Dragon vs Elephant (Part-2): Indian Navy’s Role In The Indian Ocean


Given India’s interests in acquiring aircraft carriers and its doctrinal statements regarding sea-control and sea-denial, it appears that India, like China, seeks regional hegemony. It could be argued, however, that the acquisition of aircraft carriers is purely deterrent in nature and cannot be construed as being offensive in this case. To place the matter beyond reasonable doubt, therefore, it will be instructive to examine India’s activities in this regard to determine if its intentions are defensive or offensive in nature.

Australian researcher Lindsay  Hughes, who is now a contributing guest author for Defencyclopedia, analyses the role and growth of Indian and Chinese navies. This is 4-part series will document the historical, geographical, economic and military reasons responsible for the military buildup and this article is the second one in the series.

If you missed the first part 

Dragon vs elephant (Part-1): Indian Navy’s massive modernization drive

Indian Navy’s role

India has emphasised its requirement for a dominant position in the north-eastern IOR and more so towards the western approach to the Malacca Strait since the 1990s. This, according to Brewster, is part of a broader strategy of projecting power into the main entry and exit choke points of the Indian Ocean. These points include the Mozambique Channel, the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb around the Arabian Peninsula and the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits in the east. These choke points, recognised as being vital to the control of the Indian Ocean, apparently guide India’s regional maritime strategy. This may also be gauged from the Indian Navy’s doctrinal document, Freedom to Use the Seas:

By virtue of geography, we are … in a position to greatly influence the movement/security of shipping along the [sea lines of communication] in the [IOR] provided we have the maritime power to do so. Control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.

Over the last two decades, India has constructed a new base for the Eastern Fleet south of Vishakhapatnam and sophisticated naval and air force facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands constitute a seven-hundred-mile chain at the western approaches to the Malacca Strait, and provide the perfect basis for projecting power into the Malacca Strait. The Eastern Fleet apart, the aircraft stationed at this base have an operational radius sufficient to project power into the Malacca Strait and into extensive areas of the South China Sea. Additionally, Indian Special Forces conduct regular training operations from the Andaman Islands base. The islands have received much attention in Beijing, with one Chinese analyst describing them as a “metal chain” which could lock the western end of the Malacca Strait. The militarization of India’s east coast and the approaches to the Strait of Malacca are a clearer indication of India’s intention to be the predominant power in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.


India’s maritime Engagements

The potential power of the Indian Navy is not the only aspect of sea power which is growing increasingly visible. It has also undertaken several functions to prove itself a useful partner to South-east Asian states in dealing with instances of disaster relief, piracy, smuggling, refugee issues and terrorism. Since 1995 it has also conducted the biennial MILAN (Togetherness) naval meetings at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. In 2012 the five-day meet had fourteen participating countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and the Seychelles. This meeting is not a naval exercise, per se, but an opportunity to increase military-to-military relationships with the navies of regional states. Neither China nor the USA is invited, presumably to assert India’s regional primacy. Since 2008 the Indian Navy has also sponsored the biennial Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) at which the heads of the navies of littoral states may express issues of concern. The Indian Navy has emphasised its strengths in maritime policing and counter-terrorism since 2001. It has interdicted supply routes in the Andaman Sea by Indonesian and Thai separatists, drug smugglers and refugees. It made a strong contribution to disaster relief in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. Furthermore, joint India-Indonesia naval patrols off Sumatra and similar patrols (and training) between the Indian and Thai navies (as “funnel states” to the Malacca Strait) arguably demonstrate a general acceptance of India’s role in Southeast Asia.

Malaysian Scorpene submarine
File:Exercise Milan 2014 for 17 navies of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, organised by Indian Navy, Andaman and Nicobar Command (6).jpg
Naval ships from 17 nations participated in Milan 2014

In 2002, India began to provide naval escorts to high-value commercial shipping through the Malacca Strait, after being requested to do so by the USA, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Singapore, which hosted Indian naval ships, supported this request. India consulted with Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. Indonesia, however, rebuffed India’s request for a more permanent role in the Strait, stating that the strait’s safety lay with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This led Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, to deny India had any intention of patrolling the Strait. Malaysia has since accepted an Indian presence in the Strait and was ready to accept a strategic relationship with India, provided India’s security ties with Thailand are scaled down. Malaysia, however, agreed to an Indian aircraft presence in the “Eye in the Sky” project to provide air surveillance over the Strait. In return India has offered to provide training and support for Malaysia’s MiG-29 aircraft and Scorpène submarines. This has led some analysts to believe Malaysia is now more amenable to an Indian presence in the Malacca Strait.

It would be naïve, however, to believe India’s interests remain confined to the Indian Ocean. It also has strategic ambitions in the West Pacific region including the South China Sea.

