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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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The Next Big Thing: The Growth in Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean

Justifiable preoccupation by intelligence analysts with the rise of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has paralleled the focus of popular attention on the growth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the significant growth of the Indian Navy (IN) in recent years has been neglected by international scholars, and the international attention paid to India has similarly suffered in comparison with the PRC.  

Proportionately, the rise of the Indian Navy — and Indian defenses generally — is in some ways more spectacular than that of the PLAN and the other, new PRC maritime power projection and protection tools. Arguably, too, India’s geopolitical or strategic ambitions are no less significant than those of the PRC.
Having said that, India has a GDP of only about $1.86-trillion (2013), roughly the same as that of Canada, when the PRC had a GDP of some $9.24-trillion, according to the World Bank. Yet the IN has been fielding an oceangoing fleet of aircraft carriers, nuclear and conventional submarines, and blue water combatants which, for some decades, in some important ways eclipsed the naval capacity of the PRC.  

Perhaps the difference was (but may no longer be) that India has seen itself as a maritime power while China saw itself as a continental power. Inevitably, both states must compete internationally for resources and energy, which — quite apart from their Central Asian ambitions — keeps them on a path of cautious rivalry.  

Related: Three Things To Know About The India-Australia Uranium Deal

David Brewster, a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer, but latterly a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, in Canberra, was well-placed to study India’s bid for regional leadership; he had already authored India as an Asia Pacific Power. Significantly, his new book, India’s Ocean: The story of India’s bid for regional leadership comes at a time when India is undergoing a political, economic, and strategic revival under the new BJP Government of Narendra Modi. Mr. Brewster’s study — although incredibly expensive at $123.25 a copy — is an essential tool for anyone who needs to understand where India is going. Moreover, at some stage the recognition will have to dawn more comprehensively that the focus on East Asia and the Pacific is incomplete without understanding the Indian Ocean component. Brewster, and others, are now beginning to use the phrase “Indo- Pacific” to discuss the theater.  

What Mr Brewster captures with his study is the sense of nationalism and perhaps xenophobia which drives Indian ambitions in the Indian Ocean (hence the book’s title: India’s Ocean) and in the South Asian region. Without stating it expressly, the impression left after reading the study is that the great danger of instability between the PRC and India lies in the mutual xenophobia of both nation-states. In both cases — China and India — the overweening sense of entitlement that each is entitled to be the hegemon of their respective regions draws fear and resentment from the states which surround them.  

Brewster dwells heavily on the Indian fascination with the concept of an “Indian Monroe Doc-trine” under which India could, and should, exercise the right to exclude foreign players from its region. In India’s case, some of that sense includes the entire Indian Ocean region. There were sound reasons for India’s psychological reaction to the presence of foreign powers in the region (just as there were for China: both regions had come under Western domination for protracted periods). When India successfully intervened in the dispute between East and West Pakistan in 1971, its victory — the dismemberment of Pakistan — was alloyed by the concerns which the US felt that India might then proceed militarily against the rump Pakistan in the West. US Pres. Richard Nixon, supported by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, put a carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal as a signal.  

“The ‘intrusion’ of the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal was deeply humiliating for India at the moment of its great military triumph in a way that few can now fully appreciate,” notes Brewster. “For many it echoed the earlier arrival of European imperialists on India’s shores. Although [the Enterprise deployment was] essentially symbolic, it was remembered with bitterness for many decades. The incident was seen as justifying the suspicions of many in New Delhi about US intentions in South Asia and the need for India to rely on the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to the United States.”  

Much followed, including the proposed “Indian Ocean Zone of Peace” initiative.   

Indeed, it could be argued that only now is India beginning to feel sufficiently confident that it can engage the world community on its own terms. But Mr. Brewster notes that India has nonetheless been relatively slow in developing security relationships in South-East Asia. India also harbors fears that many of its immediate neighbors in SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) favor relations with China over relations with India.   

