India increases its presence in Indian Ocean, with an eye on China

The Indian Navy is increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean with a permanent deployment of over a dozen ships, including on important sea routes, amid China’s growing naval presence in the region.

Around 12 to 15 naval ships are being deployed at strategic points along sea lanes from the Malacca Strait to Bay of Bengal and Sunda Strait for “greater presence and visibility”, said the Indian Navy.

Ships are also being deployed around the island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar.

The deployment, under which ships will be on permanent patrol as opposed to going on short missions, aims to help countries in the Indian Ocean region counter threats like piracy as well as offer humanitarian aid and disaster relief, said the Indian Navy.

“Initially, the Indian Navy’s foray into these places was once in a year for overseas deployment. Now there is a change in the dynamics (in the region) and the presence of an extra regional power has necessitated that our presence be increased,” an Indian Navy spokesman told The Straits Times, without naming any country.

India considers the Indian Ocean its backyard and has been increasingly concerned about China’s growing presence in its neighbourhood. The Chinese are involved in infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Nepal as well as Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in what Indian strategists call a “string of pearls” encirclement of India.

In recent years, Chinese military activities have been of particular concern to India. In 2014, India lodged a diplomatic protest with Colombo over the docking of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka. China has also helped build the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan.

More recently, in August, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, speaking last week at the Goa Maritime Conclave, an event attended by representatives from 10 countries including Singapore, expressed concerns about the militarisation of the Indian Ocean.

Without naming any country, she said “extra-regional nations” were keeping a constant presence in the Indian Ocean region on “some pretext or the other”.

She said these countries were “creating naval outposts as well as dual-use infrastructure in the region”, adding: “This sort of militarisation increases the complexities for the countries of this region.”

Amid the growing presence of China, India has grown closer to the US. The two countries have carried out joint naval exercises with Japan called the Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The US has spoken of greater cooperation with India in the Indo-Pacific region which Indian experts believe involves greater cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Indian experts welcomed news that India was boosting its presence in the Indian Ocean, but said much more needs to be done to counter the Chinese presence.

“Basically, what they are stressing is the capacity to mount distant operations. But I am not sure that 15 ships will suffice… if the idea is to concentrate on Chinese activities in the Malacca Strait, then we can manage with 15 ships,” said Professor Bharat Karnad at the Centre for Policy Research,

Defence analyst P.K. Ghosh noted that China’s growing maritime assets in the region had caused great concern within the Indian military.

“It is only natural that we try and enhance our presence and our surveillance capabilities. In times of peace this is the best way. This is conventional deterrence,” he said

But he said India had to do much more, including greater outreach to the Indian Ocean countries, and even basing ships there.

By: The Straits Times

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