Opinion | India’s Naval Diplomacy: Building Trust in the Oceans – News18

Written By: Probal DasGupta
Last Updated: March 07, 2024, 15:48 IST
New Delhi, India
The Indian Navy warship INS Sumitra prevented a piracy attack on an Iranian fishing vessel, Al Naeemi sailing off the East Coast of Somalia and successfully rescued 36 crew in the Arabian Sea. (PTI Photo)
India’s focus on its land borders has historically stemmed from past learnings from medieval-era invasions and in the current era, involved conflicts over land borders or around states contiguous to its boundaries. It is only in the last few decades that the role of the Indian Navy has gained prominence, as India aims to step up to a larger role in the global power hierarchy. In 2020, as India and China clashed in Galwan, several analysts pointed towards the need to use India’s natural maritime advantages in its regional rivalry with China and in more effective power projection as an emerging and responsible global force.
Keeping in mind India’s ambitions in steering regional geopolitics, the role of the Indian Navy emerged from the shadows of India’s arsenal to take on a more prominent role. Aside from developing its capabilities, India has recently played an active role in humanitarian and rescue missions, thus stamping its growing reputation as a responsible and capable maritime power. In the process, the navy has become a chief instrument in providing teeth to the country’s aspirations outside the region.
The Indian Navy is increasingly being seen as a capable and confident naval power that can be relied upon to make the seas a safer zone. “I think the scale of India’s naval deployment is quite unprecedented, and in some ways this represents the confidence the Indian Navy has in its own abilities and the requirement to be seen as a benevolent regional player that is not simply looking after its own interests but also the interests of the global common,” says Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
As the war wages in Gaza and with the Yemen-based Houthi rebels attempting to broaden the war by mounting attacks against passing ships, the US has retaliated by striking the Houthis. The war occasionally threatens to spill over to other parts of the region aside from the environmental risks that sinking of ships pose to the coral reefs in the region. Amidst this, India has made its presence felt by deploying warships and surveillance east of the Red Sea against any attack by the Houthis and pirates. In this context, it must be said that the Indian naval presence has made it safe for the conduct of commercial trade in the region.
With the states around India possessing limited capacity to use naval capabilities in the high seas, there has been a regular concern around the lack of law enforcement in the seas as pirates have continued to enjoy the largesse of terrorist groups, smuggling contraband, trafficking and attacking commercial vessels and affecting trade. “Maritime power is more than a matter of policing the commons or accumulating and projecting military force in the littorals. Sea power is equally about creating prosperity for the people and meeting the needs of national development”, writes Abhijit Singh, Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation.
It was China that sent its naval ships to the Gulf of Aden two decades ago to ensure that commercial vessels were safe from pirates. Over the years, China has muscled its way into the Indian Ocean Region and in doing so, has raised concerns about its intent of colonial expansion. On the other hand, an expanding Indian role in protecting waters is building its credibility as a naval power that has both the capacity and the willingness to deploy naval assets to protect the sea lanes of communication, without attracting the unease that China’s ulterior aims in its investments in ports and infrastructure projects have aroused. India’s consistent patrolling is a reassuring presence in the deep waters that cuts through ideological swamps. Over the last few months, the navy has rescued ships attacked by pirates and also, two ships that were hit by missiles. The navy rescued two Iranian-flagged fishing vessels that had been attacked by pirates. The Indian Navy warship INS Sumitra prevented a piracy attack on an Iranian fishing vessel, Al Naeemi sailing off the East Coast of Somalia and successfully rescued 36 crew (17 Iranians and 19 Pakistanis) in the Arabian Sea, west of Kochi, and prevented the vessels from being misused to attack merchant ships.
The focus on working closely with partners in the region has helped build trust and coordination through information sharing, such as with Sri Lankan and Seychelles resulting in the interception of a hijacked fishing vessel this year. As part of military diplomacy, the Indian Navy has been active in working closely with the ASEAN countries and with strategic partners through military exercises like the Malabar exercise. The differences in the sizes and capacities of Indian and Chinese navies resemble two different weight divisions, if a boxing analogy is to be used to explain. In comparison to China, which builds 14 warships a year, India builds four. According to Admiral R Hari Kumar, Indian Navy Chief, India aims to build 170-175 warships by 2035. However China, on the other hand, is on course to have over 500 warships in the next 5-6 years.
Given the asymmetry in capabilities, India’s best bet is in external balancing via partnerships with other navies and also in enhancing its reputation as a reliable enforcer of safer trade and communication as a first responder in the seas. It has been building a formidable reputation in the latter; it will need more partners in the maritime space to ensure its leading role in maintaining a rules-based order.
In a world where wars and conflict abound, India’s military diplomacy, powered by the navy in the deep seas is a breakout attempt to explore another dimension where India continues an active presence in the blue oceans — by demonstrating an exemplary capacity to posture and position itself as a leader of the global south. In an era of uncertainties and wars, the sight of an assertive but responsible Indian naval presence will eventually grow to be a powerful and reassuring one in the high seas.
The writer is the author of ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’ and ‘Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories From Battlefields’. Tweets @iProbal. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect News18’s views.


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