Indian Strategy towards the Strait of Malacca

Indian Strategy towards the Strait of Malacca

For decades, India has remained one of the most influential political and military powers on the Asian continent. Given the Indian population of nearly 1.2 billion, a strong and continually growing economy (GDP in terms of purchasing power parity in 2011 was four and a half trillion dollars) and the size and power of the armed forces (one million three hundred thousand soldiers and an annual military expenditure of more than thirty-six billion U.S. dollars), it is clear that New Delhi has an enormous influence on events taking place in the region.

Over the years, India has concentrated its political and military efforts towards maintaining its power projection on land. Since its independence in 1947, India has emphasized protection of its borders from both real and perceived threats from the North (China) and from the West (Pakistan). The validity of such an approach lies in the tense political and military relations with Beijing and Islamabad. Historically, unresolved issues concerning the delimitation of borderlines resulted in a series of military conflicts, as well as regular wars between India and it neighbors.

As an example, one might mention the humiliating defeat in the border conflict with China of 1962, and three full-scale wars with Pakistan in 1947, 1965 and 1971 (not to mention a smaller scale clash known as the Kargil War). The lesson from these past conflicts seemed to be that an effective protection of national interests rested in ensuring the security of the borderline through the maintenance of strong and numerous armed forces.

This view has evolved during last two decades. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union has altered the fundamental dynamics of global security, and India is emerging as a nation willing to vigorously assert its military might beyond its borders. The specific Indian “Monroe Doctrine”, understood as marginalizing naval aspects of country’s security policy, has been abandoned in favor of a robust policy of maritime power projection.

Chinese dragon on the sea

A specific change in the balance of power on the waters of the Indian Ocean had been in effect for several years before India’s arrival as a supranational military power. China, by building alliances and establishing a number of military outposts on the IO, has already achieved a real (though tenuous) foothold in the region. India sees Chinese incursion onto the IO as a challenge to her own strategic interests, and New Delhi has begun to take what it considers adequate countermeasures towards the growing Chinese presence.

The chief aspect of Chinese activity on the IO is a more vast and visible projection of its naval power, especially on the eastern outskirts of the Ocean. To counteract such a policy, New Delhi has increased the operational capacity of its Far East Command placed on the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago (widely known as the Andaman and Nicobar Command, or ANC). This step has been taken in order to maintain the ability to control navigation through the strategically important Strait of Malacca which connects the IO with the waters of western Pacific. No nation can control the traffic through the Strait relying on military strength alone. Developing and maintaining a dominant position in the region also requires strong and positive relations with regional states.

In order to achieve this, India would have to use a variety of tactics, most notably the quantitative and qualitative expansion of the already mentioned ANC. This would contribute towards projecting more military strength in the region, through the so-called “presentation of the flag”, in essence an assertion of suzerainty through an outsized military presence. By conducting a series of operations focused on increasing the safety of navigation throughout the Strait’s waterway, and eliminating threats such as piracy and terrorism, India might be able to establish good will as a kind of regional steward. In the wider perspective, it may also be crucial towards expanding India’s economic activity in the region, offering a clear perspective of future economic profits for local states willing to cooperate with Indian control of the Straits.

Due to constantly changing political and military conditions in the region, New Delhi’s policy will depend on various factors, some of which will be beyond India’s control. Surely, the reaction of regional states (and China) to the constant growth of India’s military capabilities in the region will be a primary factor. Moreover, sustaining the stability of alliances with other countries will also be key to the case. Indian strategy towards the Malacca Strait region will not develop in a vacuum, and will be greatly influenced by what Delhi’s perceptions of China’s interests and commitment to the area.

Conditions

The vast growth of China’s political and military activity on the IO has been recorded for many years. One may explain it as an effect of Chinese dependence on the import of energy resources, such as oil and natural gas, which are being transported through waters both of the IO and the Strait of Malacca.
The most important Chinese Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) runs from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, and then falls into the waters of the South China Sea. This situation is very uncomfortable for Beijing, since most of this route has for decades been defined as India’s informal sphere of influence.

