India’s internal pressures and geographic isolation have long kept its government focused primarily on the affairs of the subcontinent. But fearing encirclement by China’s expanding military presence, and depending more and more on vital economic lifelines through hotly contested waters, New Delhi is expanding India’s defense presence across the Indo-Pacific. From the shores of southeastern Africa to the mouth of the Malacca Strait and, increasingly, into East and Southeast Asia, India is wooing strategically located states and winning access to foreign ports and military bases, while building up naval and air infrastructure to leverage the geographic advantages its own remote territories provide.
This Deep Dive surveys the strategic logic, advantages and limitations of India’s expanding military footprint in each corner of the Indian Ocean basin. It also looks at how a greater Indian presence might bolster the emerging multinational effort to contain China’s advance. Ultimately, it concludes that while India lacks Beijing’s deep pockets and the pace and scale of China’s military buildup, it has geography and ample international support working in its favor.
Why India Is Pushing Outward
For a country with more than 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of coastline, India has never been particularly ambitious in the maritime sphere. This is largely because it’s never had much reason to look beyond the subcontinent at all. Geographically, India is protected by the near-impenetrable Himalayas to its north, unforgiving tropical terrain to its east and deserts to the west, and buffered by the vast waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the open ocean. Any outside power attempting to threaten the heartland would have to arrive either overland, through the Hindu Kush and Indus valley, or by sea. Either way it would confront India’s demographic immensity, which makes direct subjugation by force nearly impossible. That outside powers have dominated the subcontinent is a result mainly of its internal fractiousness. Its primary occupiers – various Muslim dynasties from the 11th century to the 18th century and the Europeans beginning shortly thereafter – succeeded because they managed to turn India against itself, deftly exploiting the competition among different factions and power centers to cultivate coalitions of collaborators who would support their largely commercial aims.
With that history in mind, India has generally focused inward since its independence. Its viability as a modern nation-state has hinged on its governments’ abilities to manage internal divisions. External geopolitics, with the exceptions of the periodic blowups with Pakistan and occasional border clashes with China, took a back seat to more immediate concerns. But the demands of this endeavor are changing, along with India’s broader strategic environment.
To fuel growth and development, India’s economic interests have expanded far beyond the subcontinent. The country has well over a billion mouths to feed, and sustaining the level of economic growth and modernization necessary to support this population has given India a voracious appetite for commodity imports such as energy. Last year, around 47 percent of the total energy India consumed came from imports, including more than 80 percent of its oil needs. As a result, the country has been quickly expanding its naval presence around critical chokepoints near the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa – waters known to be teeming with pirates, rebels and explosive risks rooted in Middle Eastern rivalries. Around 40 percent of India’s trade passes through the similarly turbulent waters of the Malacca Strait.
At the same time, the interests of other emerging powers have also expanded. In fact, the foremost driver of India’s expansion is China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. Neither India nor China has much interest in duking it out for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. China’s core strategic concern is the series of maritime chokepoints to its east and south that an outside naval power could use to sever its access to critical sea lines of communication. India’s core strategic concern is its internal incoherence and the hostile nuclear power across its western border.
The problem is that as China moves to address its primary strategic concerns to its east, secondary issues to its southwest are becoming more important, making India, largely unwittingly, more of a potential threat, and vice versa. China needs to find ways to bypass chokepoints in the East and South China seas, meaning it needs to build deep-water ports, pipelines and rail lines in India’s backyard. And to prepare for a potential conflict that blocks its maritime chokepoints, it also needs to develop naval forces to keep its backup outlets open and counter enemy forces coming from the west – an effort that will require a network of bases and logistics facilities on India’s periphery to support them. We’re skeptical about China’s prospects for success in building out this “String of Pearls” – and in developing into a naval power capable of dominating distant waters. But there’s little reason to doubt China’s intentions to try.
For India, the reason for Beijing’s strategic fears is meaningless, as is the reality that China is still too weak to project substantial power into the Indian Ocean. Whatever China’s intentions, India feels encircled by a country with a seemingly insatiable appetite for power – one that happens to be arming New Delhi’s most dangerous rival and intent on building a blue-water navy, putting it at an intolerable risk of a two-front war. And so, as China’s defense footprint expands into the Indian Ocean basin, India is urgently trying to expand its own presence, both in its immediate periphery and in China’s front yard.
This is particularly important since India’s naval modernization lags considerably behind China’s rapidly developing maritime capabilities. India is beginning to invest heavily in maritime power projection assets, including a new fleet of nuclear submarines and its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, as well as a growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles, maritime surveillance planes and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. It’s also considered to have inherited ample operational expertise from the British. Even if India has little hope of checking Chinese operations across the vast Indian Ocean, it does have some options to confront China where it’s most vulnerable.
