India looks towards the sea

(To Renato Scarfi)

The vote at the UN Assembly of the motion condemning the aggression of Russia against Ukraine has made it possible to draw attention to an Asian area that is sometimes little considered from a geopolitical point of view, despite representing an important "slice" of that continent, both from the demographic point of view and from the industrial and military point of view. India, in fact, on 3 March last abstained on the motion condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine and this gave rise, in some observers, to doubts about the effective impartiality of that country. However, it should be emphasized that the abstention did not have the meaning of supporting Putin's initiative, but expressed its indirect support for the motion. It is with this key of interpretation that the votes in the United Nations must be interpreted, so much so that Pakistan, China and almost all the countries of Central Asia also abstained. To understand the concrete meaning of this vote, just think of the United States and Israel which, after 50 years of voting against the lifting of the embargo against Cuba, abstained on 2016 November XNUMX and allowed the UN to revoke the measure. An abstention which at the time was accompanied by applause from the General Assembly.

In spite of a narrative that would have India as technologically backward and underdeveloped, the country today presents itself quite differently from what it did thirty or forty years ago. There is no doubt that there are extensive areas of extreme poverty and social backwardness, but the second largest country in the world by population has inherited problems from the past that take time and patience to resolve.

After centuries of relative isolation and colonial domination, the economic growth of recent years has then led New Delhi to make its voice heard more and more often in the international arena, also as a result of a cynical political conduct and a reading that is sometimes distorted and very staff of international standards. This has led, for example, Italy to have discontinuous relations with that country, the most significant moment of which is represented by the visit of President Ciampi in February 2005, accompanied by a delegation of ministers and economic operators.i, while the moment of greatest conflict has led the two countries to confront both the juridical and the diplomatic level on the case of our two non-commissioned officers of the San Marco regiment. An event that, in the opinion of many, was handled cynically and opportunistically by the Indians and euphemistically unsatisfactory by the then “technical” Monti government.

The last years

Independence from the United Kingdom achieved (Indian Independence Act, which entered into force on August 15, 1947), until 1991 India presented itself on the international stage as a country closely related to the Soviet Union by a treaty of friendship and military collaboration (the Russians were the first to grant building permits), with an economy certainly not liberal but with a fairly democratic political system. At the time, the country based its international posture on non-aggression and non-intervention. A necessity due to the strong internal fragility, which saw 75% of the population below the poverty line, a demographic boom already very pronounced and 45% illiteracy.

After the end of the Cold War, however, India gradually began to reorient itself towards the West and, after 11/XNUMX, the international community saw its decided approach to the United States, sanctioned by the visit of the then President Bush in March 2006.

Since then it has been a crescendo of economic exchanges and diplomatic relations, favored both by the great potential of the Asian country and by the growth of Indian lobbies in the USA. A growth that was not only a consequence of the general Indian political-economic progress, but also of the large presence of Indian emigrants educated in some fundamental sectors of the US economy. According to some estimates, about 20% of engineers at Microsoft and NASA are, in fact, of Indian origin.

At the same time, there has been a growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan, which has reached very pronounced levels, and a progressive spread of ideas related to Islamic religious extremism and related violent actions, which Islamabad does not seem to oppose suitable measures of struggle or containment.

All of this, and the fact that New Delhi has a marked anti-Chinese posture and a geographical position that make it an exemplary ally for Washington in the area, has allowed India to replace, in a certain sense, Pakistan (its historical rival) in the partnerships with the USA.

The geopolitical framework of reference

In the Indian subcontinent there are significant criticalities, only partly due to the history of this part of the world. The religious differences, the economic and social imbalances, the different political visions, the different economic potentials have made this area a basin of instability. This involves some concern regarding the security and order of the countries included in the area, also considering that two of these, India and Pakistan, are equipped with nuclear weapons, and that the Chinese giant is present on their borders, other nuclear power.

Due to the different international dynamics India today finds itself at the center of two major lines of geopolitical competition. The first goes from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Indochinaii. The other is that of the Indo-Pacific theater.

As regards the first, since the beginning of this century we have seen countless conflicts, international frictions, changes in alliances, overturns of governments, the proliferation of religious extremisms and the tightening of national and religious issues. A scenario that forms the backdrop to the competition between Pakistan and India, and between India and China.

Relative Indian stability, which represents a factor of equilibrium in the context not only of the Indian subcontinent, this contrasts with a significant Pakistani fragility, which creates ever more substantial problems, given that some parts of the country are increasingly subjected to the attraction of religious extremism and / or are under the complete control of local tribes and in almost total absence of government authority. Furthermore, the permanent question concerning Kashmir should not be overlooked which, if at the moment it does not appear to be felt with particular intensity, in the past it has caused three wars between the two countries (1948, 1965 and 1971).

To this must be added a war (1962) and numerous skirmishes with China, for issues of delimitation of the respective borders, strictly related to access to water resources. A competition not only territorial military but also economic and commercial.

