Rivalry in the Indian Ocean

Damiya Saghir explains how the Milan 2020 exercise highlights the strategic divide in the Indian Ocean Region

Rivalry in the Indian Ocean
The Indian Navy has halted its exercise Milan for the year 2020. Milan is a multinational naval exercise and this year India had invited approximately 42 navies to join in at India’s eastern naval command at Vishakhapatnam. This year, Milan was going to be the first exercise involving the U.S and Russian navies with a lot of other extra-regional navies. The most daunting reality is that Pakistan and a few other regional powers, who are actual stakeholders of this Indian Ocean, remain aloof from the exercise.

India has a vast coastline extending to more than 7, 500 km, with more than 1,200 islands and a large exclusive economic zone of about 2 million sq km. The anticipated addition of approximately 1.2 million sq km of the continental shelf makes India’s total seabed area almost equal to its land mass.

India’s central position in the Indian Ocean Region, astride the main international shipping lanes, accords distinct advantages. It places the outer fringes of the Indian Ocean Region and most chokepoints almost equidistant from India. This facilitates reach, sustenance and mobility of its maritime forces across the region. India is, therefore, well positioned to influence the maritime space and promote and safeguard its interests.

But the emergence of Chinese influence alarmed India into a strategy of thwarting Chinese intentions. India now perceives China as an expansionist power which seeks to encircle the former. Now, Indian policymakers are advancing their naval power under the Indian Maritime Doctrine and modernizing into a Blue-water navy to reach other ports and bases.

The shift in Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean Region has led to a new turning of the tables. A once conservative India has been going about involving extra-regional Powers in the Indian Ocean. In fact, it is now welcoming almost every other extra-regional power to counter the growing threat of China’s reach in the sea.
The most difficult issue to resolve stems from the fact that regional states are more ready to cooperate with other extra regional navies instead of coordinating with each other

To state the obvious, it is impossible to unilaterally shape the strategic outlook for an enormous ocean. The best way forward is a multilateral agreement including both extra-regional actors and regional stakeholders. That would be an approach that remembers rather than ignores countries like Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Australia and Thailand. To be sure, the China-Pakistan and US-India nexuses are big competition with much a stake. Where coordination between these two nexuses is extremely desirable, it is also, at the same time, exceptionally difficult.

The most difficult issue to resolve stems from the fact that regional states are more ready to cooperate with other extra regional navies instead of coordinating with each other.

India's Milan naval exercise has grown in tandem with that country's strategy for the Indian Ocean region

For its part, the U.S is responding to China by strengthening its own extensive naval capabilities as well as building regional security and military alliances to contain Beijing’s influence. These geostrategic and geopolitical developments in the region will lead contending parties into yet greater geopolitical rivalry, which may cause direct confrontation.

At a time when the oceans call for security, the Indian Ocean is becoming ever more militarized.

Milan 2020 is a representation of how the region stands disunited and divided from one another. An interconnected world depends on safe and open access to the high seas. With the Indo-Pacific idea, the influence of extra-regional powers is rising. Their intervention into the waters of the Indian Ocean, is most realistically seen as the emergence of new threats rather than the Indian Ocean Region becoming a peaceful zone.