On Jan. 31, India signed a 20-year agreement with the island nation of the Seychelles to build an airstrip and jetty for the Indian navy. The pact, which was in the offing for years, reflects greater competition between India and China to establish naval positions in the Indian Ocean. In an email interview, James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Navy War College, discusses the deal and India’s wider strategy to keep tabs on China in what New Delhi sees as its “rightful nautical preserve.”

WPR: How does India’s port deal with the Seychelles fit into its broader strategic planning for a naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean?

James Holmes: India is belatedly getting into the competition for a “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean region. This metaphor has been around for well over a decade now, and it refers to China’s effort to negotiate access to seaports or even, as in the case of Djibouti, the right to construct full-fledged bases in strategically situated harbors. A century ago, Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval officer and historian, defined naval stations as one of three pillars of sea power. While sail-driven merchantmen and warships could stay at sea almost indefinitely, modern vessels depend on fuel, repairs and stores of all kinds. Ships lacking those supplies, according to Mahan, are like “land birds” unable to fly far from home.

I have been amazed at the extent to which New Delhi has taken China’s effort in stride thus far. A decade ago, China’s string-of-pearls initiative looked like an effort to create options for the future, rather than some detailed scheme to construct a Mahanian network of bases in the Indian Ocean. But creating options means a country may exercise those options at some point. India now realizes that Beijing is exercising its option, and New Delhi has mounted a diplomatic counteroffensive. It has negotiated naval access not just to the Seychelles, but also to harbors in Iran and, most recently, Oman.

One imagines New Delhi entertains defensive aims for this counteroffensive. It can deny Beijing exclusive rights to maritime access. Even if a situation turns out like Djibouti, where naval forces from many nations tarry—not just China’s vessels—that still provides the Indian navy its chance to keep tabs on Chinese doings in what India regards as its rightful nautical preserve, the Indian Ocean. 

WPR: What other regional partnerships is India currently pursuing as part of these plans, and what are the opportunities for and obstacles to success?

Holmes: Geopolitics makes strange bedfellows. India currently conducts regular naval exercises with such friendly powers as the United States, Australia and Japan. It looks and acts east, to cite its policies toward Southeast Asia, and its navy puts in the occasional appearance in China’s nautical environs, courting ties with the likes of Vietnam.

One thing to know about India, however, is that it appears conflicted about relations with outsiders. History predisposes Indians to view the Indian Ocean as a natural sphere of dominance, as the diplomat, historian and geopolitics guru K. M. Panikkar pointed out many decades ago. India even depicts the Monroe Doctrine, the 19th century U.S. policy that staked America’s claim to the Western Hemisphere, as one inspiration for its foreign policy and military strategy. While India wants to be the steward of regional security, at the same time it is a reluctant great power. India has long been a nonaligned power, and it has an allergy to any policy that might look like an imperial venture. India also has a fraught history vis-à-vis the United States from the Cold War, when it saw America as an unreliable friend during that struggle, and not without reason. Washington had a habit of denying the Indian armed forces spare parts for American-made arms in wartime, which is when that support is most needed. Despite professing nonalignment, India was also inclined toward the Soviet Union.

This combination of proprietary feelings toward the Indian Ocean and lingering suspicion of American motives explains why the logistics agreement signed with the U.S. in 2016 was such a major step for New Delhi. It seemed trivial to Americans, who saw naval cooperation as an obvious move borne of pragmatism: We work together at sea, so it only makes sense that we should support each other. But any agreement that looks like a precursor to a formal alliance is bound to raise hackles on the subcontinent—and this is something Americans need to understand about this natural friend but hesitant partner.

WPR: What do recent readiness incidents and accidents involving India’s navy say about its ability to achieve its naval ambitions?

Holmes: Disparaging the Indian navy at this moment would be ridiculous given the horrible year that the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Navy as a whole just had. In fact, it’s just the reverse: The U.S. and India find themselves in similar straits with regard to repairing their reputations at sea. The strategist Edward Luttwak has explained how important a navy’s reputation is in peacetime: While naval battles seldom happen, important audiences judge the superiority or inferiority of naval fleets by the data they do have—namely the outward appearance of warships that put in port visits, and what they read in the news. Luttwak observes that the “victor” in a peacetime dispute at sea is whoever most audiences think would have won in combat. Laymen constitute the majority of these audiences. These are not tacticians or technical specialists. What conclusions would they draw from, say, photos of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald or John S. McCain with a jagged, rusty tear in its side after a collision during routine navigation? Bad ones, and the Indian navy is suffering through similar travails. 

The difference is that the U.S. Navy has a hard-earned reputation for competence that has taken a few sharp blows. The Indian navy is making its debut as an ocean-going force, and the first impression it has made is not a good one.