India’s Maritime Security Challenges

(The Power Equation in the Indian Ocean Region)



Vice Admiral Sangram S Byce (Retd)

(The author is a former Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies).

Executive member Inpad.


India is faced with multiple and complex security and strategic challenges. There is political turmoil and instability in the immediate neighbourhood. Pakistan, a nuclear

weapon country, is on the verge of breaking up with the possibility of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of fundamental forces resulting in attendant grave consequences. A

nuclear Pakistan is too dangerous to be left adrift. A global strategy to wrest control of her nuclear arsenal would have to be adopted. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh too have serious political problems. All of these have a direct impact on India’s security. India would have to proactively shape the strategic environment in her area of interest for her to be counted as a predominant power.


An out of the box approach would be necessary. Such an approach is possible only if major organizational changes are introduced in the policy making machinery of India. Sectoral differences would have to be managed and greater synergy brought about within the various organs of the administration. This is not a mean task, as I am of the firm belief that it is ‘easier to fight an enemy than to coordinate friends’.


India has been a member of the ‘Nuclear Weapons Club’ (albeit not recognized by the Big Five) since Pokharan II. She should have taken the Strategic initiative and pursued

with vigour her geo-political ambition and increased her influence in global affairs. However, even though India made spectacular economic and industrial gains, she was regrettably unable to adequately leverage this status to further advance her Strategic and security interests. Sadly, Pokharan II remains just another technological milestone. India’s Nuclear weapon status runs counter to the strategic interests of  major world players and if she does not actively consolidate her position, pressures will be applied on India to roll back this important ‘lever of power’.


The structures of International Relations are in a state of flux. The status of USA as the sole super power is under serious challenge from a number of countries, particularly from India’s neighbour China. The continuing Global Economic meltdown which has seriously impacted the US has resulted in further diluting her Super Power position.


In order to maintain her Super Power status, the US will strongly pursue strengthening and further increasing alliances particularly in the resources rich Indian Ocean Region. On the other hand, in order to gain pre-eminence China has already considerably increased her influence in both Asia and Africa. Infact, today all the immediate neighbours of India, with the exception of perhaps Bhutan are in the sphere of influence

of China. India would need to reverse this trend and ensure that areas of influence around her are free from external interference and power projection. This forms a major strategic challenge for India.


In this competition for Power between US and China, India must not lose sight of her own strategic and security interests and would need to pursue an independent policy engaging both these countries without carrying out the agenda of either of them.


It is a historical fact that all major powers have also been great sea powers. This was reiterated by India’s first Prime Minster – Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru when he said,

“To be secure on land, we must be Supreme at Sea...” India’s geo – strategic environment is predominantly Maritime in nature. She has vast and varied Maritime interest that needs to be furthered and protected. These interests include Energy Security, fisheries, mining,

and maritime trade to name only a few. Equally vast and varied are the complex Maritime security threats and challenges. They span from terrorism and piracy to drug trafficking, gun running, illegal immigration, environmental pollution and movement of contraband. India would therefore need to formulate a comprehensive Maritime strategy that would give her the capability to deter conflict in the region both Military and non-military (counter –terrorism and counter – piracy). Additionally, she must have the ability to win militarily if forced into a conflict.


It is fairly well documented and widely reported that presently China’s interest in the Indian Ocean is Energy security. As the Chinese economy grows, her energy requirement and consequently her interests in the Indian Ocean region will grow even more. In order to protect her Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) China in all probability will increase her Naval Power in this Region. Her intent to do this has been made amply clear by China’s participation in the anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast. As India’s own Maritime trade and energy requirements increase, a sizable presence of Chinese Navy in

the Indian Ocean Region will run counter to India’s interest. Furthermore, in pursuance of Sea Power, China is likely to look for bases in India’s area of interest. The construction of a modern port at Gwadar (on the Pakistani coast) by the Chinese is a case in point.


The instability in Oil rich West Asia and the Power Vacuum that obtains in the Indian Ocean Region has resulted in a sizeable presence of extra regional powers in India’s

backyard. Failure on her part to develop into a strong Maritime Power will only expose her to the risk of becoming a pawn in the maritime game which is now clearly

discernable. India would have to work towards developing a strategic architecture wherein her status as a predominant power in this region is recognized. It is in her maritime Interest to create an environment within which she can indulge in

nation building activities and also ensure free and unhindered flow of International Trade.


It is a well known fact that China has embarked on a massive military (including Naval) modernization programme since the 1990’s. However, as of now the Chinese Navy does not have the requisite capability to operate for extended periods in the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China’s focus in the near future is unlikely to shift from South China Sea (specifically The Eastern Pacific where her vital interests lie) to the Indian Ocean Region. India should therefore, seize this opportunity and develop her Naval strength to a level that would enable her to fill the existing power vacuum and create a regional balance thereby protecting her National interests in the Indian Ocean region.


Another area, requiring early attention is the eradication of increasing incidents of Piracy and Seaborne terror attacks. The threat of global terrorism, piracy and international crime coming together is very real. A proactive approach to counter these threats would be required. Pre-positioning of Maritime forces in order to provide quick reaction against emerging threats would be necessary. Since both terrorism and piracy have global implications, a policy of cooperative engagement would perhaps be the best strategic option in prosecuting these threats.


The key to pursuing India’s strategic ambition lies in developing credible capabilities so that even while pursuing cooperative security arrangements her predominance as a maritime power in this region is not diluted. This would also need to be borne in mind when entering into any bilateral/ multi-lateral initiatives and partnerships.


The process of capability building is complex and has many dimensions. I will address this aspect in a subsequent article. However, suffice it to say that capability development

would have to be based on a well thought out strategic plan involving a joint approach. India must also reduce dependence on ‘got abroad’ weapons and weapon systems. This does not imply self-sufficiency (as that may be utopian). However, greater self-reliance is

the need of the hour.