To many observers it is obvious that India is the reason behind Beijing’s plans to secure its own SLOCs through the expansions of naval military bases on the whole IO. This objective, however, cannot be achieved without compromising what India sees as its own vital interests. Therefore, Chinese policy towards the region has become a cause of informal (but increasingly realistic) rivalry between the two entities.

One of the major areas of this rivalry is the Bay of Bengal. China’s steadily expanding military alliances with nearly all the countries in the region represents an incursion upon what India views as its natural territory of regional hegemony. New Delhi fears that the Bay may become something like an “inner sea” for further Chinese military activity. This, in turn, could lead to a reduction of Indian influence in the entire Indian Ocean and the unveiling of the eastern flank of the Indian mainland, which it would not be able to defend if an attack by Chinese naval forces ever materialized. This is why it’s important from the Indian perspective to have a strong southernmost military outpost which would be able to monitor and balance the strategic advantage of China both in the Bay of Bengal and on the entire IO.

The second important factor of Indian policy towards the Strait of Malacca is the functioning of the ANC itself. Since it connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it has become one of the major hubs for international maritime trade. It is estimated that about sixty thousand transport ships use the Strait’s nine hundred kilometers long waterways every year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration implies that the scale of the energy consumption of all Southeast and Eastern Asian countries is so large that the amount of energy resources which are being transported through the Strait totals around fourteen million barrels of oil daily.

The issue of maritime trade, which takes place through the Strait, is related to the problem of piracy. Groups of marauding bandits operating on poorly controlled waters surrounding the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia, and also the Philippines, present a major threat to the security of energy resource transit and other goods to and from Southeast Asia and Europe. In this context, one cannot forget about the threat from local terrorist groups, which also can effectively destabilize naval navigation in the region.

To ensure at least partial protection for transport ships through the Strait is therefore of paramount importance. It seems necessary that the region should experience not only a vast growth in the military presence of regional states, but also stronger multinational military cooperation.

Objectives

Due to its geographical location, the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is ideal for surveilling shipping along the Straits of Malacca. Thus, a lot of emphasis is placed on the extension and modernization of the observation infrastructure located on these islands. Numerous strategic points, listening stations, supplemented by air surveillance units and soundproof submarines, allow the Indian state to monitor most if not all the maritime traffic in the region.

This surveillance of maritime traffic includes the Chinese naval components as well. It allows New Delhi not only to analyze its rival’s movements, but also complicates Beijing’s attempts to enter the IO waters unnoticed with a larger number of combat units. The expansion of ANC’s operational capability is also linked with other, lesser-known obstacles in the future.

Because of the confrontational nature of Indian-Chinese relations, ANC may be used as a vital leverage point. In times of danger India may decide to exploit China’s previously mentioned dependence on the bandwidth of the Straits of Malacca and block the maritime traffic going through it.

Any blockage of the Strait, regardless of the circumstances accompanying it, could put China in a very difficult position. A plug in the flow of energy resources would affect not only its national economy but could also contribute to an increasing internal unrest on the Chinese mainland. In this scenario, Indian strategy would require at least the silent acquiescence of regional states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

To achieve this objective, India would need to develop a dominant political position in the region. This could be accomplished by organizing, under the auspices of New Delhi, a common set of initiatives in: navigational safety, combating piracy, environmental protection, and the development of defense capabilities in the region. In contrast to China, India has thus far not excelled at the so-called “soft power” initiatives of coalition building and mutual state cooperation needed to win solvent and lasting regional alliances.

Military infrastructure

Implementation of both hard and soft power objectives would be based on the use of a wide range of measures, the most important one being the expansion of ANC’s operational capability. Currently it looks mediocre. Until recently, the Command had only fifteen light and medium ships, a small number of Dornier-228 patrol aircrafts, Mi-8 and Shetak helicopters and a brigade of soldiers consisting of three infantry battalions (two of the National army and one of the Territorial Army). These units were supported by a squadron of Su-30MKI planes, temporarily stationed on the islands.

