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Indian Ocean Region: Opportunities and Challenges

2023 MAY 24

Mains   > International relations   >   India and Global Regions   >   International groupings


  • Bangladesh hosted the 6th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) between May 12-13 in Dhaka. High-level government delegations and think tanks from about 25 countries took part in the IOC.


  • Long Maritime Boundary:
    • With a coastline of over 7,500 km, India has a natural interest in enhancing maritime security.
  • Securing Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC):
    • The Indian Ocean region transports 75% of the world’s maritime trade and 50% of daily global oil consumption.
    • Three major SLOCs play a crucial role in the energy security and economic prosperity:
  1. SLOC connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean through the Bab al-Mandab (that transports the bulk of Asia’s international trade with its major trading partners in Europe and America),
  2. SLOC connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz (transporting the bulk of energy exports to major import destinations like India, ASEAN, and East Asia)
  3. SLOC connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the Straits of Malacca (integral to the smooth flow of trade with ASEAN, East Asia, Russia’s Far East and the US).
  • Energy security:
    • India imports 80% of its oil through IOR.
  • Trade security:
    • Almost 95% of India’s trade by volume and 68% of trade by value are routed via the Indian Ocean. Any impediment to flow of commercial traffic would have disastrous ramifications on her economic objectives.
  • Geostrategic position:
    • Indian Ocean encompasses about 1/5th of the world’s sea area and the Indian Peninsula extends 2000 kms into the sea, bringing approximately 50% of the Indian Ocean within a 1000-mile arc ascribed from Indian Territory. This central position enables India to take up the role of a net security provider in the region.
  • Changing geo-politics:
    • Relative decline of U.S in the region >> left a void >> increasingly filled by India and China >> Both eager to secure position as major power brokers in global affairs
  • Rise of Indo Pacific: 
    • The acceptance of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic construct linking the contiguous waters of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean has gained currency in the last few years with the shift in the geopolitical centre of gravity to IOR region.
  • EEZ and Ocean resource:
    • Fishing and aquaculture
      • Indian Ocean accounts for almost 15% of the world’s total fishing potential.
    • Other biological resources:
      • Corals, Mangroves etc.
    • Oil and gas:
      • Persian Gulf is the largest oil-producing region in the world.
      • Exploration for offshore petroleum and natural gas also has been under way in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
    • Other minerals of potential commercial value
      • Ilmenite, tin, monazite (a rare earth), zircon, and chromite, all of which are found in nearshore sand bodies.
    • Polymetallic nodules:
      • Polymetallic nodules are abundant in the Indian Ocean.  
      • Eg: Manganese nodules are found throughout the central part of the ocean, South Australian Basin etc.

Mineral exploration:

  • In 1987, India received exclusive rights to explore the Central Indian Ocean and has since explored four million square miles and established two mining sites.
  • In 2014, the International Seabed Authority issued licenses for the Indian Ocean ridge, opening up new opportunities for deep seabed mining.
  • Ecological importance:
    • The Indian Ocean region also remains a biodiversity hotspot, one that is home to several million species of flora and fauna.
  • Dependence of Indian economy on Monsoon:
    • The Indian Ocean has an important role to play in keeping the moderate climate of Southern India. Also, Indian agriculture is mostly dependent on South-West monsoon. Hence, climatic sustainability of the regions is a prime concern for India.
  • Tourism potential:
    • A growing number of locations in the Indian Ocean have become popular destinations for tourists, who are drawn to the warm climate, beautiful beaches, and azure waters.
    • India sports many locations on both the mainland and in the island territories of Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that draw large numbers of domestic as well as foreign visitors


