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The Indian Navy's Arabian Gulf Diplomacy

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 24, 2015

    The steady evolution of Indian Ocean diplomacy in recent years has been a defining feature of the country’s foreign policy transformation. Since 2007, when it codified the concept of maritime diplomacy in the military maritime strategy document, the Indian Navy (IN) has not only expanded its maritime engagement with regional navies but has also built “bridges of friendship” through regular ship visits to countries along the Indian Ocean rim. The Navy’s diplomatic turn has been especially noteworthy in the expansion of naval cooperation with Arab Gulf states, offering critical support to India’s foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East.

    Earlier this month, four Indian Naval Ships – Trishul, Tabar, Deepak and Delhi – departed on a month long deployment to the Arabian Gulf. After a three-day stopover at Dubai (UAE) the ships branched out into two groups. INS Delhi and INS Trishul proceeded to Al-Jubail (Saudi Arabia) and Doha (Qatar) where they engaged in coordinated drills with host navies. Meanwhile, INS Tabar and INS Deepak reached Doha after a brief visit to Kuwait, whereupon the combined contingent of four ships proceeded to Muscat for a final stop-over before returning to Mumbai.

    Since 2008, the Navy has consciously nurtured its relationships in the Arabian Sea. Apart from partnering regional navies in anti-piracy duties, it has played an important role in supporting and training Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) maritime forces. Through defence cooperation MoUs and joint committees on defence cooperation, India has substantially enhanced its exchanges in maritime training, operational exercises, and information sharing with Arab Gulf navies – many of them members of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), an initiative pioneered by the Indian Navy .

    The naval engagement with Oman has been most notable. While India and Oman entered into a “strategic partnership” in 2008, naval cooperation has been on since 1993 in the form of a biennial exercise, Naseem Al-Bahr. India has provided naval training and hydrographic support to Oman, while Omani ships have been regular visitors at Indian ports. More significantly, Oman has played a key role in sustaining India’s security efforts in the Gulf of Aden by offering berthing and replenishment facilities to naval ships, and hosting a crucial listening post in the Western Indian Ocean. With a new super-port project at Duqm nearing completion, Oman is poised to transform the maritime geopolitics of the Arabian Sea. An appreciation of its strategic potential has led New Delhi to cultivate stronger maritime ties with Muscat.

    Importantly for India, the ongoing engagement with Arab navies has not been to the exclusion of a maritime relationship with Iran. A week prior to the ongoing tour of GCC countries, two Indian naval ships, Betwa and Beas, visited Bandar-e-Abbas. The Iranian Navy, which has long suffered from a ‘siege’ mind-set in the Arabian Gulf, is in the throes of a radical psychological transformation. Having acquired critical surface and subsurface capability, it has been gaining confidence as a regional maritime power. Emboldened by the recent nuclear deal with the West, the Iranian naval leadership has also been on the look-out for new partners to support its naval agenda of establishing control over the Western approaches to the Arabian Gulf. India offers the most potential for such a partnership. As he addressed a visiting Indian delegation last month, Iranian naval chief, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, pitched for a strong India-Iran maritime relationship, saying he believed it had the potential to “end trans-regional naval presence in the Northern Indian Ocean”.

    While the Indian Navy may not wish to challenge extra-regional navies in the Indian Ocean, it has taken heed of regional imperatives for a more robust Arabian Gulf reengagement. India’s ‘Look-West’ maritime strategy has been driven primarily by two considerations. The waterways of the Northern Indian Ocean are among the most important in the world, facilitating the export of large volumes of goods, oil and natural gas. India is a principal beneficiary of the trade and energy flows through the West Asian littorals. The Middle East is also home to some seven million Indians, whose remittances contribute significantly to India’s economy. The sheer weight of market interaction and commercial exchanges with the Arab Gulf region amplifies its political significance, creating an urgent need for greater Indian naval presence in the region.

    The more determinative factor is the preservation of India’s strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean. With China continuing to make military inroads, the past few years have witnessed a shrinking of Indian geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Reports of a new Chinese naval base in Djibouti, growing submarine visits, and a spurt in Beijing’s maritime military activities in the Western Indian Ocean have created concern in India’s security establishment. The nature of the PLA Navy’s recent submarine forays suggests an aspiration for a standing security presence in the IOR. For the Indian Navy, therefore, interaction with Gulf navies is a strategic measure aimed at retaining Indian influence in the IOR.

    India’s Arabian Gulf diplomacy is, however, not all about own national interests. The tour by Indian naval ships to the region came only a few days after Narendra Modi’s visit to Abu Dhabi, the first by an Indian prime minister in 30 years. As India and the UAE announced a strategic partnership, many of the themes reflected upon in their joint statement were an expression of India’s solidarity with the UAE (and more broadly Arab Gulf states). Prominent among these were human security, counter-terrorism and regional defence. But the GCC’s central concern still remains the security of energy shipments through regional chokepoints. With political tensions heightening the vulnerability of the Gulf’s vital waterways, the joint statement affirmed India’s commitment to strengthening maritime security in the Northern Indian Ocean region.

    The Indian Navy’s burgeoning ties with Arab Gulf navies demonstrate the utility of maritime power as a foreign policy tool. India’s Indian Ocean diplomacy has shown that the political role of sea power remains as important as its wartime uses. While “hard-power” projection remains effective as earlier, the modern exercise of “soft power” through “hardware” has no credible substitute. Through its Arabian Gulf initiatives, the Indian Navy has shown that by positioning itself as a reliable and supportive partner of regional maritime forces, a navy can shape the broader strategic environment, forge lasting relationships and effectively deter challengers.

    While the Navy’s contribution to the country’s foreign policy transformation has never been in doubt, its utility as a potent political instrument has been demonstrated only recently. By engaging GCC navies through joint exercises, port calls, and training programmes, the Navy has successfully created a durable template of maritime relations in the Western Indian Ocean. More significantly, its persistent presence in the Western Indian Ocean has validated India’s strategic capability and positive intent in the Middle East. In many ways, the Indian Navy’s Arabian Gulf diplomacy has been critical in rebalancing the Indian Ocean’s emerging strategic narrative in India’s favour.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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