Christian Bueger

India’s new sea power. Reflections from Milan 2024

India’s role in global politics is evolving, and the country is increasingly emerging as an international leader. This also applies to global ocean politics and naval affairs. India is a major sea power, and its navy increasingly acts as the guardian for the Indian Ocean, protecting trade and supporting its neighbors.   

Experiencing Sea Power in Practice

In February, I had the opportunity to experience India’s new sea power in practice. The Indian navy invited me to give the opening talk at their bi-annual multinational naval exercise, called Milan. Milan is a Hindu word that can be roughly translated into English as referring to ‘meeting’, ‘gathering’ or ‘union’. Over 50 states participated in Milan. Held in the city of Visakhapatnam, the home of the navy’s Eastern Command, the event included a seminar, an exhibition, a city parade, and an exercise at sea.   

Group Picture of participants in the maritime seminar of Milan 2024

Sea Power Today

Sea power is often equated with military capabilities, measured in numbers of ships, staff, or high-end technology, with the aircraft carrier often assuming the role as the main status symbol, given only seven nations possess that asset. Milan put some of the military strength of India’s navy on display, with the country’s two aircraft carriers along with a broad range of other assets — fighter planes, helicopters, special forces — being presented to the public.

Yet, contemporary sea power means more than counting and comparing military capabilities. Milan documented at least three forms of contemporary sea power: convening power, innovation, and responsibility.

Convening Power

Milan demonstrated India’s convening power. Convening power refers to the capability of a state to bring together a wide range of nations in a multi-lateral setting which allows for the exchange of knowledge, increasing understanding, forming social ties, but also agreeing on challenges and prospective solutions. The Indian navy succeeded to win over 50 states to participate in the event and many delegations were led by chiefs of navies or other high level officers. This is both a diplomatic achievement, but also a logistical one, since hundred of delegates need to be attended to.

Gathering so many participants, representing a fourth of the world’s nation states across the world regions and oceans, implies that the event is not only inclusive, but also rich in legitimacy. It also means that Milan is an important platform for bilateral negotiations, as navies including from France, Italy, Iran, Russia and the United States have the opportunity to meet in a very informal setting.

Innovation power

Sea power today is also about the capacity to innovative and drive technological, strategic and intellectual progress. Milan documented this form of power in two ways.

At the technical exhibition that formed part of the central event venue, India showcased its naval industry. Visiting the exhibition quickly revealed how advanced the country’s defense industry is. India is major shipbuilding nation and all of the navy’s war ships are built by indigenous industries and the country increasingly is becoming a supplier for other country’s naval vessels. Yet, the exhibition also showcased start ups, and innovation in drones, lasers, surveillance and AI driven systems.

Yet, innovation is not only about technology, it also concerns new knowledge and strategic thought concerning the role of navies in the contemporary world. The maritime seminar accompanying Milan, showed the capacity of the country to assemble speakers and themes that push forward this frontier. Speakers reflected on how climate change and biodiversity loss transform the role of navies, and how the concept of ‘blue economy’ provides new strategic direction ensuring that navies are fully integrated in a countries ocean policy, serve societal needs and contribute to sustainability. Other speakers provided concise overview of the strategic and tactical challenges ahead, ranging from gaps in the laws of the sea, to how to handle the proliferation of sensors, the wide availability of long range anti-ship missiles, or how artificial intelligence will transform naval operations. In other words, Milan allowed to exchange ideas on what constitutes the challenges of the future and the frontier of naval strategy.

Global Responsibility

Finally, sea power today is also about taking over global responsibilities and contributing to global public goods. Since India’s prime minister Modi launched a campaign to strengthen the United Nations capacities to discuss and respond to maritime security challenges in the United Nations Security Council in 2021, the country has taken over leadership roles in policy and practice.   

The Information Fusion Center – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) that the Indian navy operates, provides an important tool for information sharing and identifying threats, such as blue crimes, in the Indian Ocean. At Milan it launched its annual report, which analyses the insecurities the region is facing.

Over the past months, the Indian navy has taken over considerably actions to safeguard marine transport in the Western Indian Ocean. Launching a larger maritime operation the Indian Navy is one of the key forces protecting shipping against attacks by missiles and drones from Yemen. The navy, moreover, has been vital in responding to recent piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia, ensuring that the pirates do not succeed in returning to their business of kidnap and ransom. Increasingly, the navy assumes the role of a guardian of the Western Indian Ocean.

What’s not to like?

The same time India’s new sea power is not without problems and challenges. This firstly relates to the relations between India and the United States. The United States has long been the main protector in the Western Indian Ocean region through its Combined Maritime Forces construct. Current operations point to a successful coordination and sharing of labour. Yet, there are also tensions on the horizon. While the relations between the United States and Russia have fully deteriorated, India maintains close defense ties to Russia.

The new sea power of India also has implications for the small states in the region. While Mauritius has a long standing and deep defense relation with India, countries such as Seychelles, Sri Lanka, or Maldives, have been keen to ensure their independency from great power influences. With the Indian navy providing more and more security services in the region, maintaining this autonomy will become more and more difficulty for these states, and at its extreme, might force them to choose sides in a geopolitical battle. Moreover, projects such as the IFC-OR, while important for information sharing, carry the risk to undermine the indigenous projects of the small island states, in building and maintaining such systems.

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