English News


Why is India expanding its naval footprint in Southeast Asia?

The inaugural ASEAN India Maritime Exercise (AIME-2023) was successfully held in the South China Sea in May 2023 (Image courtesy: Indian Navy)

Southeast Asia is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN-centrality is the accepted principle of Indo-Pacific strategies of most countries. The maritime region stretching from the Andaman Sea in the West to South China Sea in the East links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and a number of maritime chokepoints lie in this region.

For China, the region is key in venturing out in the Indian Ocean and therefore, it seeks access and facilities in this region as seen in its efforts to modernize the Ream port in Cambodia. Ream is likely to emerge as a de-facto Chinese base in Southeast Asia. However, China is not the only player in the Southeast Asian strategic landscape. Other key powers like India, Japan and the United States (US) are also becoming active in Southeast Asia to regain their pre-eminence.

As a result, the region is experiencing the strategic contestation between China on the one hand and India, Japan, and the US on the other. India is engaging with Southeast Asian countries in a bilateral as well as regional setting and maritime security is a key focus area for India-Southeast Asia strategic relationship. A spate of recent naval activities by New Delhi indicates the growing maritime footprint of India in the Southeast Asian waters.

The most visible manifestation of India’s growing role in maritime Southeast Asia has been the India-ASEAN maritime Exercises (AIME). They took place in two phases: first, near the strait of Malacca and second, in the South China Sea. Given the maritime disputes between China and five ASEAN countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) in the SCS and the Chinese desire to dominate the South China Sea, AIME did not go down well in Beijing. China sent a flotilla of maritime militia through the ships that were participating in the AIME in the South China Sea phase. However, despite the Chinese reactions, to maintain the balance of power in the region and ensure the freedom of navigation and overflight, it is necessary to make exercises like AIME a routine affair.

Besides AIME, in this month, Indian naval warships launched coordinated patrols with Thailand, paid a port visit to Sihanoukville in Cambodia and exercised with the Indonesian navy. Of these three, Thailand and Indonesia are maritime neighbours of India and exercises with both have been aimed to foster interoperability, jointness and mutual cooperation. These countries are located near the geopolitically significant strait of Malacca. It is a lifeline for East Asian economies and China has been worried about the ‘Malacca Dilemma’.

Even though the co-ordinated patrols between India and Thailand have been going on since 2005, the changing regional strategic scenario increases their importance. Same holds true for India-Indonesia bilateral naval exercises named as ‘Samudra Shakti’ (translation: sea power). These exercises have been taking place since 2018 and signal the growing strategic convergence between India and Indonesia. In 2018, India signed an agreement to develop the port of Sabang in Indonesia near the strait of Malacca and China had reacted to that news with anger and bitterness.

Interestingly, India-Thailand patrol was focused on the Andaman Sea while India-Indonesia exercises took place in the South China Sea. Given the strategic importance of the South China Sea, India had deployed Dornier maritime patrol aircraft as well. The Indian Navy press statement about the India-Indonesia exercises notes that these drills will showcase ‘their shared commitment towards peace and stability in the region’. In this formulation, it is hard to miss the unstated but underlying reference to the Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea and its destabilizing impact on regional security.

Meanwhile, as China enjoys considerable influence in Phnom Penh, it is necessary to engage Cambodia and make efforts to wean it off from the Chinese orbit. The country is reeling under Chinese debt. Cambodia’s foreign debt stands at almost $ 10 billion and of which, it owes 41% to China. Therefore, Phnom Penh is under considerable Chinese influence and has been seen as one of the most pro-China Southeast Asian states. In this context, players like India and the US need to take steps to bring Cambodia out of the Chinese sphere of influence and diversify its strategic partners. The port visit to Sihanoukville by Indian naval warships point in that direction.

Last year, India sold BrahMos missiles to the Philippines. It was a show of intent on India’s part. Now, with the series of activities, New Delhi is expanding its naval footprint in Southeast Asia. In the evolving strategic rivalries of the Indo-Pacific region, Southeast Asia is playing a key role and China is seeing the challenges rising to its activities. Therefore, expansion of Indian maritime footprint in the region is a necessity to keep the strategic balance in the region. It helps to protect India’s interests as well as increases its influence. In the process, India-Southeast Asia relationship is deepening.

Also Read: India and ASEAN together can define the next phase of globalization – Jaishankar

[Sankalp Gurjar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Udupi, India. He is the author of The Superpowers’ Playground: Djibouti and Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific in the 21st Century (Routledge: 2023)]