In India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific region, the principle of ASEAN centrality lies at the core. In the last few years, India’s defence ties with the 10 members of the ASEAN, at the regional as well as the bilateral level, are deepening. Two recent developments underscore India’s growing defence role in Southeast Asia.
The first development was the coordinated naval patrols undertaken by the Indian and Indonesian navies between June 13 and 24 in the Andaman Sea. The patrol included a visit of Indonesian naval units to the Andaman Nicobar Command based at Port Blair. It was followed by a sea phase in the Andaman Sea and finally, Indian naval units paid a visit to the port of Sabang in Indonesia.
The overall effort was aimed at boosting cooperation in regional maritime security. The coordinated patrols between India and Indonesia have been taking place since 2002 and have resulted in building “understanding and interoperability between both the Navies and has facilitated measures to prevent and suppress Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) fishing, drug trafficking, maritime terrorism, armed robbery, and piracy, etc”.
Sea phase for the 38th edition of India-Indonesia patrol ended today in Andaman Sea, the closing ceremony is scheduled at Sabang, Indonesia on June 23. To explain these are the western mouth of Mallaca Straits, one of the busiest shipping lane. @indiannavy @Kemlu_RI pic.twitter.com/TGOKGZoA2m
— Ajay Banerjee ਅਜੈ ਬੈਨਰਜੀ (@ajaynewsman) June 22, 2022
The visit to Sabang by Indian naval officials is important as since 2018, India has been granted access to the strategically important port. India is developing the port-related infrastructure at Sabang and there has been discussion about developing an economic zone around the port. The deep-water port is well-suited to host all kinds of naval vessels including submarines.
The ability to access Sabang which is located at the northern tip of the Sumatra Island near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca will expand India’s ability to monitor the key global maritime chokepoint. For India, Malacca is critical not only for its own international trade with Southeast and East Asia but also for keeping a close watch over the Chinese shipping including the energy supplies and naval vessels passing through the narrow waterway.
China is excessively dependent on the Strait of Malacca for its trade and energy. It seeks to alleviate the “Malacca Dilemma” and expand naval presence west of the Malacca in the Indian Ocean. The enhanced engagement, especially in the development of ports, with countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti play a key role in fulfilling this objective. Therefore, as China moves westwards, India has no option but to seek access and build strategic ties eastwards.
The second important development was the visit to Vietnam by defence minister Rajnath Singh. The three-day visit, which began on June 8, further bolstered military ties between both countries. India handed over 12 high-speed guard boats to Vietnam which were built as part of a US $ 100-million line of credit (LoC).
During the visit, both sides signed a ‘Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030’ and India extended a further $ 500 million defence LoC. Both these measures are intended to strengthen military cooperation between the two key Indo-Pacific partners.
The Quad’s new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness may pave the way to unlocking the full potential of the Philippines’ Brahmos anti-ship missiles, writes Kojiro Tonosaki: https://t.co/vESnWi2AAH pic.twitter.com/OO8QF7PxPr
— AMTI (@AsiaMTI) June 30, 2022
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), aimed at making it easier to provide mutually beneficial logistic support, was signed as well. It is the first such agreement signed by Vietnam with any other country. The MoU will further augment the ability of the Indian navy to extend its reach into the South China Sea and the Western Pacific.
India and Vietnam share a broad convergence of interests and have common concerns. Both are concerned about China’s expansionist policies and aggressive foreign policy behaviour. India and China are locked in a territorial standoff in Ladakh whereas Vietnam (along with four other ASEAN partners) is worried about the expansive Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
The shared challenge of China is a key binding factor for the Indo-Vietnamese relationship and the defence partnership is a key pillar. The enhanced military partnership will not only boost the capabilities of Vietnam but will also contribute to the security and stability of the region.
Earlier this year, India agreed to sell BrahMos cruise missiles to the Philippines. Along with this, the naval patrols and a ministerial visit underscore the growing importance of Southeast Asia in India’s defence strategy as well as its Indo-Pacific outreach.
In the rapidly evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, India’s deepening military cooperation with Indonesia and Vietnam is emerging as a key anchor for the regional stability and balance of power. Consequently, the importance of such middle-power relationships cannot be overstated.
(Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi. He specializes in Indo-Pacific security.)