Five hundred years ago this year, the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque captured the Strait of Malacca and established supremacy for his country in the East Indies. Although Portugal couldn’t project power into the Asian hinterland with its limited military resources, it was strong enough to dominate a number of active trading outposts, including Goa in India and Macau in China. From these positions, the Portuguese managed, for a while, to control the European trade with South and East Asia. Today, a great power may aim to do the same.
In Monsoon (2010), Robert Kaplan characterizes the area between the Gulf of Aden in the west and Malacca in the east as the center stage of the twenty-first century. If India is to graduate from being a regional power in South Asia to a great power in the Asia Pacific, it is this pivotal ocean with its vital waterways that it should seek to control — whether directly, through hard power, or indirectly, with a soft power approach. Whatever its choices, India needs a clear naval diplomacy.
India is among few nations with the potential of being a continental and a maritime power simultaneously. Its policymakers have long concentrated on their hinterland where Pakistan loomed since independence as a natural rival. But as India’s economy is growing and its place in the world increasingly secure, it has to revive its maritime focus.
With a distinctive “Look East” policy, India boosted its trade relations with Southeast Asia. Indian naval officers regularly visited Southeast Asian countries as part of its naval diplomacy. Now, it has to extend that aim into the South Pacific if not beyond.
Nearly all major powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were either continental or naval powers. France, Germany and Soviet Union belonged in the first category whereas the ascendancy of Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States was largely based on the maritime strength of these nations. Kaplan stresses in Monsoon that a sea power’s fleet — military and commercial — is instrumental to its rise.
India, however, has apparently failed to capitalize on its peninsular basis to achieve strategic objectives overseas. Its relations with countries as Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are historically linked but remain largely unexploited today. If New Delhi is to successfully implement a naval diplomacy, it should revisit its cultural ties across South and Southeast Asia.
An Indian naval diplomacy will also act as a counterweight to China’s “string of pearls” strategy. India would not be alone in such an endeavor. China, too, is both a continental and a maritime nation and emerging as a Pacific superpower. Few other countries in East Asia welcome its military rise. Especially in the South China Sea, China’s revisionist border policy concerns neighbors and the United States. In fostering allies and building bases across the Indian Ocean, it may seem as though Beijing aims to encircle India to check its ambitions. New Delhi could certainly rival a Chinese supremacy on the high seas.
Slumbering as usual, India finally came to understand China’s intentions recently and it embarked on a counteroffensive. It improved its bilateral relations with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and started to court other littoral states likes the Maldives which could be of strategic importance to India. It is also sending naval officers on routine trips to these countries while regular exchanges at the officer’s level now take place.
Most of the great powers that aspired to control of the Indian Ocean sought a base at the Maldives. The southernmost of islands in the archipelago, Gan in the Addu Atoll, was a Royal Navy base during World War II. It was originally set up in response to the Japanese advance against Singapore. Follow the British departure in the early 1970s, Iran, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union each tried to secure the island as a base to counter the American presence in Diego Garcia.
A further necessary step would be for India to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in the littoral Indian Ocean states it seeks keep in its orbit. It could also initiate additional bilateral and multilateral initiatives in South Asia to bolster its status as a regional hegemon. What it cannot afford to do is ignore the imperative of formulating a decisive naval policy now and be overtaken by events instead.