Covid crisis, India and the Indian Ocean balance of power

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, India has turned the crisis into an opportunity in the Indian Ocean region thanks to its humanitarian assistance programme and increased engagement with other powers in the region. Consequently, it enabled India to get a certain edge over China in the balance of power game in the Indian Ocean region.

Concurrently, India’s humanitarian assistance programme and pragmatism towards littoral states and some other recent developments such as the first Quad leaders’ virtual Summit, Quad Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, growing interests of European middle powers in the Indo- Pacific, India- Australia converging security interests in the Indo- Pacific and the resumption of trilateral security cooperation among India, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius, carries potential to alter the power equations and to uphold peace, stability, and rule-based order in the region. And, even a sharp response from Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry followed by provocative remarks by Li Jiming, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, who warned Bangladesh not consider joining the Quad, have a positive connotation in balancing Beijing’s growing influence in the Bay of Bengal region.

The crisis offered India an opportunity to expand and strengthen its relationship with Indian Ocean littoral states through Mission Sagar- India’s Covid-19 humanitarian assistance, aid, and outreach programme to Indian Ocean littoral states initiated by the government of India on May 10, 2020. With some exceptions, such international humanitarian responses have generated goodwill between benefactor and beneficiary. Mission Sagar, aligned with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of SAGAR- Security and Growth for All in the Region, is being considered as a major milestone in India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean littoral states. The mission has already touched most of the littoral states in the span of about 13 months, having potential to raise the country’s regional, international and diplomatic profile.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), after an ambiguity of ten years, reawakens with official’s level dialogue in 2017, and then within a four years, this informal grouping moved to organise the first Quad leaders’ virtual Summit on March 12, 2021. The Summit was complimented by a far wider agenda, such as joint maritime exercises, working groups on Covid-19 vaccines, technological innovations, supply chain resilience, and climate change. Maintaining rule-based order and freedom of navigation in the Indo- Pacific is the core agenda of this informal grouping. Whether Quad is military grouping or not is now a debate of the past.

The Quad, despite being not a military grouping as NATO, is capable to check and counterbalance the threats impending the rule-based order and freedom of navigation in the Indo- Pacific. In fact, in the present context, maintaining rule-based order in the Indo- Pacific primarily signifies deterrence of China’s negative behaviour in the region. Sceptics in India warned the government of India to not join the grouping as it will provoke China. But thanks to China’s negative behaviour and India’s realist foreign policy approach that compelled Delhi to cease the ambiguity and join the grouping of four democracies. India must pursue the policy of intense naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean to level the disadvantage of mismatched naval capabilities with China. The recently concluded Quad Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, was the first Quad naval exercise in the Indian Ocean. Such naval engagements on the regular basis carry the potential to further tilt the Indian Ocean balance of power equations in the favour of India.

Over the coming years, the growing involvement of European middle powers in the Indo- Pacific in general and the Indian Ocean in particular, is anticipated. France was the first European power to formally outline the strategy for the Indo- Pacific region. Along with Britain, recently Germany and Netherlands have also shown their new interests in restructuring the geopolitics of Indo- Pacific. On September 02, 2020, German Federal Foreign office released its Indo- Pacific policy guidelines, and in November 2020, Netherlands became the third European country to issue the policy guidelines for the Indo- Pacific. Recently published UK’s new integrated review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy calls China a systematic challenge and foresee UK’s greater presence in the Indo- Pacific in the coming years.

As the European powers have clued up on Chinese behaviour, India has come out of a post-colonial mental block and is ready to embrace imperial Europe on the security front; there is a possibility of naval engagements between the navies of India and the European middle powers like France and Britain. Although, the European ability to project conventional military power is limited across the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean region, however, its ability can be multiplied in combination with the navies of the US or other compatible middle powers such as India, Australia, and Japan.

During the Covid 19 crisis, on June 4, 2020, India and Australia after a virtual Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart PM Scott Morrison concluded a Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA) and issued a joint declaration on a “Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo- Pacific. This is being considered as the new beginning of deeper India Australia maritime security partnership, primarily in the eastern Indian Ocean region. The converging interests- discomfort with Chinese negative behaviour and assertiveness- is the primary reason for the long waited transformation in India- Australia strategic relationship.

Categorically, despite some ambiguity over the aims and objectives of Quad and European interest in the Indian Ocean part of the Indo- Pacific, such developments bear the potential to unease China and boost the confidence of India in the Indian Ocean. For India, despite the geographical advantages, countering Chinese assertiveness and retaining the influence in its backyard is certainly not a doddle. However, in recent years, India’s Indian Ocean strategy in line with the vision of SAGAR has worked successfully to regain influence in its backyard, particularly in the Maldives and Seychelles. Along with the mantra of intense engagement, rapid modernisation of PLA Navy must be the concern of India’s Indian Ocean policymakers.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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