An Expanding Sphere of Influence
India’s expansion is still very much a work in progress. To date, it has a single overseas military base in Tajikistan – which is useful for containing Pakistan and keeping an eye on China’s expanding footprint in the Himalayas but irrelevant in the maritime realm. It is aiming, however, to develop several other naval and air bases across the Indo-Pacific. Perhaps more important, it’s deepening ties with numerous other regional states that are similarly concerned about China’s rise. These partnerships could give India access to a network of existing bases operated by a range of outside powers.
The strategic reality of India’s budding naval rivalry with China is most apparent in Southeast Asia. In the unlikely event that major maritime hostilities were to erupt between them, the rapidly growing People’s Liberation Army Navy would vastly outgun India. But that would matter only if the conflict were to take place one-on-one in open waters. It wouldn’t. India has an inherent advantage over China – one that countries like Japan and the U.S. have as well: China depends entirely on sea lanes that pass through bottlenecks such as the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits. India’s main strategic task is to be in position to help block Chinese ships at these chokepoints should a conflict with China break out. It, by contrast, doesn’t have any such chokepoints in its immediate periphery. And the chokepoints that could threaten important sea lanes on which India relies – those around the Arabian Peninsula – are also critical to other major powers and far from Chinese shores.
India’s advantage in this regard is most apparent in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Located directly south of Myanmar in the Andaman Sea, the 527-island archipelago, which India controls, serves as the gateway to the Malacca Strait. India, naturally, has been scrambling to build out its military infrastructure there. Currently, the islands host a number of reconnaissance aircraft and sub hunters – critical for monitoring Chinese activities in the waters – but only one infantry brigade and a small force of patrol vessels. Plans call for a dramatic expansion to accommodate a division-level force and several warships, and in May India announced that it would station a fighter squadron on the islands for the first time since World War II.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands also facilitate stronger military ties with Southeast Asian states. In May, Indonesia tentatively agreed to give Indian warships access to a port on the nearby Indonesian island of Sabang, just north of Sumatra, and potentially to others on the Sunda and Lombok straits. An Indian warship made its first visit to the port at Sabang, which India is expected to help expand, a month later. New Delhi is keen to gain a toehold on the other end of the Malacca Strait as well. Last year, it inked a deal with Singapore allowing for temporary deployments to and mutual logistics support at each other’s naval facilities, including Singapore’s all-important Changi Naval Base, which currently hosts rotational U.S. warship deployments. (India is reportedly working on a similar agreement with Japan.)
India’s defense presence is extending even into the South China Sea. In 2016, it signed a deal with Vietnam to set up a satellite tracking and imaging station in the southern part of that country, giving both parties much-needed eyes on the South China Sea, including areas where India has secured oil concessions from Vietnam. (India has similar stations in Brunei and Indonesia.) Vietnam also offered New Delhi exclusive naval access to the port of Nha Trang, not far from China’s critical sub hub at Hainan, in 2011, illustrating Hanoi’s interest in encouraging outside powers to jump into the South China Sea fray.
The Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa
As noted earlier, India’s ambitions would stall out without access to steady flows of imported oil and other critical commodities. For that reason, India has devoted much of its attention to potential chokepoints at the mouths of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. That a military footprint in this region serves its interests in keeping tabs on China and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan is an added bonus. So too is the favor that India will gain with stronger naval powers like the U.S. by demonstrating its ability to contribute to a common cause.
Of particular note is India’s burgeoning military partnership with Oman, which sits south of the ever-tenuous Strait of Hormuz. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an agreement in February granting his country’s naval vessels access to the port of Duqm and giving Indian aircraft access to several Omani air bases. In addition, India operates a signals intelligence station in the city of Ras al Hadd, in northeastern Oman. The Middle East and the Horn of Africa are also where India’s recent logistics cooperation agreements with France and the United States are most likely to come in handy. The deal with France, reached in March, is expected to give the Indian navy access to facilities in Djibouti (home to China’s first overseas military base) and Abu Dhabi. The U.S. deal may provide India access to any number of U.S. bases across the region.
Despite its growing partnership with the U.S., India has been keen to expand into Iran, too. An Indian firm, for example, is developing a deep-water port in the Iranian town of Chabahar. There’s nothing yet to suggest that India will ever have naval access to the port, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. The port would certainly be valuable to several of its strategic aims. It’s located just 215 miles from the deep-water port China is building in Gwadar, Pakistan, where at least a limited Chinese naval presence is likely in the future. And it’s even closer to the Pakistani port town of Jiwani, which China is eyeing for a full-fledged naval and air base. At a minimum, Chabahar will enable India to route commodity imports from Afghanistan away from Pakistan.
