- China has focused on building artificial islands in the South China Sea and pulling developing countries into debt traps through the Belt and Road Initiative.
- Although India’s diplomatic missions across the globe are vast, it remains on the sidelines observing the events unfold instead of actively intervening to pull its neighbours to its side and thwart China’s plans.
- India hasn’t strengthened its presence as strongly as the US in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean or China in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
- India has to build unsinkable naval bases at Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands and expand from there to the British Indian Territories, Seychelles and Cocos Island and beyond.
- It is imperative that India focuses on upgrading its existing military technology and expanding its influence in the seas and the ocean to have an active role with the countries of the Indian Ocean Region.
On the night of 26th November 2008, 10 men came ashore in Colaba, docking at the Mumbai Waterfront; travelling from Karachi, Pakistan to Mumbai, India in an inflatable speed boat along the way, they had hijacked a fishing trawler while brutally killing the crew members and throwing their bodies overboard. They went on to kill 166 people across 8 different locations in the city, lasting till 29th November 2008, with the National Security Guards conducting Operation Black Tornado to secure the Taj Hotel finally. This came to be known as the 2008 Mumbai Attacks or 26/11. It’s also important to note that these terrorists travelled across the Arabian sea with something so simple as an inflatable speedboat to carry out a terror attack that rocked an entire nation for years and was deemed a failure of India’s Maritime Security.
In the aftermath of this terror incident, Indian state governments strengthened their policing strength both on land and also in their coastal areas whilst on the central level, several anti-terrorism policies were adopted improving the security structure and acquiring new infrastructure to secure its waters and coastal borders with much work still in progress. This has now led to the strengthening of India’s National Security and serious talks of “Maritime Security” had begun then. After 14 years since the terror attack took place, India has appointed a retired Navy Admiral G Ashok Kumar as its first National Maritime Security Coordinator as a part of
the National Security Council, tasked with coordinating with the Navy, the Coast Guards and security agencies of the 13 Coastal States to secure the 7,500 kilometres of India’s coastline.
Impact of the Sri Lankan crisis on India
Just as when India had the time to sigh in relief over this act of terrorism when things had finally begun to calm down, another unfriendly neighbour – China has once again begun to bolster its military power along the border on land whilst also strengthening its presence in the Indo-Pacific and in the Indian Ocean Region virtually threatening India’s National Security. It was especially so after Sri Lanka handed over the Hambantota International Port to the China Merchants Port Holdings Company (CMPort) for a lease period of 99 years to pay off their debt owed from the loans of the Belt and Road Initiative handing out a major port to Chinese control that is so close to India and the recent events of docking a spy ship there, after the subsequent political and economic fall of Sri Lanka.
China has once again begun to bolster its military power along the border on land whilst also strengthening its presence in the Indo-Pacific and in the Indian Ocean Region virtually threatening India's National Security.
This also raises the question of how actively India has been engaging with its neighbours whose dealings could easily end up as a threat to India’s national interests or security, although India’s diplomatic missions across the globe are vast, it remains on the sidelines observing the events unfold instead of actively intervening to pull its neighbours to its side and thwart China’s plans. India may plan to be self-reliant but that could potentially slow down the process to project itself as a better alternative to China in leadership in the Indian Ocean Region.
With both Asian hegemonic countries competing on all fronts, China might be ahead of India in its Naval presence. China has focused on building artificial islands in the South China Sea and pulling developing countries into debt traps by having them take loans to build infrastructure and taking over such areas through the Belt and Road Initiative. Slowly and steadily solidifying its presence and influence in those countries. To add to this, just a few days after India’s announcement of INS Vikrant – an indigenously designed and built 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier putting India in the top elite countries capable of building their own aircraft carriers – being commissioned to the Indian Navy, making it the 4th Aircraft Carrier, Beijing too announced their 3rd aircraft carrier – Fujian.
Does India need more Aircraft Carriers?
