52.India’s Bridges of Friendship in the Indian Ocean Region

(Published in World news report and Tazakhabarnews, 21 May 2015)

Two incidents in the recent past reflect the benevolent relationships India shares with countries in the Indian Ocean Region. First was supply of fresh water to Maldives through INS Deepak and INS Sukanya when the Maldivian desalination plant caught fire and the Maldives faced an unprecedented fresh water crisis. The second was evacuation of Indian and foreign citizens form Yemen involving Indian Navy, Indian Air Force, Air India, and passenger liners.

India has placed considerable emphasis on developing a security presence in the northeast Indian Ocean. There are several dimensions to this: first, India’s direct security presence in the Andaman Sea, second, its bilateral security relationships in the region and third, its aspirations to gain a security role in the Malacca Strait. While India aspires to play a significant security role in Southeast Asia it has given particular focus to the Malacca Strait, the key maritime choke point between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. India’s Andaman  and Nicobar islands, which run north-south through the Andaman Sea form a natural base for projecting power into the Strait and beyond into the South China Sea.

India has deep links with Singapore, which now acts as India’s primary economic, political and security partner in Southeast Asia. Singapore sees India as having an important security role in the region, acting as a balance to other extra-regional powers, including China, the United States, and Japan. India and Singapore conduct extensive security cooperation, including broad-based security dialogues, joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and cooperation in defense technology. At the invitation of the United States, India took a security role inside the Malacca Strait through the provision of naval escorts for high value commercial traffic, as part of the U.S. led Operation Enduring Freedom.

India has also been developing its security relationship with Indonesia; a Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed in 2001. There are biannual “coordinated” naval patrols; between the Indian and Indonesian navies in the Six-Degree Channel at the northern entrance to the Malacca Strait; to keep extremist groups from using these routes. These patrols comprise Indian and Indonesian vessels and aircraft, coordinated out of India’s Joint Operations Command in the Andaman Islands.

In November 2009, Australia and India concluded a joint security declaration, providing a framework for increased cooperation, security issues such as maritime policing (piracy and maritime terrorism, illegal fishing, people trafficking etc), disaster management, and anti-terrorism and there seem good prospects for closer security relations in coming years.

India-Malaysia defense relations have steadily grown over the years. A MOU on Defence Cooperation was signed in 1993. Malaysia-Indian Defence Cooperation meetings at the level of Defence Secretary from Indian side and Secretary General from Malaysian side are held regularly; Malaysia participates in the biennial MILAN event regularly. Indian navy and coast guard vessels make regular friendly port calls each year at Malaysian ports.

Thailand, and India have agreed to continue strengthening defence relations including exercises and joint patrolling.

Vietnam has also welcomed Indian Navy ships in their region, which would enhance India and Vietnam military relations. Vietnam has also sought Indian support for a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

India and Japan also have close military ties. They have shared interests in maintaining the security of sea-lanes in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean, and in co-operation for fighting international crime, terrorism, piracy, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The two nations have frequently held joint military exercises and co-operate on technology. India and Japan concluded a security pact on 22 October 2008.

In June 2012, India, a major importer of arms and military hardware purchased eight warships from South Korea.

The first Republic of the Philippines–India Security Dialogue was held in Manila on 12 March 2004. The Philippines and India agreed to establish a security dialogue that would serve as a policy forum for sharing security assessments and for reviewing and giving direction to co-operation in bilateral/regional security and defence matters.

In August 2009, a security agreement was formalised with Maldives that will significantly enhance India’s capabilities in the central Indian Ocean. India has been granted use of the former British naval and air base on Gan Island, part of the southernmost group of islands in the Maldives. (Lying around 1,000 km south of India and around 700 km north of Diego Garcia). As part of the agreement, India is also building a system of 26 electronic monitoring facilities across the Maldives archipelago.

India has cordial relations with Iran due to India being a major importer of Iranian oil and the fact that  it is now actively engaged in developing container terminals at Chahbahar port. Since 2003, India has entered into several defence agreements with Oman dealing with training, maritime security cooperation and joint exercises. The Indian Air Force uses the Thumrait air base for transit purposes and Oman has offered the Indian Navy berthing facilities in support of anti-piracy patrols. In 2008 India also entered into a security agreement with Qatar which, according to some reports, includes Indian security guarantees. The agreement, deals among other things with maritime security and intelligence sharing. India has a cordial relationship with Yemen since diplomatic ties were established in 1967.

The south western Indian Ocean forms the gateway between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. India’s security relationships in the region are anchored by its close relationship with Mauritius, the island territory that lies around 900km to the east of Madagascar. India has long-standing and close political, economic and security associations with Mauritius. Since 2003, the Indian Navy has also provided maritime security through periodic patrols of Mauritian waters including anti-piracy patrols in 2010.

The Indian Navy has assisted Seychelles with maritime security in the EEZ under a 2003 defence cooperation agreement under which it provided anti-piracy patrols in early 2010. In July 2007 the Indian Navy opened an electronic monitoring facility in northern Madagascar at the head of the Mozambique Channel and reportedly has also been granted “limited” berthing rights in Madagascar for Indian naval vessels. The Indian Navy has also acted as a maritime security provider for Mozambique, in 2006, India and Mozambique entered a defence cooperation agreement that envisages joint maritime patrols, supply of military equipment, training, and technology transfer in repairing and assembling military vehicles, aircraft and ships.

India’s maritime security relationships in the southwestern Indian Ocean are also buttressed by growing maritime security relations with France and South Africa. Since 2001, the Indian Navy has conducted annual exercises with the French navy, which operates out of Reunion and Djibouti. India also has a growing presence in Antarctica, with three active research stations.

From the above it can be visualized that India has built a reasonable number of bridges of friendship in the Indian Ocean Region which have helped in enhancing its image as a benign friend in need.

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