  • Piracy:
    • A large percentage of India’s trade, including oil and fertilisers, passes through the Gulf of Aden. However, piracy along the Gulf of Aden, Somalian Coast, Omani Coast and seas between the African coastline and Maldives is a concern.
  • Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing:
    • There are growing concerns over China's illegal, unregulated unreported fishing (IUU) in the Indian ocean region.
    • As per data released by Information Fusion Centre Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), a total of 379 incidents of IUU were reported in the IOR and adjoining waters in 2020.
  • Drug trafficking:
    • Opioids produced in Central Asian nations is loaded onto dhows and transported through the Arabian Sea towards both West and East.
    • In the East, they transit through South Asian countries, including India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, to then reach further destinations.
    • This is known as the Southern Route, a well-establish maritime path for opioids smuggling in the Indian Ocean region.
    • Drug production impacting Indian Ocean states takes place in two main regions:
      • The “Golden Crescent”, comprising illicit opium production areas in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the “Golden Triangle”, the second largest opium production region in the world, covering Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
  • Human trafficking:
    • Trafficking in persons (TiP) and smuggling of migrants (SoM) is known to take place in IOR.
  • Terrorism:
    • One of the worst terrorist attacks in Mumbai, 2008 was perpetrated by terrorists arriving by sea.
  • Chinese aggression:
    • China is expanding its footprint in the Indian Ocean through its 'Debt Trap Diplomacy' and 'String of Pearls Strategy'.
      • Through its debt trap policy, China lures the strategically located nations to borrow infrastructural loans. Once the nations are indebted, China pressurizes them to support its geostrategic interests.
      • Through its String of Pearls strategy, China is expanding its footprints to contain Indian hold in the Indian Ocean. It is creating a ring around India through strategically placed nations such as at Chittagong (Bangladesh), at Karachi, Gwadar port (Pakistan) and at Colombo, Hambantota (both in Sri Lanka) and other facilities.
    • Recent satellite images have suggested that China has been modernising its Djibouti military base.
  • Climate change:
    • As per IPCC, Indian Ocean is warming at a higher rate than the other oceans around the world, with warming levels estimated to be three times higher than in the Pacific. This is resulting in more frequent and intense cyclones.
    • The Indian Ocean is rising at a level of 3.7 millimeters annually. Hence, coastal areas across the Indian Ocean region are likely to witness severe coastal erosion and frequent floods.
  • Ecological degradation:
    • Increased pollution levels, combined with overfishing, pose a major threat to the rainforests, marine reefs, and other ecosystems in the region.
    • The environmental threats also have significant implications for the fishing community.
  • Resource Availability v/s Requirement:
    • Achieving the status of net security provider can put enormous strain on country’s finite resources and calls for manifold increase in existing military hardware.
  • Shifting US Policy:
    • Uncertainty in Indo-pacific policy of US would leave a vacuum in the IOR, which China would be more than obliged to fill.
    • Consequently, for India, this would greatly increase the scope of maritime conflict with China, singly or collusively with Pakistan.


