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India's Ocean: The Story of India's Bid for Regional Leadership

26 Sep 2014
reviewer Rory Medcalf

It is fashionable for strategic analysts to claim to understand India’s growing role and the increasing centrality of the Indian Ocean as a zone of geopolitical competition. It is also easy to assert that India’s domestic problems and troubled neighbourhood will forever hobble its maritime ambitions. In this book, David Brewster offers a convincing and carefully-researched alternative. The author outlines a realistic trajectory for India as an Indian Ocean power. As part of that analysis, he explains the power relationships and subregional dynamics that will determine how smooth or otherwise this course will be.

The book has several notable strengths that will make it an indispensable resource for researchers on Indian Ocean issues and Indian strategic policy. First, it is supremely balanced: Dr Brewster steers an intelligent middle course between the Indian boosters and the India pessimists. He convincingly outlines the limits and obstacles to a greater Indian naval and diplomatic role in its maritime region, yet also identifies a plausible path for India to address them including through increased naval spending and more concerted work on fostering strategic partnerships.

The book is data-rich and usefully comprehensive. It addresses the subregions of the Indian Ocean in impressive detail, unearthing little-known aspects about the complex and sometimes quite sophisticated security relationships India has developed over the years, to its long-term advantage, from Mauritius to Singapore. The book’s thoroughly-researched account of such episodes as Operation Lal Dora, the plan for an Indian armed intervention in Mauritius in 1983, is a welcome contribution not only to geopolitical analysis but also to the historical record.

The author does not confine himself to history or descriptions of India’s strategic situation and behaviour: he distils his research into some sound analytical judgements that further our understanding of India and its region. For instance, he makes the fascinating observation that if India succeeds in its quest to be truly the predominant power in the Indian Ocean, it will have the effect potentially binding the region, for the first time, as something more than an inchoate ‘strategic space’ or a ‘crossroads for those headed elsewhere’.  The Indian Ocean will thus become more than an energy highway or part of the terrain for wider competition between India and China or China and the United States. The main criticism that might be levelled at this otherwise very accomplished book relates to its cautious and circumscribed approach to the future role of China (and the United States) in the Indian Ocean. The author offers a generally sound and scholarly appraisal of China’s growing economic, diplomatic and, to a lesser degree, security role in the region and anticipates that it will continue to expand. He is right to challenge the ‘string of pearls’ theory of an active Chinese policy of military encirclement of India; Beijing does indeed have other things to focus on, and military bases at places like Gwadar would not seem worth the diplomatic trouble or the strategic vulnerability involved. However, China’s role in the Indian Ocean has already advanced faster than many experts would have been willing to project, as recent reports of a submarine foray and combat simulation exercise attest. The author’s conclusion that there ‘seems little prospect that China will establish a military base in the Indian Ocean in the current strategic environment’ does not mean so very much when the strategic environment is in a stage of such rapid change.

This is part of the book’s overall underestimation of the potential for the Indian Ocean to become part of a wider Indo-Pacific theatre for strategic competition involving China and several other powers. These include not only the United States and India itself, but also Japan, which has an even more acute dependence on Indian Ocean sea lanes than does China and already has a permanent military base in the Indian Ocean, at Djibouti.

These, however, are minor criticisms for a book that deserves to be high on any reading list for scholars and policymakers striving to understand how India will affect the regional and global order in the 21st century.

Dr David Brewster, India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional LeadershipRoutledge, 2014

Reviewed by Rory Medcalf, Director, International Security Program, Lowy Institute for International Policy