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The case for British-Indian naval cooperation

The Covid-19 pandemic has not just successfully challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions of international relations, but also set the stage for future geopolitical conflicts. This was the theme of a panel discussion a fortnight ago at the India Global Forum in London, between Ashok Malik, Policy Advisor at India’s Ministry of External Affairs, and Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons and member of the Council on Geostrategy’s Advisory Council. With the Indian Ocean becoming one such flashpoint, it becomes increasingly clear that joint naval cooperation between India and the United Kingdom (UK) will be crucial in shaping its future and, consequently, the post-pandemic world order.

Indian strategists have long viewed the Indo-Pacific as not solely limited to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, but as a ‘vast expanse of water’ stretching ‘from Sydney to Somalia’, as Malik noted at the India Global Forum, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific via the Indonesian straits, Arabian and South China seas and the Bay of Bengal.

Britain’s various existing power projection and naval capabilities across India’s demarcation of this region places it in a unique position to act effectively and compellingly alongside India to maintain the open international order that both nations seek to uphold in this part of the world. Just last year, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, announced an investment of £23.8 million to expand the British military’s logistics hub at the port of Duqm in Oman, where the Indian Navy also possesses docking rights. The British Defence Singapore Support Unit based in Sembawang and the Indian Navy’s refuelling and logistical support facilities at Changi Naval Base again illustrate intersecting British and Indian strategic interests in the region and set the stage for enhanced naval cooperation. This, combined with the power projection capability of the Indian Navy and Royal Navy, resulting from their respective maritime surveillance and military facilities in Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles, and in Diego Garcia, illustrates the scale of the potential power that both countries can wield in the IOR. The arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year in India and the Bay of Bengal sets a possible precedent for further cooperation on this front.

The past year has seen India become an increasingly proactive member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). This has become especially pronounced following the Galwan Valley clashes during 2020, a period which has witnessed India host the Quad’s Malabar 2020 naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in November and step up its regional maritime surveillance activities against the revisionism of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

India’s increased assertiveness against the PRC in the maritime domain comes at a time when Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, seeks to expand the existing G7 into a more modern ‘Democratic 10’ (D10), which would include India, Australia and South Korea as new members of the coalition – a glimpse of which was seen most recently at the G7 summit this June. Given that the Quad may be changing into a ‘Quad Plus’ incorporating new regional and non-regional naval partners, closer naval cooperation between India and the UK could set the military groundwork required to make such diplomatic projects a reality. Indeed, the Royal Navy’s appointment of a liaison officer at India’s Information Fusion Centre, collating real-time maritime intelligence in the Indian Ocean, appears to be a step in this direction, as does the recent visit of Gen. Mukund Naravane, India’s Chief of Army Staff, to the UK.

Joint naval cooperation also facilitates both the UK and India’s diplomatic approach towards individual European stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. 2019 saw France’s Ministry of Defence publish its Defence Strategy for the Indo-Pacific, while Germany and the Netherlands published naval doctrines for the Indo-Pacific in 2020. Closer naval cooperation between India and the UK makes room for both countries to pursue their individual policies with European regional stakeholders.

Involvement in the IOR will bolster post-Brexit Britain’s individual bilateral relations with similarly involved European powers. Greater British naval engagement in the Indian Ocean will require both the UK and its European partners to engage more closely in the realms of defence and security, underpinned by shared values and geographic proximity. This has the potential to create a common ground for both sides to operate, and translate into closer cooperation in other domains, whether political or economic.

Stepping up naval activity in the IOR would also facilitate India’s efforts to deepen its strategic relationship with Europe which has grown rapidly following Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s appointment as India’s External Affairs Minister in May 2019. Engaging with individual European navies in the region would allow India to work more closely with such non-regional partners in other theatres in a manner similar to Britain’s.

With both the UK and India expanding their military presence across the Indian Ocean, the potential of the combined force of their existing regional military assets in the region illustrates the need for joint naval cooperation in the face of common state-based strategic threats. Joint naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean also helps create the military conditions facilitating the expansion of diplomatic and military forums like the Quad (Plus) or the G7, an objective which the UK and India remain mutually interested in achieving. The growing presence of individual European navies in the Indian Ocean also allows both the UK and India to engage with them separately to achieve the objectives of their distinct Europe policies.

As post-Brexit UK seeks to uphold its position as a transcontinental power in line with its vision of a Global Britain, and as India’s geostrategic and economic growth continues, it is only sensible that both nations’ navies will act together, in tandem with their democratic values, against common strategic rivals seeking to unilaterally impose their own vision of geopolitical order over the Indian Ocean – a vast maritime theatre of great strategic significance for policymakers in both London and New Delhi.

Archishman Goswami is Charles Pasley Intern at the Council on Geostrategy and Vice-President of the Geopolitical Risk Society at King’s College, London.

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