Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:43 | SYDNEY

India ocean: By invitation only


Rory Medcalf


26 February 2008 09:11

Any aspiring maritime power derives a nice sense of entitlement when it finds its name already affixed to a decent body of water. India is lucky enough to have its stamp on an entire ocean. Earlier this month, New Delhi sent out some curious signals on who is welcome there and who is not.

China wasn’t the only major stakeholder in Indian Ocean security to be pointedly excluded from the first Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or IONS. India snubbed some of its real friends too:  the US, Japan and the UK. (India, it would appear, deems Diego Garcia a relic of colonial thievery, and thus no basis for Britain to attend a regional forum.) Thankfully, Canberra’s claim to Western Australia is somewhat more recognised, and Australia scored an invitation. So too, given its Indian Ocean territories, did France. 

Taking a cue from the long-established and US-sponsored Western Pacific Naval Symposium, India had invited the naval chiefs from countries with territory in the Indian Ocean region to discuss common challenges – from piracy to pollution, terrorism to territorial delimitation - and prospects for more co-operative responses. In parallel, a ‘second track’ conference of scholars and retired maritime security practitioners was convened by India’s National Maritime Foundation. The plan is to make the naval symposium a biennial event, with the experts’ conference in a permanent advisory role.

This month’s were inaugural meetings - testing the waters. Thus there was lots of talk but no instant co-operation. This was to be expected. Given the miserable way the region’s largest diplomatic enterprise, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC),  has drifted for an albatross-ridden decade or more, nobody is going to expect, say, Mozambique, Maldives, Myanmar, Malaysia and a few dozen of their nearest and furthest neighbours suddenly to harmonise maritime patrolling or fish stocks monitoring or indeed much else anytime soon. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the Indian Ocean rim ever becoming a cohesive region, with its vast distances and diversity of states, failed, flourishing and in-between.

But India’s goals were both more modest and more ambitious than that. New Delhi wants to define the region as it likes, and to make itself the anchor for any co-ordination that might eventually arise. If nations’ decisions to despatch their admirals are any measure, the symposium has given India some success in establishing itself at the political as well as the geographic centre of the region: of 31 countries invited, only two (Pakistan and Iran) made their excuses. Admittedly, New Delhi has made a show of not seeking to control these new forums it has created, by letting others volunteer to chair subsequent rounds. (When I was in New Delhi last week, word was that South Africa is next). But by excluding most extra-regional powers, even those whose energy and trade security depends critically on Indian Ocean sealanes, India has ensured it will be the biggest fish in this particular diplomatic aquarium.

At the same time, the exclusion of the US from IONS gives India a new symbol of the independence of its foreign policy, handy for soothing the domestic Left and the international non-aligned. Never mind that much more tangible co-operation with the US Navy (in operationally-focused exercises, procurements and progress towards information-sharing) is accelerating. The rumour that India is considering buying the soon-to-be-retired US aircraft carrier Kittyhawk hasn’t gone away. Nor, from the tenor of my conversations with analysts in New Delhi, have India’s maritime anxieties about China. For the Indian Navy, thwarting Beijing’s intentions, real or imagined, remains the main game.