The speech of the comparison between India and China in the Mediterranean. In fact, both countries consider the Mediterranean to be a convenient logistic platform for the commercial penetration of the Old Continent. A springboard that lately would seem more attractive, in perspective, than the airports of Hamburg and Rotterdam. A sea, therefore, which with an adequate modernization of the port infrastructures could become an important hub of world trade. With this in mind, the possibility of offering services, infrastructures, ports and maritime corridors capable of accommodating the large ones container ships it could make a difference.

The heated regional rivalry sees the two countries also compete in supporting the other Southeast Asian countries. An obvious example was the case of the damage caused by the tsunami in December 2004 when, despite the enormous damage suffered, New Delhi insisted on being a supplier of aid to the other damaged countries. On the occasion, China also took advantage of the catastrophic event to reclaim its international position.

As a result of these conflicts, which sometimes result in localized fighting, India is "closed" to the north and west.

In addition to what has been said so far, the questions about the future of its historic ties (especially in terms of arms supplies) with Russia, now ever closer to China, as mentioned competitors territorial of India. All reasons that led New Delhi to try to develop its continental policy through closer relations with Central Asian countries, both from an economic point of view and to build an effective shared and inclusive security framework. In this context, theIndia-Central Asia Virtual Summit (photo), which was attended by the leaders of India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (January 27, 2022).

Il Indo-Pacific theater is another area of ​​strong geopolitical competition in which India is deeply immersed. A huge area that goes from the eastern coast of Africa to the Persian Gulf, from Southeast Asia to the western coasts of the American continent. An area that sees the circulation of a large part of world maritime trade and that still conceals enormous resources in terms of fish and hydrocarbon reserves. It is no coincidence that some maritime areas are subject to harsh "territorial" claims, given their economic and geopolitical importance. (read article "Precarious stability in the Indo-Pacific")

For the above and in light of the regional developments of the past decades, India has therefore decided to abandon the traditional cautious posture in international relations and its exclusively continental politics to set sail for the Indian Ocean, with the intention of opening new trade routes and strengthening its international role.

The transition from a continental strategy to an ocean strategy was, in fact, indispensable since the Indo-Pacific area represents a fundamental strategic theater, in which India is willing to play a leading role.

In this context, a significant rapprochement with the United States was inevitable, which led New Delhi to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the informal strategic initiative which, in addition to India and the United States, also includes Japan and Australia. An initiative that sees India participate both in terms of Chinese containment and to counter a perceived strengthening of Pakistan, which has recently increased the level of cooperation with China, also granting the use of its own sources to the naval units of Beijing, and that has transformed the partnerships with Turkey and Azerbaijan in military alliance. Furthermore, as regards the QUAD, some currents of thought in New Delhi hope for a further expansion of the initiative to Singapore, whose important Air Force would contribute to deterrence, and to Oman, with a view to expanding the area of ​​influence. from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia.

The Indian fleet

Precisely as a consequence of the choices and events of the last decades, the Indian approach to the sea has changed radically.

In fact, in the first fifty years of independence territorial issues were seen as the main (and only) challenges to Indian national security. In such a context, the military was the main actor and received the great majority of the funding.

The exclusively territorial approach of the New Delhi strategy is demonstrated by the Simla Agreement (2 July 1972), concluded jointly with the Peace Treaty at the end of the 1971 war with Pakistan, where maritime issues were completely ignored and are only territorial topics were discussed and agreed.

Together with the reorientation of the national strategy in a maritime sense, significant adjustments were obviously also necessary regarding the allocation of resources to be allocated to the military instrument, until then, as mentioned, mainly territorial. Today India allocates 2,15% of GDP to the Armed Forces, equal to approximately 72,9 billion dollars. A significant figure, if we calculate that Russia's defense budget, before the war, was 61,7 billion. Sure, quite a long way from the US and China, but still quite relevant. In this context, the Navy receives 14% of the budget, waiting for a desired downsizing of the Army which, having more than 1.200.000 soldiers, still receives 61% of the resources.

Nonetheless, India can boast the seventh military fleet in the world by tonnage, behind the American, Chinese, Russian, British, Japanese and French fleets. A fleet that already appears to be sized for any low-intensity conventional conflicts and for nuclear deterrence.

The Indian maritime strategy has been written and revisited numerous times in recent years, to adapt to the changing geopolitical situation and the objectives that emerge from time to time from the geopolitical landscape of the area. This is also a pressing need because for some years now at least eight Chinese warships have always been present in the Indian Ocean at a time (on one occasion there were as many as fourteen on patrol), officially for anti-piracy operations. A presence that worries New Delhi, which also denounced a increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of the Chinese crews.

The natural operating theater of the Bhartiya Nāu Senā (the Indian Navy) is represented by the 74 million sq km of the Indian Ocean and its natural approaches (and mandatory passages for trade routes) such as the Strait of Malacca, Lombok, Sonda, Good Hope, Ormuz, Bab el-Mandeb , Suez, with a special focus on South China Sea issues.