Given the growing Chinese presence, ANC is now going through a vast and intensive process of modernization and expansion of its military hardware. Every ANC component stationed on the island is undergoing technological improvements or is in an advanced planning stage. ANC’s largest airports are set to undergo a metamorphosis. The final aim is to have four fully equipped sites, able to accept any type of aircraft, any time of day or night.

Resources in Shipur and Camp Bell are undergoing advanced renovations as well, including the extension of runways. In addition, the landing sites for helicopters, radar stations and facilities for landing and taking off at night are also being modernized. This will complement the operational facilities in Port Blair and Car Nicobar as well as the ones planned to be built in Katchul and Hut Bay.

New airports, supplemented by the provisional ones (in Nyoma, Daulat Beg Oldie and Fuk Che), will be able to receive various aircraft types. Su-30MKIs will probably form the core of ANC’s aviation. Currently there are plans of setting up a permanent squadron of these jets. In addition, the Command will be also be using fighter-bomber Jaguars, hunting Dassault Mirage-2000, MiG family fighter jets, unmanned airborne vehicles (UAV)and An-32 transport and reconnaissance aircrafts. The improvement of radar systems is also being taken into consideration.

However the modernization plans of the naval component are not yet clearly specified. Theoretically it could be reinforced by units such as cruisers or destroyers. The decision in this matter has not yet been taken. There are also plans to assign a number of quiet conventional submarines. What is known is that ANC’s amphibious capabilities will be improved through the deployment of a series of landing ships LST (Landing Ship Tank) and LCU (Landing Craft Utility).

Land Forces are being reinforced by an additional three infantry battalions, including a motorized battalion and an artillery regiment. New Delhi will probably also send an air support unit in the form of specialized UAV. There are also plans (not specified) of strengthening the special forces units stationed on navy ships.

Presentation of the flag

Another factor which may decide the final success of Indian policy towards the region is the so-called “presentation of the flag”. It is based on an assumption that marking India’s military presence on the Archipelago’s waters should make regional states more willing to cooperate with New Delhi. This kind of activity is mostly conducted in the form of multinational (but also internal) war games at sea. In fact, India has been using this tool for many years, organizing annual simulations of naval skirmishes, to which individual regional states are

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invited. There were two such events in 2010. One was conducted together with the naval forces of Singapore; the second with the representatives of the maritime components of twelve regional states including all the countries lying along the Strait of Malacca.

In January of 2012 a new edition of the multinational maritime war games code-named “Milan” took place. Organized since 1995, the event groups together elements of marine components of many South and South-Eastern Asian countries. This year, fourteen countries have designated their representatives to take part in these wargames, including Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives. Significantly, Pakistan and China were in the group of countries not invited.

Furthermore ANC continually strives to develop its own operational capabilities, which also serve to highlight their involvement in the security situation in the region. Units of all components stationed at the Archipelago islands, including the Coast Guard, carry out this type of exercise regularly in the annual and biennial intervals.

The special forces also constantly try to develop their own operational potential by organizing a series of wargames. A large emphasis is being put on the simulation of seizing hostile port infrastructure or landing on enemy ships and freeing hostages. Sometimes, special forces simulate together with marine units missions like storming enemy beaches, establishing footholds and further encroaching deep into enemy-controlled areas.

Regional security

India seems relatively adept at leveraging the common security issues along the Strait for their own strategic advantage. Marauding bands of pirates, regional terrorist organizations, and dealers in arms, drugs and people have become too strong for regional security forces to handle by themselves. This is why ANC has been undertaking a series of initiatives, the objective of which is to help to change the current situation.

A good example of such a policy was a 2005 initiative called the Malacca Strait Security Initiative (MSSI), whose most obvious manifestation was the operation “Eye in the Sky”. Its main aim was to patrol the airspace along the Strait with Indian Air Force participation. This contributed to the acceptance of India as a subject of vital security issues concerning the region and ready to engage in these types of collective initiatives.