The study also highlights the prickliness of India’s relationship with Australia, particularly the perceived slight of Australia’s reluctance to supply uranium for India’s nuclear energy program. This is compounded by the failure of New Delhi to understand that Australia — a nation-state with a GDP comparable to that of India — also has a vast stake in the Indian Ocean, with the preponderance of its trade going through that Ocean, and with a coastline on the Indian Ocean greater than that of India.  

The book’s final chapter is, fittingly, “India as an Indian Ocean power”, and it is implicitly a question rather than a conclusion. The chapter opens:  

“Will the Indian Ocean become India’s ocean? In many ways, India is the natural center of stra-tegic gravity in the Indian Ocean. But there are considerable uncertainties as to its future role. Might it, for example, seek to impose a muscular hegemony, exercise benign leadership or con-tribute to security using a cooperative model, or some combination of these? Will India seek to sponsor a new regional security order in the Indian Ocean that recognizes its special role?”  

Some might say that India has, for some decades, attempted to do just that — develop a new security order which recognizes its special role — but that it had, until now, lacked the reach and resources to do so. Indeed, the competition posed by the PRC for access to African resources, particularly being channelled across the African continent eastwards toward Kenyan ports for on-shipment to China  — the first phase being the Lamu Port in Kenya, and the New Transport Corridor Development to Southern Sudan and Ethiopia (referred to as LAPSSET) — shows how the PRC’s and India’s strategic space overlap.
Mr. Brewster also highlights the ambiguities and difficulties associated with both China’s and India’s logistical routes for energy and resources coming through from Africa and the Middle East.  

The book’s concluding chapter notes: “In coming decades India will likely have the material capabilities to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, at least vis-à-vis other littoral states. But there are real doubts as to whether it is likely to achieve these ambitions. India’s growing power in the Indian Ocean will be subject to some major constraints, both internal and external, and it is not yet clear to what extend India will be able to overcome them.”  

“The most obvious constraint on the expansion of India’s strategic role in the Indian Ocean is the military predominance of the United States. Although US military resources are currently under strain, the United States will likely have the capability to be the predominant Indian Ocean power for decades to come. But the more apt question is how long the United States will choose to commit the necessary resources to dominate the Indian Ocean. … [T]here will be limits to US support for India, particularly if it is perceived as acting inconsistently with US interests.”  

Related: India Takes a Green Leaf Out of China’s Sustainability Tree

Mr. Brewster highlights US-Indian differences over Iran, and India’s relatively weak relations with the region’s “middle powers”. He also highlights the virtual end of the military threat to India from Pakistan in a conventional sense in the Indian Ocean, and the fact that the PRC does not accept India’s assertion that the Indian Ocean is, in fact, India’s ocean.  

Mr. Brewster concludes his book with the understanding that India, essentially, lacked a grand strategy to chart a path to fulfil its ambitions. However, he believes that the Indian Ocean would eventually take on a more Hindu hue, replacing the European caste which centuries of European dominance gave the region.  


The book was written before the election of the Narendra Modi Government in India in 2014, and there is little doubt that Mr. Modi has a more specific view on India’s path than the previous Congress Party-led coalition Government.   

India’s Ocean is well-written and comprehensive, and it is geared for an academic audience, be-fitting its origins in the halls of the Australian National University. The highly-respected and capable former Indian Navy Chief, Adm. Arun Prakash, noted that the book “holds a mirror to Indians” so that they might see themselves as others see them. It is, indeed, a book which should be read by Indian scholars and defense analysts, as well as those outside India. It does offer a de-tailed view on many aspects of Indian strategic thinking. 

But it does not drive home the reality that India remains a power with less economic muscle than it needs to justify its presumptions.   

By Gregory R. Copley

India’s Ocean: The story of India’s bid for regional leadership. By David Brewster. Abingdon, UK, and New York, 2014: Routledge. 228pp, hardcover, indexed, footnoted. ISBN: 978-0-415-52059-1. $123.25.

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