The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium: Examining India’s Objectives in the Indian Ocean Region

Spearhead Analysis – 27.11.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) held its tenth anniversary this year at Kochi, India. Twenty six of the thirty two IONS member-countries attended the celebration. The IONS was launched in 2008 primarily for the navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It was created as a platform for all member states to come together and advance open and inclusive discussions over regionally relevant maritime security issues. The theme for this year’s seminar was ‘IONS as a Catalyst for Security and Growth for All in the Region’.

The forum has since its invention been central to India’s efforts towards advocating for inclusivity and multilateralism in the region, and towards building its image as the leading maritime power in the IOR.

With a total of thirty two nations participating in the IONS, the scale of the initiative puts India in an ideal position to expand its sphere of influence and build stronger relationships with a wide range of Indian Ocean region states. India recognizes that the IONS can not only be a means for it to check China’s growing influence in the region, but it can also help safeguard its sea lines of communication, which are under threat due to maritime terrorism and piracy. The IONS in this case can be a facilitator for countries to come together and regularize maritime activities. The forum can be used by India to unite states in the region and work towards institutionalizing maritime activities—a step which will ultimately also play well into India’s larger vision of heading security in the region. Furthermore, this may also help create a secure enough environment to convince more states to participate in Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT), Maritime Interdiction Operations, and Search and Rescue Operations.

Seeking to take the leadership position in the region, historically India has ensured that it is consistently the first country to respond in times of crisis in the Indian Ocean region. It has worked to take charge of all disaster-management efforts in the region, claiming that managing crisis in the region is part of its list of strategic responsibilities. Whether it was the 2004 tsunami or the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, India stepped up to demonstrate its leadership potential.

The expansive nature of membership within the IONS provides a very promising opportunity for India to strengthen partnerships, and unite regional states across the Straits of Malacca to Hormuz.

It is important to note Pakistan also falls within the list of the twenty four member countries in the IONS.

This time around however the Indian government did not extend an invitation to Pakistan to participate in the program. It seems the Indian government is still reluctant to engage Pakistan politically. The IONS has a reputation for being a non-controversial platform that has been successful in the past too in managing difficult security issues between states. During the Doklam crisis for instance, India and China held aSearch and Rescue naval drill despite high bilateral tensions at the time. Furthermore, it is known now that India seeks to counter Chinese influence and project itself as the net security provider in the region. Yet it chose to engage with China through the forum. The Indian government however did not extend the same treatment to Pakistan.

Pakistan views the unfortunate choice that India made in not extending an invitation to the country as no less than an attack on the spirit of the forum, which is known to have otherwise always promoted friendly relations and inclusivity in all meetings among member countries.

Regardless India maintains that through the IONS it hopes to consolidate and deepen its relationships with all Indian Ocean littoral states. At the same time it seeks to establish its position as a leader. While the IONS provides an opportunity for India to demonstrate its potential and further its ambitions, it is important to recognize that the forum itself too is facing potentially destabilizing problems of its own; despite efforts by the Indian government to increase unity within the forum, there is a visible lack of coordination between states. States differ in their individual visions and capabilities. The security dynamics of the region are also complicated. The Indian government has on several accounts voiced concerns over increased militarization and the near-permanent presence under some pretext or the other of extra- regional nations. Security-related concerns have also been expressed over the emergence of non-state actors in the region.

With India sidelining Pakistan in the forum it is perhaps important to consider that rejecting the idea of creating a naval community based on inclusivity and coordination will only leave countries in the region prone to more risks and security threats. With a wide membership in the IONS, the only way for India to ensure that no one power upsets the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region is if all countries are kept on board, including Pakistan.