In addition to MSSI, India tries to work with its neighbors to improve their own surveillance and patrol capabilities. Thus, several initiatives have been undertaken, some of them involving cooperation of regional navies using offshore combat units. In addition, joint patrols are being organized whose task is to catch marauding pirate groups and if needed, eliminate them ensuring the safety of ships passing nearby.

By taking such steps India gains a huge advantage. Presenting itself as a country involved in security issues around the Strait, it wins the favor of regional states. What is also important and worth noticing, is that in all the multinational initiatives ANC is involved in, India does not play a decisive role. This allows New Delhi to project the image of an entity which does not impose on others its own solutions, based on its clear political or military dominance.

Minerals

The archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are rich in valuable minerals. Harnessing these deposits could be a major financial boon, as they are sure to become an important element of the islands’ economy. Lately, the waters surrounding the Archipelago have undergone a series of advanced research, with the focus being undersea oil and gas fields exploration. If eventually discovered, they may not only benefit the region’s population, but will also have an impact on the raw materials policy of the Indian government, whose energy demands are increasing every year.

Exploitation of these deposits will not only allow the economic development of the region, but also affect its importance from the standpoint of Indian national security policy. This might create yet further incentive to increase the operational capability of ANC, with the task of preserving the mining installations and convoys of shipments flowing in the direction of continental India.

The increase in financial activity on the islands will also intensify economic cooperation with other countries in the region. This in turn could bring the region more under Delhi’s control.

Raw materials are also important in the context of the South China Sea. Potentially rich reserves of oil, estimated at twenty to thirty billion barrels (seven billion already confirmed) and the equally large deposits of natural gas, makes this a coveted area for the region’s major players. China is one of the most active players in this group. By trying to impose its own solutions on the other players, PRC claims the right to control (as a service) the largest areas of the Sea. These efforts are contrary to the interests of other states such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all of whom will seek their own pieces of the “energy pie”.

Chinese policy in the region has been concentrated, in recent years, towards thwarting India’s growing influence in the region. India, however, has continued to make diplomatic progress in Southeast Asia, and with nations along the South China Sea. The best example of this is India’s relations with Vietnam, which have been recently improved. Surely, in some part this improvement was motivated by a multi-million dollar investment of Indian state energy company ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) company in Vietnam. There has also been a vast expansion of military cooperation between those two states. Currently Indian Navy ships have the right to dock and use some of the Vietnamese sea ports located on the southern and south-eastern coasts of the country. In addition, New Delhi plans to extend and improve the political and military relations with other entities of the region, developing a privileged position in the future resource-concentrated rivalry with Beijing.

India’s policy towards the South China Sea is geared towards achieving three basic objectives. The first is to gain access to rich deposits of raw materials and cheap energy. The second is to reduce the PRC’s access to the same deposits. The third is to develop positive relations with other countries in the region. While implementing Indian regional strategy it would be prudent to use all the advantages which are given to New Delhi in the ANC. Regional cooperation in the field of maritime safety, the constant “presentation” of the Indian flag, and assisting in the development of quantitative and qualitative components of regional states should and will give New Delhi a chance to develop the clout it seeks in the South China Sea area.

Conclusions

The realization of the main goals of the Indian regional policy will depend on several factors. The basics are to complete the expansion of infrastructural facilities on the Archipelago and to quantitatively strengthen units subordinated to ANC. This will allow India to maintain a greater presence than ever on regional waters and to intensify patrol missions, especially around the key waterways of the Strait of Malacca. This will also boost the level of cooperation between India and regional states and improve the level of security around areas which are of great importance from Indian strategic point of view. ■

Michal Jarocki is a defense analyst and journalist. He specializes in the topic of Arctic territorial claims and Indian-Chinese maritime rivalry on the Indian Ocean.

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