As 2022 rolled into 2023, the Russia-Ukraine conflict continued to play out in complexity and confusion, albeit with signs of a higher military competence from the smaller belligerent and greater incompetence on the part of the much larger initiator, Russia. The pages of Proceedings continue to examine the lessons from this war, including in the maritime domain.1 The media and armed forces in India are studying it from various angles, as well.2
Across the Indian Ocean region, the war has had indirect economic and diplomatic effects. At a time when economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic seemed evident, the war in Europe had second-order effects for some countries. Two of India’s neighbors—Sri Lanka and Pakistan—best illustrate this. In each, combinations of previous domestic political troubles, allegations of corruption, and heavy borrowing and investments from China (including through the Belt and Road Initiative) were primary factors. Partly because of global food inflation and Black Sea disruptions to Ukrainian grain shipments, several nations around the Indian Ocean are facing food shortages as well.
Thanks to the $60 per-barrel cap on Russian crude oil, trade in energy supplies shifted to some degree: China has increased imports from Russia, as has India. Both countries are acting in their own interest. Indirectly, this has kept world crude prices from skyrocketing, but it has created minor diplomatic complications for India. Japan, reportedly, has recently broken ranks with the West by adding crude oil to its gas imports from Russia.3 International energy trade has long been a welter of contradictions, competition, and unintended consequences.
The concern in much of the Indian Ocean region and beyond is that, geostrategically, China is quite likely to emerge from the crisis relatively stronger than an exhausted Russia. Western countries may emerge somewhat militarily depleted from helping Ukraine, and that, too, may suit China. Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the western Pacific continues even as it is likely to learn useful “do and don’t do” inferences from the Russo-Ukraine war.
What Proceedings flagged in 2017 as “China’s Maritime Aspirations” continues to manifest in the Indian Ocean region, and its diplomatic initiatives keep breaking new ground, sometimes quite literally.4 Of much significance is the submarine base at Pekua in Bangladesh commissioned in early 2023 and named for the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, that was constructed with Chinese technical and perhaps significant financial assistance.5 Reportedly, the new base can support as many as six submarines and eight ships. The Bangladesh Navy has had two ex–People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Type 035 Ming-class submarines for almost six years.
While a free and open Indo-Pacific has been highlighted in all recent Quad (Japan, India, Australia, and the United States) summits and ministerial meetings, the idea faces potential challenges from the progress China seems to be making in securing places and bases: bolstering Djibouti; building port infrastructure in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and a naval base in Ream, Cambodia; leveraging Gwadar, Pakistan; and constructing a possible listening post in Myanmar.6
The good news is that a variety of responses are taking shape, aided and triggered by China’s predilection for aircraft intrusions, maritime incursions and incidents. Beijing’s expansive territorial claims anger some East Asian and Association of Southeast Asian countries. The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense/security agreement is one such response and has taken on a more concrete form than it seemed it might when first announced in 2021–22.7
There are some clearer signs that the Quad may more formally and less obliquely focus on maritime security, through the Quad Maritime Security Working Group.8 With the same membership as the decades-old Malabar Exercise quartet and several bilateral and trilateral defense cooperation tracks within the four militaries, the Quad can be elevated for multidimensional strategic and operational military cooperation that could lead to better deterrence and dissuasion of China. For India, the primary strategic issue with China remains continental, and a build-up that includes more military mobilization seems likely to continue.
This prompts another point for naval minds across the Indo-Pacific to consider. At no other period in history has sea power been more affected by the interconnections between fort and fleet. Fundamentally, the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea should have been expected; yet, it seems to have caught the ship by surprise. An asymmetric fort had fought back.
The navies focusing on the PLA’s multidimensional antiaccess/area-denial system need to see that significant components are based on land (the fort) and in the other four dimensions of warfare (sea, air, space, and information). The Chinese fort seems to have been flexibly designed for the western Pacific—and increasingly the Indian Ocean region—to be “distributed and lethal” and not so easy to overcome.
Indian Ocean nations and navies are seeking responses to this. India, for one, is bolstering capabilities in the Andaman Islands and looking at new, longer-range land-based missiles to replace older versions the Indian Navy has deployed for decades. The Philippines is buying BrahMos coastal batteries from India, and media reports suggest there may be other buyers as well.9 Given the anxieties that China is causing in Southeast Asia, bolstering intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and ordnance-delivery capabilities operating from the forts could add value for the fleets.
How fleets and forts operate in mutual conjunction and cooperation with coalition partners requires a “people, ideas, machines—in that order!” (an aphorism of U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd) approach to create benefits. All this, while allowing for the probability that China is ahead in this area.
Indonesia, a strategically pivotal nation that straddles the dividing line between “Indo” and “Pacific,” faces a combative and arrogant China in its seas while also having a significant economic dependence on Beijing. Indonesia’s economic resurgence and a focused maritime outlook have led to its navy reorganizing itself for better effectiveness. After a long interval, its former chief, Admiral Yudo Margono, was appointed the head of the Armed Forces.10
Closer to my home in the Indian Ocean region, the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) of the national security advisors of Bangladesh, India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka has gathered momentum and contributes to increased maritime cooperation, including countering terrorism and the narcotics trade.11 The Indian Navy also joined the multilateral Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) as an associate member in mid-2022. CMF is based in Bahrain and is commanded by U.S. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who also commands U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. Fifth Fleet. CMF and CSC have seized significant quantities of narcotics in the western Indian Ocean region.12
Cooperation around the Indian Ocean and the region’s national and international linkages with the larger Indo-Pacific might help reduce the chances of confrontation. In other words, sailing in company is important.
1. CAPT William P. Hamblet, USN (Ret.), “Editor’s Page,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 12 (December 2022).
2. For example, see talk by the Indian Army Chief, Gen. Manoj Pande, IA, in “Land Will Remain Decisive Domain: Army chief on Russia-Ukraine War Takeaway,” India Today, 17 March 2023; and Abhijit Singh, “Lessons from the Ukraine-Russia Conflict,” Observer Research Foundation, 24 February 2022.
3. Peter Landers, “Japan Breaks with U.S. Allies, Buys Russian Oil at Prices above Cap,” Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2023.
4. CAPT Sukjoon Yoon, ROKN (Ret.), “Decoding China’s Maritime Aspirations,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 3 (March 2017): 44–48.
5. “A Glorious Chapter Begins,” Daily Star (Bangladesh), 21 March 2023.
6. Isaac Kardon, “Geostrategic Competition for Military Basing in the Indian Ocean Region,” Brookings.edu, 8 February 2023; and Damien Symon, “Is Myanmar Building a Spy Base on Great Coco Island?” Chatham House, 31 March 2023.
7. RADM Sudarshan Shrikhande, IN (Ret.), “AUKUS and Quad Have Eyes on China,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 5 (May 2022): 66–67.
8. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Hard Security Back in Focus at the Quad Foreign Ministers Meet,” Observer Research Foundation, 8 March 2023.
9. Ian Storey, “The Politics of India’s BrahMos Missile Sale to South-East Asia,” The Straits Times, 20 February 2023.
10. Gilang Kembara, “Setting Indonesia’s Navy on a Course Beyond 2024,” The Diplomat, 9 March 2023.
11. Nirupama Subramanian, “Colombo Security Conclave: Ajit Doval Calls for Better Coordination to Address Shared Maritime Challenges,” Indian Express, 10 March 2022.
12. James Martin and Jasper Campbell, “The Navy Could Benefit from the Counternarcotics Mission,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 149, no. 1 (January 2023).