The global rise of China, the closer connections forged by the Quad – India, US, Japan and Australia, and Washington, DC’s perceived move away from Middle-Eastern conflicts has made the “Indo-Pacific” one of the most mentioned geopolitical buzzwords of the last few years. The Indo, as opposed to Asia-Pacific, is a reference to the Indian Ocean and the term is meant to signify the importance of the maritime arena in global competition.

But how well do we know the Indian Ocean? Darshana Baruah, who has recently been appointed the head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Indian Ocean Initiative, argues that much more needs to be done to understand this large, important theatre that includes some of the world’s busiest and most crucial waterways.

I spoke to Baruah – who is also writing a book about Indian Ocean islands – about how India has changed its approach towards the “Indo-Pacific”, why New Delhi still struggles to leverage its maritime advantages and what she hopes to achieve with the initiative.

Tell us a little bit about your background.
I grew up in Assam. I came to Delhi University for my undergrad and then I went to the UK for my masters in international relations. I chose to do my dissertation in 2012 on the South China Sea.

I came back to India, looking for a job with a think tank. But at that time not much was happening on the Indian Ocean, on maritime security, on India looking at the South China Sea. It was very limited to people within the retired naval community.

I sent my dissertation to Dr C Raja Mohan, who was working at the Observer Research Foundation at the time. I joined the ORF and ended up working there for three years, then in Australia, in Japan and now I’m moving to DC.

Did you cover questions about the Indian Ocean and maritime security at all in college?
I did take maritime law and security, but it was not really in terms of geopolitical competition. At the time it was much more from the anti-piracy point of view. So we did work on things like how, within the NATO structure, piracy is dealt with. But it wasn’t presented in the way that I’m engaging with it today, such as in the framework of the Indo-Pacific. But I did study the challenges of the maritime domain, as taught by my professors who were maritime experts in different fields, as well as Right to Protect, theories of IR and so on.

So when you came back to India there weren’t many ways to pursue an interest in the Indian Ocean?
It was extremely hard. At the time, I wouldn’t say people were dismissive, but a lot of them tried to guide me by saying, why don’t you study Afghanistan, or the India-China border conflict. There were very few who even wanted to offer guidance. And the think-tank community in itself was not as dynamic in 2012-13 as it is today. Government didn’t engage with it so much. There was a very small community focused on maritime issues, and mostly within the retired military space.

Dr Raja Mohan was one of the few people who had looked at it. His book, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, had come out in 2012, which I think was ahead of its time. So I wrote to him and luckily I got an internship at ORF, which is how I started.

And since then?
I started as an intern, and then became a research assistant with him. And then we did an Indian Ocean Dialogue in 2014. It was just beginning to come up, so I started working on small projects that allowed me to interact with people and study this more.

In 2016, I went on an Australian government fellowship which placed me at the Australian National University and at the Parliament for six months where I got to work very specifically on the India-Australia maritime partnership within the Indo-Pacific framework.

By then Indo-Pacific had become a framework, even if India had not adopted it. Australia had adopted in 2013. But I still remember when I went to Australia, people would say “why Australia, we don’t work with them.” We didn’t have bilateral exercises with Australia at that point in time.

So it was fairly new, but I think it really gave me the chance, since there were very few people focusing on it. And Australia definitely did think maritime much more than India, so I would say that was a great opportunity to think and learn about how other countries operated in this space.

What did you get to do next?
After coming back from Australia I joined Carnegie India, which was new at the time. We did a lot of work on maritime security. We looked at the Bay of Bengal Initiative. We had the first track 1.5 trilateral between India, Australia and France. So there were a number of things we did focusing on Indo-Pacific.

By 2016, there was much more uptake in the way we talked about the Indo-Pacific. I’ve seen people go from being absolute sceptics about the maritime domain or the Indo-Pacific to being fierce proponents of the space. And I think that change has come from within the government itself. The government has started looking at the Indo-Pacific as a theatre of opportunity for India. A lot has changed within the think-tank community as well. Think tanks now engage very closely with the government, like the Raisina Dialogue.

I think a lot of milestones have been crossed, within the strategic community, within the think tank community to push this forward. India and Australia began bilateral exercises. Then there were more complex exercises between India, Japan and the US, through Malabar.

Between 2016 and 2018, there was still a push and pull as far as the Indo-Pacific was concerned. There were questions, should it be adopted, should it not be adopted by India. The concern was whether it was one of those trends, those fads that stay for a few months and go away.

But as things have become more structured and the issues, regarding Doklam or the Ladakh crisis of 2020, have completely changed the conversation regarding China in India, the maritime domain has got its own space, which didn’t exist when I started, and I can’t even imagine what it was before that.

