The Indian Ocean can be saved from becoming a zone of conflicts if India stops thinking it owns it. If the West encourages New Delhi to build a blue-water navy, it would only be a matter of time before it ends up becoming a nightmare for the West itself. The Indian Ocean ranks as the fifth largest ocean, covering 20 per cent of the water on Earth. It consists of 60 islands owned by different states and has four major waterways — the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el Mandeb and the Suez Canal.
Interestingly, the Indian Ocean had never been nuclearised even during the Cold War. The shifting of Indian nuclear weapons capabilities from land to sea, in their deployment against Pakistan and China, could end up initiating a three-party nuclear competition. India is modernising its navy at a rapid pace, and allocated it a budget of $4.8 billion in 2011. China, on the other hand, is not in a position right now to generate a stir in the contemporary strategic balance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India dragged the IOR into an intense arms race by introducing a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, in 2014; it is also in the process of building two more Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear submarines. India now has two platforms, INS Subhadra and INS Suvarna, to launch Dhanush missiles. The Indian Navy also has the ability to launch BrahMos missile, a joint venture between Russia and India, which can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. In short, India is playing a dangerous game in pursuit of prestige and international recognition in the IOR where confidence-building measures or institutionalised conflict-resolution seem to be totally absent.
In the backdrop of the traditional rivalries in this region, the addition of nuclear-capable submarines in the Indian naval fleet is a serious threat to Pakistan and China. This provocation could force Pakistan and other regional states to launch drives to acquire similar capability, thus initiating an arms race in South Asia. It is not surprising that China is willing to sell eight diesel-electric, and not nuclear, submarines to Pakistan. As stated earlier, South Asia has no institutional mechanism that can be used to deal with confrontational behaviour that regional states may indulge in the IOR. If India is resolute about taking the route of sea-based nuclear strike capability, then it is highly unlikely that any possible escalation could be controlled. Pakistan needs to work on sea-based deterrence as this can provide it with strategic advantages, which could serve many implicit opportunities. The most vulnerable part of the Indian defence is its coastal belt, which the Pakistan Navy can exploit through the element of surprise.
During the Cold War, India was not happy about US presence in the IOR. However, China’s presence is the main factor that transformed the dynamic of Indian strategic thinking and today, Indian and US interests are congregating , which has generated a more favourable strategic environment for both countries against China. Regardless of Russian and Chinese opposition, India has offered a foothold to the US in the Indian Ocean by signing a new 10-year Defence Framework Agreement with it.
The Indian approach, which projects China as a potential threat in the IOR, is an exaggerated one. China is more focused in the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, with trade security its only interest in the IOR. It is still behind India and the US in gaining geographical advantages and maritime power in the IOR. The imaginary Chinese ‘string of pearls strategy’ is playing with the minds of Indian strategists. Last year, in November 2014, after a patrolling Chinese submarine docked in Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a cabinet committee to clear an $8billion warships project to counter the Chinese Navy. The US, on the other hand, wants to encircle China via agreements with regional states. Pakistan provides China the best way out to reach the Indian Ocean, near the Persian Gulf.
There are chances of a naval arms race emerging if we consider historical Indo-Russian naval cooperation and the current increased exchange of naval collaboration between the US and India. It is up to the global players, especially the US and Russia, to either promote global peace by denying India the acquisition of deadly war munitions like Akula-II or, to sell their weaponry and jeapordise global security.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2015.