caught fire and the Maldives faced an unprecedented fresh-water crisis. The second was evacuation of Indian and foreign citizens from Yemen involving Indian Navy, Indian Air Force, Air India, and passenger liners.
India places considerable emphasis on developing a security presence in the northeast Indian Ocean. There are several dimensions to this: first, India’s presence in the Andaman Sea, second, bilateral relationships in the region and third, aspirations in the Malacca Strait. While India aspires to play a significant security role in Southeast Asia it has given particular focus to the Malacca Strait, the key maritime choke point between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, which run north-south through the Andaman Sea are a natural base for projecting power into the Strait and beyond into the South China Sea.
India has deep links with Singapore, which now acts as India’s primary economic, political and security partner in Southeast Asia. Singapore sees India as having a prominent security role in the region, acting as a balance to other extra-regional powers like China, United States, and Japan. India and Singapore conduct extensive security cooperation, including broad-based security dialogues, joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and cooperation in defense technology. At the invitation of the United States, India took a role inside the Malacca Strait through the provision of naval escorts for high-value commercial traffic, as part of the U.S. led Operation Enduring Freedom.
India has also been developing its security relationship with Indonesia; a Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2001. There are biannual “coordinated” naval patrols; between Indian and Indonesian Navies in the Six-Degree Channel at the northern entrance of the Malacca Strait; to keep extremist groups from using these routes. These patrols comprise Indian and Indonesian vessels and aircraft, coordinated out of India’s Joint Operations Command in the Andaman Islands.
In November 2009, Australia and India concluded a joint security declaration, providing a framework for increased cooperation. The statement focussed on issues like maritime policing (piracy and maritime terrorism, illegal fishing, people trafficking, etc.), disaster management, and anti-terrorism. There seem good prospects for closer security relations in coming years.
India-Malaysia defense relations have steadily grown over the years. An MOU on Defence Cooperation signed in 1993. Malaysia-Indian Defence Cooperation meetings are held routinely at the level of Defence Secretary from Indian side and Secretary General from the Malaysian side; Malaysia participates in the biennial MILAN event regularly. Indian navy and coast guard vessels make regular friendly port calls each year at Malaysian ports.
Thailand and India have agreed to continue strengthening defence relations including exercises and joint patrolling.
Vietnam has also welcomed Indian Navy ships in their region, which would enhance India and Vietnam military ties. Vietnam has also sought Indian support for a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
India and Japan have common interests in securing the sea-lanes in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean, co-operation for fighting international crime, terrorism, piracy, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The two nations have frequently held joint military exercises and co-operate on technology. India and Japan concluded a security pact on 22 October 2008.
In June 2012, India, a major importer of arms and military hardware purchased eight warships from South Korea.
The first security dialogue between Philippines–India held in Manila on 12 March 2004 laid the foundations for sharing security assessments, reviewing and giving direction to cooperation in bilateral/regional security and defence matters.
A security agreement with Maldives in August 2009 significantly enhanced India’s capabilities in the central Indian Ocean. It allowed India to use the former British naval and air base on Gan Island- the southernmost group of islands in the Maldives. (Lying about 1,000 km south of India and 700 km north of Diego Garcia). India is now building a system of 26 electronic monitoring facilities across the Maldives archipelago as part of the agreement.
India has cordial relations with Iran due to India being a prominent importer of Iranian oil and the fact that it is now proactively engaged in developing container terminals at Chahbahar port. India entered into various defence agreements with Oman since 2003, for training, maritime security cooperation and joint exercises. The Indian Air Force uses the Thumrait Airbase for transit purposes. Oman offers berthing facilities to the Indian Navy for anti-piracy patrols. India entered into a security agreement with Qatar in 2008. The agreement, deals among other things with maritime safety and intelligence sharing. India has a cordial relationship with Yemen since diplomatic ties started in 1967.
The south-western Indian Ocean forms the gateway to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. India’s security relations in the region are anchored to intimate relationship with Mauritius, the island territory that lies around 900km to the east of Madagascar. India has long-standing and close political, economic and security ties with Mauritius. The Indian Navy has been periodically patrolling Mauritian waters and provided anti-piracy patrols in 2010.
The Indian Navy has assisted Seychelles with maritime security in the EEZ as part of a 2003 defence cooperation agreement. It started in July 2007 when the Indian Navy opened an electronic monitoring facility at the head of Mozambique Channel in northern Madagascar. In early 2010 Indian Navy provided anti-piracy patrols and reportedly has also been granted “limited” berthing rights in Madagascar. The Indian Navy has also acted as a maritime security provider for Mozambique, in 2006. India and Mozambique entered a defence cooperation agreement that envisaged joint naval patrols, the supply of military equipment, training, and technology transfer in repairing and assembling military vehicles, aircraft and ships.
India’s maritime security relationships in the southwestern Indian Ocean get buttressed by growing maritime security relations with France and South Africa. Since 2001, the Indian Navy has conducted annual exercises with the French Navy, which operates out of Reunion and Djibouti. India also has a growing presence in Antarctica, with three active research stations.
From the above it can be visualised that India has built a reasonable number of bridges of friendship in the Indian Ocean Region which have helped in enhancing its image as a benign friend in need.
Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha is Senior Fellow New Westminster College, Canada