Today, maritime security is at the core of foreign policy engagements for many of India’s partnerships. And it spans across the Indo-Pacific: Whether it is with island states or bigger powers in the neighbourhood, from Africa to East Asia, maritime security, non-traditional security issues, Indo-Pacific, I think have become at the core of foreign policy engagements for India, which was almost unimaginable in 2012-13.

Take me through how some people went from being sceptics to proponents of the Indo-Pacific. What were they sceptical about?
There were a couple of reasons for it. One was generally the role maritime security traditionally has played in Indian foreign policy. It was never an important aspect because, for a country like India, your priorities come from your threats and your competition. The Indian Ocean, especially after the end of the Cold War, didn’t have much competition or threats. So maritime security was not high up in the foreign policy agenda. There were many more continental issues.

Second, I think a lot of people equated the Indo-Pacific to some sort of formal, treaty-based alliance. Because, if you look at the Quad – India, US, Australia and Japan – the other three members are treat-based allies. So there was a misreading that if India is now accepting this, then proponents of the Indo-Pacific are advocating for India to move into a treaty-based alliance.

It’s not true. It wasn’t an either/or situation. The Indo-Pacific was more about increasing competition and a changing security environment within the neighbourhood, whether it is continental South Asia or the maritime Indian Ocean region, and how does a country with limited resources respond to emerging threats?

Indo-Pacific was something that gives you an opportunity, through partnerships, to address a lot of these concerns. But I think the strategic community and also generally scholars have been so used to India engaging with the world in silos that they couldn’t necessarily see this.

I mean, the Malabar exercises – between India, US and Japan – are not new. They began in the 1990s. But you didn’t hear about them in the first 10-15 years of the decade in the way you have in the last five years. That’s because of the change in the way India thinks about the maritime domain.

And I think that’s where the apprehension was. India had never engaged in a conversation like this. But it also has to do with a changing environment. In the 1990s, your threats and your competition, and your priorities, were different. That has changed.

And finally, I think the concern about the Indo-Pacific has been that it’s too vast a theatre. Because you have the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. So initially there were questions about whether the Indo-Pacific even makes sense, or inconsistencies about what it even meant. Because there was also this understanding that if you’re an advocate of the Indo-Pacific, you are saying it will only survive if each and every country has a synchronised, unified view on every issue and challenge in the region.

That’s never going to happen. A sovereign nation will always have individual interests, national priorities. So it has taken time I suppose, to flesh out what Indo-Pacific means for each country.

Today for India, we know that the Indo-Pacific is a priority theatre.

Most of the scepticism came from the fact that India did not engage through the maritime domain. Even if it had a long-standing relationship with the islands of the Indian Ocean, from Sri Lanka to Mauritius. Its relationship with the island nations does not start in 2016, but it was only that year that India’s Ministry of External Affairs put them all on one desk, and looked at the security environment as one.

What can you point to if I asked you to show me that the Indo-Pacific isn’t just rhetoric for India?
I think in the first few years, around 2016-17, there were a lot of rhetorical conversations. Unfortunately, some conversations are still stuck there. But government has actually moved quite some way ahead. Whether you take the foundational agreements with the US, whether you take the institutionalisation of the Indian Ocean division of the MEA, you also have an Indo-Pacific division of the MEA…

Look at the visits to the region by the leadership. When Modi went to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Seychelles, it was the first time in 30 years that a leader from India had gone. In 2019, after coming back to power, Modi’s first foreign trip was to the Maldives.

There has been a much more maritime approach to engagement. The issues that we talk about at the UN, or things like the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure at the UN, the International Solar Alliance, the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative, all of these are led by India. The Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region is a physical building in Gurgaon that looks to provide regional situational awareness for the entire Indian Ocean region. You have the Indian Ocean coastal radar network, where India provided radars to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles.

So it’s quite systematic and structured in India’s approach. And even if you go through the fine print, whether it’s the Ministry of External Affairs or the Ministry of Defence, and you look at the statements, the interactions, the annual reports, you see a theme in it, in the way it has progressed from 2015-16 to today.

Of course there are some things that still need to be ironed out, but I would say that we’ve definitely moved from just rhetorical points to actually doing things on the ground.

You’ve written about how little money is put into India’s navy. Would you say, on the Indo-Pacific side of things that the Defence Ministry has to play catch-up to the efforts of the Ministry of External Affairs?
I don’t know if it is exactly catch-up. It could be it could be an issue of resource and imminent threat also. It’s also how the two organisations look at things right. For diplomacy, you look at the broader questions in the region, your partnerships. For the MoD, it’s harder to deny if someone argues that your threats are coming more from the continental side, especially after what happened last summer in Ladakh.

But at the same time, I think it is sometimes difficult to make the argument that the maritime domain is an advantage for India, that we need to leverage towards larger strategic goals. There are issues of dragging our feet on this. For instance, last year it was announced that India would appoint a defence attache to Madagascar, but there still isn’t one, because there are internal differences.

