Amid simmering tensions with China, India is looking to gain an advantage at sea

Amid simmering tensions with China, India is looking to gain an advantage at sea

Indian Navy


Indian sailors watch military vehicle on parade during India's Republic Day parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2015.

  • India is increasingly wary of Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.
  • In response, India has worked to boost its military capacity and build partnerships with countries in the region.

A spike in tensions between China and India along their shared border in the Himalayas this summer eased in August, but the two Asian powers are still at odds.

China has grown its influence in the region through commercial and infrastructure deals with countries throughout Asia, including those that border India.

Beijing's expanding ties have concerned its neighbors, perhaps none more so than India, which regards Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean warily.

As a result, New Delhi has sought to strengthen its diplomatic ties with neighbors and bolster its military capacity - drawing on longstanding relations with the US and other partners in the region to do so.


India Navy


An Indian soldier.

China has pursued commercial port and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan and has opened facilities in the Seychelles and Djibouti, the stated purposes of which include humanitarian and anti-piracy efforts, though they appear to have military uses as well.

India, for its part, has continued its years-long efforts to build security relationships with its neighbors in the region, and it appears to be taking a more muscular approach to defending its interests, putting a special focus on its maritime approaches.

A document released by the Indian navy in late 2015 noted that the country's "prominent peninsular orientation and flanking island chains overlook strategic sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, linking her security and prosperity inextricably to the seas."

India navy ship vessel Philippines

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Indian sailors aboard INS Kadmatt arrive for a four-day goodwill visit in the Philippines, October 3, 2017.


Chinese activity in the seas surrounding India has also led New Delhi to shift its strategic posture.

After long focusing on the country's northern borders, Indian leaders have turned their attention to the country's nearly 5,000-mile-long southern coastline, where security and energy infrastructure is concentrated.

"This is a tectonic shift in India's security calculus, that it has to protect its southern flank," Brahma Chellaney, a strategic-studies professor at the Center for Policy Research, told The New York Times this summer.

In July, Japan, India, and the US took part in the latest iteration of the Malabar naval exercises, in which anti-submarine warfare was a major component.

Maritime security was a focus of the Indian defense minister's bilateral meetings with Japanese officials in September. It was also slated to be a topic of discussion during Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' trip to India in late September.


In October, India and Indonesia - both democracies and neighbors on the Indian Ocean - carried out another round of biannual joint naval patrols, aimed at boosting interoperability between their forces.

India navy submarine shipyard

REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade/File

Employees stand in front of the Indian navy's first Scorpene submarine before being undocked from Mazagon Docks, a naval-vessel ship-building yard, in Mumbai, April 6, 2015.

During the last days of October, India and Japan carried out intensive anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Indian Ocean, involving naval aircraft from both countries.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly was also recently in India, where she discussed the strategic situation in South Asia and helped prepare for French President Emmanuel Macron's visit in early December. India and France have also expanded their joint efforts to monitor activity in the Indian Ocean.

"We are sharing information in all formats - human, satellite and even electromagnetic as both the countries are worried about the implications that the Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean region can mean to the international community," a senior French official reportedly said.


Japan is also expected to propose a strategic dialogue between it, the US, India, and Australia to counter Chinese expansion in Asia via its "Belt and Road" policy, which is aimed at establishing trade and transportation networks in the region.

MiG 29K aircraft INS Vikramaditya indian navy aircraft carrier

Indian Navy

A MiG-29K prepares land aboard Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya in 2014.

Alongside those diplomatic efforts, India has worked to improve and expand its military capacity, drawing up a list tens of billions of dollars of foreign fighter jets, armored vehicles, submarines, and helicopters it is looking and pursue a "Made in India" policy in order to develop its domestic defense industry.

The first of six diesel-electric advanced attack submarines - designed by a French firm and built in India - is expected to be commissioned in November or December. And this summer, New Delhi contacted foreign shipyards about building six nonnuclear submarines.

German and French shipbuilders have expressed interest in an Indian submarine contract worth up to $10 billion. India has also talked to Japan about buying advanced subs, but reaching a deal has been difficult for both sides.


India has agreed to buy US-made drones that could be used to track Chinese maritime activity and to purchase P-81 Neptune aircraft, one of the most advanced anti-submarine-warfare planes in the world. (The waters around the Malacca Strait, which connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, are an area of focus for India.)

US Navy Indian navy sailors

(US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler Preston/Released)

Lt. Christopher Ground gives a tour to Indian sailors aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Howard.

"I believe that the US is ready to help India modernize its military. India has been designated a major defense partner of the US. This is a strategic declaration that's unique to India and the US. It places India on the same level that we have many of our treaty allies," US Navy Adm. Harry Harris, head of Pacific Command, said in August.

Prior to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US this summer, India's defense minister went to Russia to address weapons deals that had been delayed, including the purchase of four frigates and the lease of a nuclear-powered submarine.

The Indian navy has asked Russian aircraft manufacturer MiG to "ruggedize" its MiG-29K aircraft to better withstand aircraft-carrier operations. India is also set to buy Russia's advanced S-400 missile-defense system. Russia also overhauled and updated the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier for India between 2004 and 2013, though New Delhi has pursued indigenously built aircraft carriers since.


India has contracted a South Korean firm to build minesweepers and with Russia to acquire fifth-generation fighters - those projects have foundered, however.

India imports about 90% of defense equipment, and its "Made in India" initiative seeks to bring foreign firms to India to partner with domestic companies - deals that would bring India's homegrown defense contractors up to global standards.