It would be naïve, however, to believe India’s interests remain confined to the Indian Ocean. It also has strategic ambitions in the West Pacific region including the South China Sea. Daly, for instance, claims India is a factor in the balance of power as far as the Taiwan Strait. Likewise, Indian strategist, C. Raja Mohan believes that India will become an East Asian power because of its military and economic growth. More importantly, the Indian Navy, agreeing with Mohan’s three circles, itself identifies the South China Sea as an area of interest after the Indian Ocean. This, though, is not new. In 1945 K.M. Panikkar recognized Vietnam’s importance in controlling China’s entry into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, probably underscoring India’s attempts to secure a deep security relationship with Vietnam.

This photo taken on Wednesday shows the versatile Fleet Tanker Shakti anchored at a port along the Huangpu River in Shanghai. [Pang Li/China.org.cn]
INS Rana docked in Shangai during a port visit
INS Shivalik sails into the Shanghai harbour during the a port visit

Since 2000, India has extended its reach into the South China Sea through regular naval visits, unilateral exercises, and bilateral exercises with regional states. In 2000, Indian warships visited ports in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. In 2004 the Indian Navy deployed ships to the South China Sea on “presence cum surveillance” missions on three occasions, and in 2005 the aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, and a task force visited Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps as a sign of China’s concern, in September 2011 an Indian Navy ship, sailing from Nha Trang port in Vietnam to Haiphong, was challenged by an unidentified radio call in which the announcer identified himself as the “Chinese Navy”. Early this century India sought long-term access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay air force and naval bases. The then Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, suggested Indian ships could patrol local sea lanes and contain local conflicts. More recently, it was reported that India would train around five hundred Vietnamese submariners as part of the expansion of their military ties.

Indian Navy ships INS Karmuk (left) and INS Shivalik docked at Nha Trang port during a visit to Vietnam
Indian Navy ships INS Ranvijay (fore) and INS Sahyadri docked at Westport in Port Klang on a 5 day visit to Malaysia

In October 2013 the Indian External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, visited the Philippines to upgrade Indo-Filipino ties to a comprehensive partnership prior to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit in 2014. Khurshid and his Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, agreed to expand defence cooperation between the two countries; reportedly Manila may purchase two frigates from India. Saliently, their joint statement calls the South China Sea the West Philippines Sea, by which name Manila refers to the disputed sea, contradicting India’s policy until now of calling the area the South China Sea so as to avoid upsetting Beijing.

India has had a fairly stable relationship with Japan, despite Japanese debate on whether India is Asian. During the Cold War, Japan saw India’s non-alignment as untenable and its economic policies unattractive to investment. This has changed. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement in 2007 that the India-Japan relationship “will be the most important bilateral relationship [for Japan] in the world” gives some indication of the extent of the change in perception. Despite a brief interregnum after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, Japan enhanced its ties with India because Japanese officials realised they could be left isolated due to India’s growing regional relationships. A strategic relationship was proclaimed in 2005 and was extended to include the formalisation of defence ties, especially maritime co-operation, in 2006. Foreign Minister Taro Aso proposed closer ties with India, Australia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states on the basis of shared values.

This translated into the proposal by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a “Quadrilateral” initiative in which Australia, India, Japan and the USA would hold a security dialogue. April 2007 saw the first trilateral naval exercise between India, Japan and the USA in the Western Pacific, and in August of that year, the annual India-USA Malabar exercise was transformed into large-scale exercises involving Australian, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and US ships. Speaking in the Indian parliament in the same year, Prime Minister Abe referred to an India-Japan relationship which could “evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the US and Australia”. In 2008 the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers formalised an India-Japan Joint Security Declaration, “an essential pillar for the future architecture of the region”.

File:Malabar 07-2 exercise.jpg
Ships of the United States, India, Japan, Australia, and Singapore in the Bay of Bengal during Malabar 2007
File:Malabar 2014 Line Astern.jpg
Ships of the Indian, Japanese and the U.S. Navies sail together during Exercise Malabar 2014.

Both Prime Ministers emphasised that these treaties did not seek to isolate or contain China. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the April – May 2013 border stand-off between China and India, and barely a week after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited New Delhi on his first international trip as Premier to calm the situation, Prime Minister Singh visited Japan. During this visit the stand-off was discussed by the USA, India, and Japan at their fourth trilateral dialogue, emphasising “greater security cooperation at a time all three countries are facing what they perceive to be an increasingly belligerent China”. Though not a formal ally, India has reportedly “signed up for the dialogue that goes beyond security cooperation.”