The fleet is structured in two commands based in Mumbai (until 1995 known as Bombay) and Visakhapatnam. A third major naval base is also operational at Karwar, about 100km south of Goa, for the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, a modified “Kiev” class aircraft carrier, decommissioned by the Voenno-morskoj flot in 1996 and entered service in the Indian Navy in 2013. The other aircraft carrier is the Vikrant which, once in service (2023), will be based in Visakhapatnam. The Vikrant will embark about twenty MIG-29 fighters, which will be gradually replaced by any national fighters and fighters of foreign construction, probably Flurry French (naval version). This is the first aircraft carrier (STOBARiii of 40.000 t displacement) built entirely in India, a sign of the desire to also achieve autonomy in the sector. The construction of another CATOBAR aircraft carrier is plannediv with 65.000 t displacement, the Vishal, which will also embark drones, and is expected to be delivered in 2035, by which date the Vikramaditya will be disbarred.

In essence, the “heart” of the Indian Navy's operational concept and its naval projection capabilities is represented by the aircraft carrier tactical groupv. (read article "The importance of aircraft carriers in a modern Navy")

The Navy's air fleet also highlights India's duality in arms procurement, featuring Russian and American-built helicopters, along with maritime patrol vessels. P-8 Orion US and Ilyushin The 38th Russians.

The Submarine Command is always located in Visakhapatnam, while the Command responsible for training is located in Kochi, where there are also important shipyards. In 2021 it was decided to "push" for the acquisition of a certain number of submarines, slightly slowing the construction of the third aircraft carrier, in order to try to bridge the quantitative gap with the Chinese underwater fleet. At the moment, in fact, India can count "only" on two nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and 16 conventional (diesel), against the six SSBNs, the 14 attack nuclear (SSN) and the 59 conventional ones of Beijing. In fact, New Delhi aspires to a to dispose of strategic underwater forces as soon as possible, for credible nuclear deterrence.

In this context, India has planned to have five SSBNs by 2030 and subsequently seven. To these are added a further 24 conventional submarines, approved in 1999, of which the first was delivered in December 2017 ("Kalvari" class) and the last is expected to be delivered in 2032. Again New Delhi plans to maintain two Western and Russian construction sectors.

The strengthening of the underwater fleet is also a necessity also in an anti-Pakistan key which "... in the summer of 2016 announced that it would spend five billion dollars for the purchase of eight diesel-electric attack submarines from China ... "vi.

In order to monitor the activity of passing Chinese submarines in 2020, India has also set up a network of hydrophones and magnetic anomaly detectors about 2.300 km long, between the island of Sumatra and the archipelago. of the Andaman-Nicobar Islands. The chain, a more modern version of the one used during the Cold War for detecting the movements of Russian submarines, will also be used by ASW aircraft for locating by triangulation.


We have seen how India is deeply immersed in an area that presents considerable critical issues. However, the country has so far never represented a threat to the Western world. Some analysts indicate that this may be a choice stemming from the prevailing religion. Hinduism, in fact, has no will or need for proselytism. It is not, in fact, an expansive religion, there is no need to convert others. It is a very personal religion, a kind of path towards inner perfection.

The country also proved that it does not have an aggressive market towards the outside, but which has developed to meet local needs first, to provide for the enrichment of the nation as a whole. Not addressed, therefore, only to the big cities, but also to the north and south Indian regions, to the great basins of the Ganges and the Indus, which have yet to be adequately developed and equipped. Then, naturally, so to speak, it progressed to an export market.

The point, however, is that being nearly one and a half billion souls, there is a need for resources and consumer products. If Indians are relatively inclined to follow certain visions or concepts of life, they are also very far from taking too determined or unconditional positions. An approach that generally leads them to hire a an attitude that presents a certain coefficient of elasticity in international affairs.

The seas and maritime trade are increasingly fundamental in international relations and in guaranteeing the well-being of populations. The maritime routes of the Indo-Pacific and, in particular, in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, are becoming increasingly important from this point of view. From there pass a large part of world trade from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China. These routes are difficult to control but they are essential for our well-being and India, at the moment, appears to have sided in favor of stability and freedom of navigation.

The fact remains that, given the current political-economic progress, some analysts indicate that within a few decades India could become the third or fourth world power and India is already claiming its own status as an international power today.

On the future of this immense maritime area today it is very difficult to make sensible predictions given that signals of approach and contrast systematically and continuously alternate. One thing, however, is reasonably possible to hypothesize: in the next decades India will play a fundamental strategic role in the international equilibrium, particularly between China and the US, and its fleet will be able to play an important part on the Indo-Pacific stage and (perhaps) beyond.

It will be up to India to decide how to play this global role while alleviating its internal problems.

i On the occasion, 15 agreements were signed relating to various areas: from scientific and technological cooperation to the development of audiovisuals, fishing, technology, design, university, etc ..

ii The Indochinese peninsula includes Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Peninsular Malaysia

iiiShort Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, in Italian short take-off and assisted stop (with cables)

iv With catapult and stop cables.

v Venkaiah Naidu, Indian Vice-President in a speech in November 2021

vi Peter Frankopan, The new silk routes, Mondadori, 2019, p. 104

Photo: Indian Navy / Quirinale / US Embassy New Delhi / Xinhua / Vishal Dutta / web