Lessons for India in the Indian Ocean Region

By undertaking an active rescue operation, India has once again proved to be a responsible net security provider in its front yard.

indian navy
The shift from Euro Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region has brought immense importance to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its littorals. (Representational image: IE)

By Radhey Tambi

Last week, while returning from Argentina, a Chinese fishing vessel, Lupeng Yuanyu 028, sank in the southern Indian Ocean. Onboard were 39 crew members from China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. By undertaking an active rescue operation, India has once again proved to be a responsible net security provider in its front yard. Along with India, Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) was coordinating the effort by deploying P-8A aircraft for the search. While the Indian Navy deployed its Air Maritime Reconnaissance asset, P 81 Poseidon. Subsequently, P 81 Poseidon also sighted the fishing vessel’s life raft and guided another fishing vessel Lupeng Yuanyu 017 towards it. The operation has once again brought to the fore two key issues. First, the importance of air power on the high seas, and second enhanced cooperation among the littoral countries will keep the Indian Ocean safe and secure.

The shift from Euro Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region has brought immense importance to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its littorals. Today, the region is at the crossroads of various traditional and non-traditional issues. Former includes the power projection of regional and distant powers and maritime disputes in the region. The latter includes issues like illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing; piracy and armed robbery; sea-based terrorism; illegal drug trade; human trafficking; oil spills; and search and rescue operations. To deal with either of the issues maritime domain awareness (MDA) is essential.

To put it in simple terms, MDA means situational awareness in the ocean, and air power plays a significant role towards this. In this direction, P 81 Poseidon has completed a decade in the Indian Navy with almost 40,000 hours of operational flying. The aircraft was imported from the United States and has allowed India to leverage its geography in the IOR by being a first responder. It is equipped with systems that are capable of long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, anti-ship missiles, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of broad area, maritime and littoral operations. It has excellent surveillance quality and has helped India in carrying out ocean mapping operations in the region. However, India currently has less than fifteen such aircraft, while the vastness of the Indian Ocean requires India to have at least 25-35 Poseidons, according to the Pentagon report.

Air power comes with certain advantages like speed, agility, and swiftness. It can complement the role of the navy which can move large aircraft carriers, ships, and vessels. While the navy can track the ships with access to the information centres. Air power gives a top-down view, by covering a larger bandwidth and assisting in effectuating better monitoring of a region. Therefore, any coherent and broad-based maritime reconnaissance will remain deficient without an effective cover of air power. It’s time New Delhi exercises domain dominance in the region where it is centrally located.

Unlike the land borders, which can be fixed and demarcated. Maritime boundaries are more fluid and difficult to secure without a cooperative mechanism. In this regard, India and Australia which form the bookends of the Indian Ocean region can play a significant role. For India, the region from the eastern coast of Africa to the western shores of Australia is considered the primary area of responsibility. Simultaneously, the Northeastern Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia with the Pacific is the primary area of military interest for Australia’s National Defense. Thus, the northeast part of the Indian Ocean is an overlapping area between New Delhi and Canberra. This is also the area where both the maritime neighbours have an extended area of territorial jurisdiction i.e., Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India) and Cocos / Keeling Islands (Australia). Any joint operation from the islands will certainly add value to the evolving security architecture of the region.

Defense cooperation is emerging as an important arena of cooperation between New Delhi and Canberra. The desire to further enhance this convergence is reflected in the Australian Defense Strategic Review 2023, which seeks to further strengthen its defense cooperation in the IOR. Currently, the Andaman and Nicobar, and Cocos Islands are used individually by both countries to conduct surveillance in the Indian Ocean. However, a coordinated MDA in the region by using each other’s island territories will add to the interoperability and act as a force multiplier in the region. As the Indian Ocean is too vast a region to be secured by any one country. Any cooperative mechanism and a burden-sharing model is a need of the hour for the region to deal with the distinct challenges.

Such a mechanism can also be extended to other countries in the region like La Reunion islands of France, where India recently used its P 81 Poseidon. Such partnerships not only strengthen bilateral ties but will also lay the foundation of a security architecture based on collective responsibility and cooperation. As India is a residential and leading player in the region, it must use its diplomatic skill, political willingness, information dominance, military cooperation, and economic cooperation to construct a security environment that is free, open, stable, and prosperous.

The author is a research associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi. Her areas of research interest include U.S. foreign policy towards Indo-Pacific region, Indo-US relations, India-China-US in the Indo-Pacific region, emerging trends in the Indian Foreign Policy and South Asian geopolitics and geoeconomics.

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First published on: 23-05-2023 at 14:10 IST