India has shifted its strategic focus from the army to navy, seeking to counter potential Chinese encirclement and secure maritime energy routes.
India has recently emphasized the role that its navy will play in enabling the country to pursue its geopolitical ambitions. The primary driver in India’s naval focus will be to enable the country to become the paramount great power in the Indian Ocean. This entails countering encirclement by one possible future hegemon, China, as well as possibly adding value to regional security efforts by the current hegemon, the U.S.
Economic security guarantor
As India’s economy continues to grow, it becomes increasingly more reliant on uninterrupted energy flows from regions such as the Middle East and East Africa. Therefore, similar to China, the country has recently shifted from its traditional focus on its army. As a result, the navy has been identified as a foreign policy priority by the Indian government, with Prime Minister Modi actually christening the Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya shortly after his swearing-in ceremony.
India’s navy will be instrumental in not only securing energy and trade flows from other regions to India itself, but also to East Asia. The Asia-Pacific region, specifically China, Japan, and South Korea, are vital to more than just regional economic stability. As the locus of global economic and political power continues its inexorable shift eastwards, these three economies and their immediate neighbors will be critical to global economic stability, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial and Eurozone crises.
“String of pearls” encirclement
While the Indian navy has indeed been useful in regional anti-piracy efforts as well as disaster-relief initiatives, these fall under the rubric of soft power. Hard power ambitions, defined by inescapable geographic realities, are the real drivers of India’s naval upgrades. One such primary ambition is to avoid encirclement by China with its “string of pearls” tactic. This is even more important given China’s maritime arm of its “One Belt, One Road” scheme, the Maritime Silk Route.
The navy will play an instrumental role as India attempts to forge a more strategic alliance with China’s ancient enemy, Vietnam. This mirrors China’s alliance with Pakistan, India’s traditional nemesis. This naval role will be enhanced in light of Vietnam’s clashes with China over South China island disputes and oil rig placements. Lastly, the navy will also serve to protect India’s investment in Vietnam’s offshore oil blocks.
India’s naval policy objectives
Due to India’s geographic position, the country has two overriding policy objectives. The penultimate role relates to its anti-encirclement efforts detailed above, but more importantly to enforce India’s maritime primacy in the Indian Ocean region. Echoing the Caribbean Sea’s importance to the U.S, the Black Sea’s to Russia, and the South China Sea’s to China, India’s naval development serves as a shot across the bow to other powers seeking to position themselves in India’s own backyard, the Indian Ocean.
A secondary, but no less important, role of the navy will be to enforce India’s role as maritime “spigot-turner.” Again, because of India’s unique geographic position, it can potentially threaten its rival China by purposefully interrupting its energy flows from the energy-rich Middle East and Africa. This is one reason why China’s tone with India is always noticeably softer compared to with the U.S, and definitely with Japan.
Value to the U.S
Due to of swiftly deteriorating U.S-Russia relations, the opportunity for the U.S to leverage Russia to interfere with overland energy routes from the Middle East to China has pretty much evaporated. Reflecting improved Sino-Russian relations, this was driven home by the recent announcement that China’s Silk Economic Road would coordinate efforts with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
As a result, it would appear that any efforts by the U.S to limit China’s rise by stifling overland energy routes have been severely diminished. Because of this, the Indian navy’s usefulness to the U.S has only increased, but with the caveat of respecting India’s core interests as outlined above.