The Elephant at Sea: India's Maritime Strategy
In the next decade, India plans to introduce 40 new warships and 400 new aircraft to its naval forces. Such efforts reflect a dramatic maritime transformation now underway in India—one meant to improve India's power projection capabilities at sea and to produce a blue-water navy. On March 9, the Asia Program, with co-sponsorship from International Security Studies, hosted an event on India's maritime strategy and growing maritime power.
Arun Prakash, chairman of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation and a former Indian naval chief of staff, traced the historical evolution of India's maritime strategy. He described a "seafaring tradition" older than that of ancient Greece, highlighting trade relations with Persia, Mesopotamia, and Rome that extend back to 2000-3000 BCE. Still, only in the last few decades has India held "such great maritime ambitions." Prakash articulated four factors driving this new desire for naval expansion. One is globalization. Free trade is propelled by the sea, and sea-based commerce requires maritime security. A second factor is the imperative of coastal security, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai—which were carried out by terrorists arriving in Mumbai via the sea. Third is India's "adversarial" relationship with China; the Indian Ocean has become a "decisive arena" in the rivalry. And finally, India's economic growth has given the country the financial capacity to pursue its expanded naval plans.
Siddarth Srivastava, a New Delhi-based independent journalist, spoke of the domestic issues that influence India's maritime strategy. One major factor is politics. The completion of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal—which took up much of the previous Indian government's energies—has now enabled security and defense to become "key focus areas" for the present governing coalition, while the increasing marginalization of India's leftist political parties will allow for a rise in the role of domestic private enterprise (including in the naval arms sector). Srivastava predicted many new contracts for the shipping industry, and reported that some major Indian firms—including the Tata Group—are pursuing "big defense contracts." However, he acknowledged that inefficiency and bureaucracy continue to hamper the growth of India's defense industry, and noted that most of India's defense acquisitions are still obtained abroad—especially from the United States and Israel.
Andrew C. Winner, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, spoke of opportunities for U.S.-India cooperation on maritime issues. He argued that maritime cooperation is easier than other types of security cooperation, because it can occur off land and away from the media. He highlighted some promising developments. Both countries published maritime strategies in 2007, with both taking similar approaches to maritime power. Additionally, both documents mention similar focus issues (from humanitarian assistance/disaster relief to counterterrorism and deterrence of great power conflict). Yet Winner characterized such convergences as a mere cooperative "framework." He called for more progress, toward a "long-term vision of where the maritime relationship will be in 10 years." Attaining such progress will necessitate surmounting a number of barriers and obstacles to deeper cooperation, including differing views about the transfer of particularly sensitive technologies.
The panel concurred that India's maritime expansion plans are still very much a work in progress. Prakash and Srivastava described the difficulties India's naval leadership has experienced in impressing upon its civilian counterparts the importance of an expanded navy, and of strategic shifts in general. Prakash attributed this resistance to the "earthy" politician in India who is too busy thinking about re-election to concern himself or herself with strategic matters. Meanwhile, Srivastava recounted the recent setbacks India has suffered in its defense industry. Yet according to Prakash, the stakes are high: A naval arms race "is all around us," he warned, and India is "already losing."
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program