Southern Indian Ocean
India’s priorities in the stretch of water between it and southeastern Africa are similar to its interests around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa: ensuring the free flow of maritime traffic through turbulent waters and countering Chinese encirclement. To those ends, India has often been willing to flex its muscles to ensure that the tiny archipelagic nations in the area stay firmly in its orbit when outside powers start poking around in the region. In 1983, for example, India was ready to mount a naval operation to stop a coup attempt from ousting the prime minister of Mauritius. It pulled the trigger in the Seychelles three years later, sending a warship to foil a coup against another allied leader. And in 1988, India once more dispatched commandos and naval ships to stop a coup, this time in the Maldives. It was a Chinese naval deployment around the Maldives that is believed to have deterred India from intervening there again last spring when the country’s president, supported by China, imposed a state of emergency and arrested several opposition leaders, including the former president whom India rescued in 1988.
China’s newfound interest in these states – and the largesse it has flaunted to secure political influence in their capitals – is posing a fresh challenge to India’s sphere of influence while complicating New Delhi’s defense ambitions. In the Seychelles, for example, India struck an agreement in 2015 for the joint development of Assumption Island, including the construction of an airstrip and a jetty. The deal has since become mired in domestic political opposition and concern about jeopardizing the flow of Chinese aid and investment. In January, India conceded to a revised, watered-down deal with strict stipulations, such as a clause precluding India from using the island during wartime. And even these changes have not been enough to secure ratification in the Seychelles parliament.
India’s experience in Mauritius has been similar. As with the Seychelles, New Delhi closed an infrastructure agreement in 2015 that was seen as a precursor to a potential Indian military base on the islands of Agalega. Chinese money has since come pouring into Mauritius – including $700 million for a special economic zone – possibly stalling momentum toward an expanded Indian military presence. In the Maldives, meanwhile, the China-backed government in June declined to renew an agreement allowing a small Indian military presence on the archipelago and joint maritime patrols. (The government was voted out of office last month, and the Indian military contingent reportedly has yet to leave the Maldives.) China, too, is learning firsthand the difficulties of navigating domestic political complications and sovereignty concerns in its Belt and Road Initiative projects.
Nevertheless, India is already operating a coastal surveillance radar station in Mauritius, as well as one in Madagascar. It may also gain entry to the naval base on the French island of Reunion, between Mauritius and Madagascar, thanks to its new logistics exchange agreement with Paris. Furthermore, just northeast of Mauritius is the British-owned Diego Garcia atoll, home to the largest U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean, which India may soon have access to under its recent deals with Washington.
Taken as a whole, India’s expansion highlights both its enduring limitations and its value as a partner for other powers. The country is still struggling to win the necessary support of regional states to build out its own network of bases. Like China, India is finding that small countries tend to be quite adept at playing competition between larger rivals to their benefit – and extraordinarily averse to the risks of getting caught in the crossfire of a conflict between great powers. But New Delhi does not have pockets deep enough to easily lock down political support for a substantial military presence across its periphery, nor does it have the military power to make it clear that an Indian security presence is the best and only option for states in the region.
Then again, India also doesn’t have to carry the burden of its defense imperatives alone, unlike China. It merely needs to prove itself valuable to outside powers – the U.S. and its allies in particular – and to smaller, strategically located states that are wary of China’s rise. These countries have ample interest in giving India the access to bases it needs to play its role, meaning India doesn’t have to build a network of facilities from scratch, an immense undertaking. This goal, in part, drives India’s contributions to securing sea lanes around the Arabian Peninsula, and it would also drive the country’s willingness to join multinational operations around chokepoints in Southeast Asia should push come to shove with China.
India is not preparing for an inevitable war with China. Of course, New Delhi wants to be ready for that and all possibilities. But like its partners in the Quad security alliance – Japan, Australia and the United States – India’s overriding goal is to make it exceedingly unwise for China to ever try to start a war in the first place. Japan, India and Australia have ample overlapping interests and little reason to be suspicious of one another’s long-term intentions. They’re separated by several thousand miles, though, and their respective naval buildups have focused on developing the capabilities to address threats in largely discrete spheres. Left to their own devices, each would be overly dependent on the U.S. to counter a challenge from China directly on its behalf.
Given the possibility that the U.S. might be tied down elsewhere, or simply be disinclined to make a costly intervention in regional affairs, there is a risk that China could one day see an opening to exploit the gaps in Australia’s, Japan’s and India’s respective capabilities and reach, and that it would try to address its own geographic vulnerabilities by force. That’s why each country is moving to put the pieces in place for a lasting containment structure in advance – the geography of which could make it vastly greater than the sum of its parts.