  • Policies:
    • India’s policy towards countries in the IOR is guided by the 'Neighbourhood First' policy and SAGAR (Security & Growth for All in the Region).
    • Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) Policy:
      • It is India’s policy or doctrine of maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
      • The pillars of SAGAR are:
        • India’s role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
        • India would continue to enhance the maritime security capacities and economic resilience of friendly countries in IOR.
        • A more integrated and cooperative focus on the future of the IOR, which would enhance the prospects for the sustainable development of all countries in the region.
        • The primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the IOR would be on those “who live in this region”.
    • Neighbourhood First policy:
      • It focuses on creating mutually beneficial, people-oriented, regional frameworks for stability and prosperity.
      • India’s engagement with IOR countries is based on a consultative, nonreciprocal and outcome-oriented approach, which focuses on delivering benefits like greater connectivity, improved infrastructure, stronger development cooperation in various sectors area, security and broader people-to-people contacts.
  • Institutions:
    • External Affairs Ministry (MEA) created a separate IOR Division, focusing on near-neighbours, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and then adding Mauritius and Seychelles to the list.
  • Strategic efforts:
    • In a counter to China’s String of Pearls strategy, India has started working on the 'Necklace of Diamonds' strategy.
    • India is expanding its naval bases and is also improving relations with strategically placed countries to counter China's strategies.
    • Examples of India's overseas military base:
      • Changi Naval Base, Singapore
        • The agreement signed in 2018 has provided direct access to this base to the Indian Navy.
        • While sailing through the South China Sea, the Indian Navy can refuel and rearm its ship through this base.
      • Sabang Port, Indonesia:
        • In 2018, India got the military access to Sabang Port which is located at the entrance of Malacca Strait.
        • This strait is one of the world's famous choke point and a large share of trade and crude oil passes on to China through this region.
      • Duqm Port, Oman:
        • In 2018, India got military access to Duqm Port in Oman.
        • This Indian facility is located right between the two important Chinese pearls - Djibouti in Africa and Gwadar in Pakistan.
      • Assumption Island, Seychelles:
        • In 2015, India and Seychelles agreed upon the development of the naval base in this region. This gives the military access to India.
        • This base is of strategic importance to India as China desperately wants to increase its presence in the African continent through the maritime silk route.
      • Chabahar Port, Iran:
        • The port provides access to Afghanistan and an important trade route to Central Asia.
      • Tajikitsan -Farkhor Air base
      • Coastal survelliance radar at Mauritius and Seychelles
  • Military exercise in IOR:
    • Examples: Malabar exercise, Ekuverin with Maldives, Lamitye with Seychelles
  • Other military engagements:
    • Military assistance:
      • Indian warship Sunanya escorts World Food Programme vessel aid to eastern Africa
    • India co-opted Maldives as part of its southern naval command
  • Anti-Piracy Operations:
    • The Indian Navy commenced anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden from October 2008 and since then a ship has been deployed continuously.
      • The P8I surveillance planes of the Indian Navy have been carrying out anti-piracy patrol sorties in Salalah in the Gulf of Aden and other piracy prone areas.
    • Besides escorting Indian flagged vessels, ships of other countries have also been provided protection. No ship under Indian escort has thus far been hijacked by pirates.
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme
    • Examples: Relief to cyclone hit Mozambique, Fresh water supply to Male during water crisis, support to Madagascar in aftermath of cyclone Ava etc.
    • Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.
  • Abiding by the International Law:
    • For example: India accepted a United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal award on the maritime boundary arbitration between India and Bangladesh.
  • Data Sharing:
    • India established an International Fusion Centre (IFC) for the Indian Ocean region in Gurugram in 2018.
    • It has started functioning as an information-sharing hub of maritime data and “curing incident responses” to maritime security situations through a collaborative approach.
  • India-led projects in IOR:
    • Project Mausam:
      • It is a cultural project by the Ministry of Culture and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which aims to rebuild maritime cultural connections with the 39 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.
      • The major goal was to revive the historical “spice route” in a larger geopolitical and geoeconomic context.
    • Sagarmala:
      • The project seeks to develop a string of ports around India’s coast. The objective of this initiative is to promote “Port-led development” along India’s coastline.
      • 14 coastal economic zones are created under Sagarmala
    • Mineral explorations:
      • India signed agreement with International Seabed Authority >> where ISA give 1.5 lakh sq km for nodule explorations in IOR
    • Resource sharing:
      • India brought projects to improve maritime logistics in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles.
      • With Logistics Agreement with France and USA >> India got access to important ports like Djibouti near the horn of Africa, Reunion Islands near Madagascar, and Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean.
  • Participation in multilateral forums
    • IORA:
      • It is an inter-governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the Indian Ocean region through its 22 Member States bordering the Indian Ocean.
      • India is a founding member
    • Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS):
      • It was conceived by the Indian Navy in 2008.
      • It is a forum that seeks to enhance maritime cooperation among Navies of the littoral states of the IOR and helps to preserve peaceful relations between nations.
    • Observer status at Indian Ocean Commission:
      • It is an intergovernmental body created in 1984 to protect the interests of the Western Indian Ocean islands.
      • It consists of Madagascar, Comoros, La Réunion (French overseas territory), Mauritius and Seychelles.
    • Colombo Security Conclave:
      • It is a maritime security grouping consisting of India, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Mauritius.
    • QUAD:
      • It is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India - with a shared objective to ensure and support a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region.
    • Asia Africa Growth Corridor:
      • AAGC is an economic cooperation agreement between the governments of India, Japan, and multiple African countries.
      • It aims for Indo-Japanese collaboration to develop quality infrastructure in Africa, complemented by digital connectivity, which would undertake the realization of the idea of creating free and open Indo-Pacific Region
  • Building Space Assets:
    • South Asia satellite:
      • ISRO launched this for the use of countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region.
    • IRNSS – NaVIC:
      • To provide reliable position, navigation and timing services over India and its neighbourhood.
  • Assisting littoral states during political crisis:
    • For example: ‘Operation Cactus’ military intervention to end the mercenary-led coup-bid against Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988


  • Development of Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands:
    • Infrastructure upgradation in these islands and their development as a potent military base would be amongst the first steps needed for an assertive Indian Ocean policy.
  • Formulation of a National Defence Policy:
    • An assertive defence policy would inspire confidence, not only within India but also amongst the small littoral nations of IOR who would then acknowledge her intent, desire and capability to become a net security provider in the region.
  • International Cooperation:
    • Sustaining international cooperation to enhance maritime security requires two supportive frameworks in the policy and operational areas.
    • Rule-of-law Based Approach:
      • There is a need to review the operational effectiveness of the UNCLOS.
      • Especially regarding the enforcement of its provisions on freedom of navigation, the sustainable exploitation of maritime resources, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
    • Securing the Sea Lanes of Communication:
      • Securing SLOCs that traverse the oceans is of central importance to enhancing maritime security.
      • Thus, the global debate must focus on ensuring equal and unrestricted access to SLOCs by states while resolving differences through peaceful means.
  • Engaging Private Sector:
    • There is a need for an increasing role of the private sector in the maritime domain, whether it is in shipping, sustainable development through the Blue Economy.


Q. Give an account of the opportunities and challenges faced by India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).