I still often get the question of “how does it matter? Is it really that important?” We are a maritime country but we are not a maritime nation. People don’t think maritime. It is limited to the coastal towns and villages on the coastline. But even whether it is our education or our general discourse, we don’t have a conversation, unless something conflict-related happens, right?

The China conversation is barely in the Indian Ocean. It’s purely on the continental border. I think even our official bureaucracy is trained in such a way that our mental maps are much more continental rather than maritime.

It takes a lot more energy to drive the idea that we could leverage the maritime potential, within the bureaucracy, especially with the MoD, than say it would from a continental or army point of view.

Coming to the Indian Ocean, you’ve written about why India needs to look at it as one entity and not in silos. What is the argument there?
The Indian Ocean has gone through a lot of changes since the end of the Cold War, or even during the Cold War from the 1970s and 1980s to now. But a lot of the government still looks at the Indian Ocean through the policies that were crafted at that point in time. Now the dynamics of today are very different.

A lot of the island nations were either newly independent countries or on the cusp of gaining independence. So their priorities and outlook, whether in the maritime domain or their role in the region, was very different than it is today. At that point they associated themselves with the continent, so the Maldives was a South Asian nation and Madagascar was an African nation.

Today they speak of being an Indian Ocean nation, since that gives you a much wider platform for engagement with larger players in the region. I think it is important to look at it as a continuous space from east to west, and to see how the sub-regions – Africa, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea – how they impact or influence each other and the security architecture of the region.

Smaller countries are interacting with bigger players. One of the reasons China was able to build inroads into the Indian Ocean region is that their effort has been consistent. China is the only country with a diplomatic mission in each of the six islands in the Indian Ocean region. For the other players, Delhi, Washington, Canberra all look at silos. if you go to France, they’re well aware of what is happening in the Mozambique channel. Come and ask India what is happening in the Mozambique channel, they probably are not that sure about it.

Do we have a good understanding of whether Beijing looks at the Indian Ocean as one entity?
It’s not clear how they look at it, because most of their writing is primarily how the Indian Ocean is important for energy security. But the one thing to note is that when China built its first overseas military base, it was in Djibouti, an African nation on the Western Indian Ocean, where India does not pay as much attention.

Its security and vulnerabilities were much more on the eastern side, the Malacca straits. But when you piece it together, you realise that if China has one or two bases in the Western Indian Ocean, and even if it has a vulnerability on the eastern side, it will be able to maintain a presence 10 years from now in the Indian Ocean region. It has facilities, resources and the expertise to sustain itself.

But if we don’t look at it and then when we see a development, we see China building a port in Comoros, when we see China building something on another island, then if India reacts, that’s a reactionary policy. And that’s when you struggle to formulate an approach that is in line with what India has to do in the region.

We talk a lot about China, because it is the rising power. We borrow lessons from the South China Sea. So we know that China’s coming into the Indian Ocean region, we have started seeing Chinese ships. But there are also others. Russia has a base in Sudan. You have direct flights between Turkey and Comoros. You have Saudi Arabia building and working with the Chinese across the Indian Ocean region.

So unless you are looking at it as a continuous zone, it is harder to get a picture of what is happening, who are the players, how is it changing.

To be honest I myself didn’t have a lot of insight into this. I’m writing a book on the islands of the Indian Ocean region. And when I started looking, I started seeing similarities between the islands, and growing trends, and that’s when I felt we need to look at the region as one.

This is where your suggestion that Reunion (a French island in the Western Indian Ocean) and the Andamans should be “sister islands” comes from?
That Andaman is strategically important has always been known and accepted. But whenever I discuss it, questions about a vulnerable ecosystem and population, rules and regulations regarding forests, and environment preservation – these things come up that seem to pose more challenges than solutions.

Every time I tried to have a conversation about the Andamans, the response was, “okay, it’s strategic, but here are the first 100 issues you need to tackle to get to the development.” And while looking into it, I was encouraged to also look at Hawaii or Okinawa or another Pacific island.

And then, when I was made aware of Reunion, I started realising the similarities. There are ecological concerns, but Reunion has been developed, they have a port where aircraft carriers can come in. They have restrictions on clearing land, but they’ve used renewable energy. They use a lot of sustainable development methods, which I think the Andamans can borrow and learn from.

Outside of that suggestion, we have seen things change for the Andamans, right?
The push has come from the government. They announced a series of initiatives, such as laying submarine optical cables and increasing internet access and connectivity. The government itself has taken an interest, but it’s a matter of priority. There is only so much budget and capital that is available, and for someone sitting in Delhi, dealing with an aggressive China on the continental border, it is probably not on the priority list.

So it has taken time. The other thing with the Andamans was that it was kept closed to international partners. That is beginning to change. Last year, you had US P8 aircraft land for refuelling, which was the first time. We recently came to an agreement with Japan, to improve the capacity for electricity – a lot of the challenges for the islands are basic fundamental infrastructure.