The relationship has grown since late 2013. Prime Minister Abe was Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January 2014. Japan has, furthermore, been asked to invest in areas that are strictly off-limits to China, notably in the north-eastern states. This is all the more telling since China, which claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, worked to deny an Asia Development Bank loan in 2007 to Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it was ‘disputed territory’. Furthermore, Japanese organisations have been invited to construct a new port in Chennai. Also, in the immediate wake of the Imperial visit to India by the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Japanese Defence Minister Itsonuri Onodera spent four days in India, which culminated in a joint statement with his Indian counterpart, A. K. Antony, that Japan and India will “further consolidate and strengthen their strategic and global partnership in the defence arena through measures ranging from regular joint combat exercises and military exchanges to cooperation in anti-piracy, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”

As with Japan, India seeks to develop closer strategic ties with South Korea and Taiwan. Though not as sophisticated and formalised as Indo-Japanese ties, these are being gradually developed. South Korea sees India as a potential market for its defence and civil nuclear technology and, importantly, as an important security provider in the Indian Ocean. India has sought to deepen its defence ties with South Korea by purchasing eight mine-sweeper ships from Seoul. Similarly, India and Taiwan have increased their non-official and non-public security contacts in recent years. The non-official description of these contacts enables India to maintain its claim of non-alignment and non-interference in the affairs of other states. It also enables India to maintain its façade of adhering to a one-China policy.

File:한국-인도 연합기회훈련 항공촬영 (2) (7333858778).jpg
Indian Navy ships and South Korean Navy ships during a joint exercise

It comes as little surprise, then, that some Chinese observers see these actions as a subtle Indian attempt to encircle China by itself and together with the United States and Japan.

To conclude, this study notes that while India does not display Mahanian principles as overtly as China does, these are observable upon closer examination. For instance, while India’s modernisation of its navy may be seen as a step towards ensuring its own maritime security, the use of the navy to project force into and beyond the Strait of Malacca is not defensive. This is the action of a state which seeks a degree of power beyond that which is purely defensive in nature. Similarly, while India’s ship-building capacity may not match China’s, its actions – political and maritime – in the Western Pacific demonstrate a trend towards countering China’s actions in the Indian Ocean. The principles behind these actions may be discerned by an examination of the Indian Navy’s doctrinal statements published over the years. Furthermore, formalised agreements between India, Japan and the USA, naval exercises between these three states, and further nascent relationships between India and South Korea and India and Taiwan, point to at least indirect or consequential Indian efforts to encircle China, just as it believes China is attempting to do to it. These actions are not defensive in any way. These are Mahanian principles cloaked in politics and security ties. They are, furthermore, the actions of a state which, recognising its maritime shortcomings, seeks to alleviate those through shared security relationships against a perceived common (potential) enemy.

By seeking to project its power through the Strait of Malacca and into the Western Pacific, India demonstrates its adherence to Mahan’s principles of sea power and Mearsheimer’s tenets of offensive realism. Its actions are aggressive in nature, which lead this examination to conclude that it seeks to counter China’s emphasis on regional hegemony by firstly securing its own region, the Indian Ocean, and then projecting its power while taking into account its presently limited ability to do so, into the Western Pacific region. To this extent, at least, India also seeks a degree of regional hegemony and, again like China, seeks to use its modernised and upgraded navy to achieve this end.


Lindsay Hughes is a Senior Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a think-tank established by the former Governor General of Australia, Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery. He specialises in the security and politics of the Indo-Pacific region, with an emphasis on the Sub-continent and China.

Edited by N.R.P

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13 Replies to “Dragon vs Elephant (Part-2): Indian Navy’s Role In The Indian Ocean”

  1. beautiful analysis, what is to be noticed the chinese drew the first blood,, india seeks a bit military status-quo but more is its assertiveness to protect its independent sea-trade which amounts to billions of dollars and not simply depending on Beijing’s whimpsical wishes like small states. the pakistan card plays too which gives an unfavourable situation for india. so i would india is not getting aggressive,it is rather aggressively defending its interests….and a flare-up in South China Sea, or in IOR is not impossible, rather more probable with passing time


      1. even after the intlectual crime by Briten along with nehru and gandhi,,for atomic bombing on Japan by them.,,mr.Nethaji Subash Chandra Bose..still now Indians were Along with people of Japan,for all their Goodness,for their gentleman charecter practiced by them,among world community.. were the most Highness of their culture.but how about so called briten ,and queen practicing the crime,intlectual crimes, seeding such only in world community.in the name of Royal,in the name of queen, they practice all untoward , crimes, on human community of this world still today,with non stoping world war on human community , for killing humans and making life for, by them against human community ,now most of the world human community started openly against them, for their practing Invading, Hunting, Killing,Raping, Robbery, were only practiced by them, proved by them, along with Bible making Girls as No Humans, with all Weapon sales, for their livelihood, is these good for whom..,think.. world Human Community.. many more , my friends, brothers, sister of world human community .hats off for your humanity alive in all HumanBeing. t.k.


  2. I dont understand why the india symbol to show elephant. The make in india initiative symbol elephant


    1. Basicly note the fundamentals of china, all such development raised by china, only on acquasition of Singapore from u.k., ie. england, ,earlier, and now singapore is used by them for pirate, ie, duplication market producer, industry, so is the reason for all such picture on china.other wise even today excluding Singapore, people of china are still have no job, and many more crises in the family of china. unexposed, because of communisem, beyond killing people of china, ..


  3. excellent article. India have to increase its interest in south China sea through helping Vietnam and other enemies of China such as Philippines and japan. India should show its power infront of the World. then only others will think twice before taking any action against india. jai hind.


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