It is to be acknowledged that Aircraft Carriers on the high seas signify the presence of a nation-state marking its Territory of Influence. On the other hand, it’s indeed a positive outcome since INS Vikrant will only aid in strengthening India’s presence in the Indian Ocean, elevating the Navy to Blue Water Navy and is a moment of pride for Indians to welcome INS Vikrant. But, given the vulnerability an aircraft carrier would have during modern warfare, where advanced military technology is of more importance than just raw military strength as we have witnessed in the Russia-Ukraine war, which has changed the way wars with bigger and mighty looking weapons are perceived, another lesson from the Russia-Ukraine war is that the future of warfare is that of swiftness and accuracy with the help of open-source intelligence and the more high-tech sophisticated equipment at one’s disposal. Hence, this is high time to question whether India needs more aircraft carriers.
As mentioned by Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in international security, defence, and Asian strategic issues, during an Interview with Shekhar Gupta on ThePrint. When asked if India needs aircraft carriers, Tellis said that “Before asking that question, you have to ask a prior question which is what are India’s Geopolitical Objectives in the wider Asian continent, if India’s Geopolitical Objectives are confined to the contiguous sea areas around the peninsula, then India does not need Aircraft Carriers”. Adding to this, it was deduced that if India does not have trans-continental ambitions for its Navy then its current Naval power would do to keep itself secure.
India’s Unilateral Policy
We must note that “Maritime Security” is a term without any legal definition because the term differs in each state which has adopted it to suit their national interests. Although, it is important to recognize what Maritime Security means to states as the objectives of one state would differ from the other. But, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Maritime Security is as it suggests the security of everything and anything related to the oceanic and coastal borders of a nation-state; be it Border Security, Economic Security Environmental Security, etc.
It’s clear from the recent developments that Maritime Security for India is currently only a matter of priority on National Security standards and not so much yet on environmental safety or economic security other than securing its trade routes. It can also be said that India’s naval and maritime forces only have a unilateral objective to fulfil which is from having its presence and influence in the Indian Ocean Territory. India hasn’t strengthened its presence as strongly as the US in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean or China in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It is yet to spread its radar deep into all fields to exert its control and secure the resources and be the sole policing country in the Indian Ocean. As once said by the Late Chief of Defence Staff, Bipin Rawat that India’s approach to security must shift to a multilateral one. Rawat also pointed to a “race of strategic places and bases in the Indian Ocean Region which is only going to gain momentum in times to come.”
India’s attempts at deterring China
India has frequently conducted several joint operations with other friendly states and also with international organizations such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD with its member states of USA, Australia, Japan and India. One of QUAD’s primary objectives is to work for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. This directly contrasts with China’s intention of exerting sole influence in the region. Hence, QUAD is an effective multilateral asset that India can make use of, to keep itself safe and expand its region of influence in and around the Indian Ocean Region and in the Indo-Pacific effectively deterring China in the Indo-Pacific.
QUAD is an effective multilateral asset that India can make use of, to keep itself safe and expand its region of influence in and around the Indian Ocean Region and in the Indo-Pacific effectively deterring China in the Indo-Pacific.
There are also many ideas to expand through multiple bases. One such idea, also suggested by the late CDS, is to build unsinkable naval bases at Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands and to expand from there to the British Indian Territories, Seychelles and Cocos Island and beyond, virtually covering most of the upper Indian Ocean region. Whilst aircraft carriers may be used for deterrence, it is prudent to note that they are sinkable and given China’s latest DF-21, a hypersonic missile also called a Carrier Killer might make aircraft carriers or any big warships only a liability rather than a strength. Hence, having more Naval bases on islands that are of strategic importance will help counter other unfriendly forces and also strengthen India’s naval influence.
If India wishes to rise up as one of the superpowers of the world whilst also upholding its Gandhian principles, it is imperative that it focuses on upgrading its existing military technology and expanding its influence in the seas and the ocean to have an active role with the countries of the Indian Ocean Region. For India, which is surrounded by unfriendly neighbours, maintaining a safe & close circle of allies with other nations be it big or small and securing the waters of the Indian Ocean Region and expanding its influence in the Indo-Pacific is of paramount importance. It’s as Alfred T. Mahan once famously said that “whoever rules the waves, rules the world” which will continue to remain true for decades to come.
(Prajwal T V is a Research Scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St. Joseph’s University (SJU), Bengaluru-Karnataka, India)
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