So whatever development needs to happen in a way that is sustainable, does not harm the vulnerable ecology or disturb the indigenous populations. But I think through partnerships India can do that. If it’s a concern about capital, there are parts that can be plugged into partnerships like with Japan, and if it’s about expertise on sustainable development on an island, perhaps France can help.

With all the excitement of the Quad, the Indo-Pacific, I wonder what you make of the back and forth between India and the US over the maritime claims last week and what that says about challenges in the Indian Ocean.
The fact that India and the US had different definitions of what is applicable in the EEZ has been known for a long time. And the US has done this in Indian waters. India is regularly featured in their annual reports. The issue was not so much the difference in interpretation, the issue was more about the statement itself – why does the US have to publicise it now?

I agree that that was unnecessary. I don’t know if it was a breakdown of communication between State or DOD or even the 7th Fleet. But the one thing that remains true is that every country is going to have its own set of policies and priorities, which will sometimes differ even for partners.

We’ll never have agreement and a common stance on every issue that comes up. But that does not mean that when you disagree somewhere, the whole partnership has fallen backwards. There was actually more anger and discussion on Twitter than at the government level. If you notice, the government response was much more measured.

A lot of the conversation has become so much more structural that something like this probably won’t derail it. It will evoke a lot of sentiments and concern yes. The irony is of course that the US has itself not ratified UNCLOS. And that is not lost on Americans. I have actually never met anyone from the US Navy or a scholar who has said we should not ratify it. It’s stuck at the Congress level.

I think the statement was unnecessary. I also don’t think that this issue is damaging enough to derail or even set back the progress that has been made over the last few years.

What is the Indian Ocean Initiative that you’ll be heading? Are you worried you’ll have to play second fiddle in Indo-Pacific conversations?
The idea of the Indian Ocean initiative was to create one platform that looks at the region in its entirety. Who are the traditional players? Who are the emerging ones? What are their interactions like? It’s a platform that will look at the Indian Ocean as a theater in geopolitical competition, and as a part of the Indo-Pacific framework.

But it’s not about India-China competition or about US-China competition. It is about studying the region. The idea is to create a one-stop shop for convening research on the Indian OCean and its sub-regions. Carnegie has a number of different programmes – Europe, Africa, Russia, an office in Beijing – so we can also bring different perspectives and expertise to how these countries and sub-regions are looking at the Indian Ocean.

So really mapping the Indian Ocean region today. What are the concerns? What are the challenges? I’m quite excited about it. One of the focuses that I will maintain, at a personal level, is research on the islands.

As for the second question. There are concerns, even within the US system. “Why does America need to focus on the Indian Ocean region, it’s too far away.” Similar conversations in Japan, where they say, “yes, Indian Ocean is important, for energy security, but what can we do?”

The basic information about the region is missing. It’s missing from the Indo-Pacific framework. I think it requires a lot more dialogue and conversations when governments have figured out their own roles in the Indian Ocean. Right now the conversation stops at saying “the Indian Ocean is important.” And that’s it. For most governments, except India.

We’re hoping to increase the conversation, through research, through dialogue on what each country can do, keeping in mind the challenges and the priorities. It’s a vast region, but I’m hopeful. I’ve seen conversations change, personally from 2012 when it was hard to work on to having a specific initiative on the Indian Ocean today. So hopefully we’ll be able to change the conversation as well.

What misconception do you find yourself constantly having to correct about the Indian Ocean?
The one thing that is always put as a question to me, not just in India, but even in Japan and the US, is, “now are you okay for an alliance system? And if not, how is this going to work?” There is this idea of equating the Quad to the Indo-Pacific. If the Quad survives, only then is the Indo-Pacific a success, and if it fails, then the whole framework dies. It’s the most misread aspect of this whole framework, which is focused on the maritime domain.

The one that I get the most is just the lack of basic knowledge about the Indian Ocean region. I don’t think most people know what islands are in the Indian Ocean Region. It’s very surprising, but the conversations sometimes are at a very, very basic level.

What research would you like to see on the region?
The part that is missing both from the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific is the Africa angle. That is the western-most part of the Indian Ocean or the Indo-Pacific, so what is the role that the African coast will play? What are the challenges? We tend to look at Africa very much as a continent, and not in the maritime dimension.

How does the Africa question come in, even in terms of China’s collaboration, and how does it leverage that? That is the part that requires much more research and conversation, especially for students in India. We don’t look at Africa as much. We look at West Asia, Iran, or South-East Asia. But Africa is important.

Three recommendations for those interested in the region?

  • India and the Indian Ocean by KM Pannikar
  • The Indian Ocean by Michael Pearson
  • Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indo-Pacific by C Raja Mohan