A proposed security grouping between India, France and the United States could destabilise the Indian Ocean region and threaten its prosperity. India expanding its technological edge could create a security dilemma for Pakistan and goad China into acting to secure its regional interests

by Abdul Moiz Khan and Amna Saqib

Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, used a recent report to propose an interesting security arrangement between India, France and the United States in the Indian Ocean. He calls this new grouping Infrus, borrowing the idea from the Aukus grouping of Australia, Britain and the United States that was introduced last year to supply at least eight nuclear-powered submarines to Australia by 2040.

Such a strategic alliance has implications at multiple levels with middle- and long-term effects on the strategic, economic, political and security calculus of the region. The report posits that Infrus will help India build its sea-based deterrent, which it has failed to achieve so far. Likewise, it will also pave the way for developing Indian capabilities to counter China.

However, India is already far ahead in building an assured second-strike capability with Russian-leased submarines and technological assistance. Likewise, any nuclear submarines under the new grouping will entangle not only China but also Pakistan.

An arrangement that favours one state in the region will only add complexity to the security calculus and interests of other regional actors. It will threaten the precarious strategic stability in South Asia by tilting the balance in favour of India.

It will be a threat to the interests of China, which is dependent on the Indian Ocean for much of its energy needs. Also, it will be against the professed principles of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The idea behind Infrus is that to counter a rising China, New Delhi should build an effective sea-based deterrent. It would only be possible if India is able to combine stealth and mobility by building an effective nuclear ballistic missile submarine force.

Tellis argues that the current Indian efforts in this regard have failed, but the US can help India by encouraging France to provide naval nuclear propulsion technology to Delhi. If the proposal is acted upon, it will further strengthen India’s military capability and exacerbate tensions in the region.

The significant component of naval developments in this framework is the most notable factor for strategic assessment. Delhi’s recorded naval assets at the moment stand at about 150. India already has two active aircraft carriers, one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, 14 diesel-electric attack submarines and a range of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. It is one of the few countries with a nuclear-powered submarine. India’s naval modernisation is already straining regional strategic stability.

If India is successful in obtaining French technology for naval nuclear reactors for its submarines, the balance will be further tilted towards its side. This will put Pakistan into a security dilemma, forcing it to explore options to restore regional strategic balance. Thus, the kind of military arrangement proposed by Tellis would plunge the region into an arms race and expedite the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean.

The new Barracuda class K15 nuclear reactor incorporates several improvements over that of the preceding Rubis-class. Notably, it extends the time between refuelling and complex overhauls (RCOHs) from 7 to 10 years, enabling higher at-sea availability.

K-15 Nuclear reactor of Barracuda-class nuclear attack submarine
China’s interests are at stake, too. Oil imports are vital for the economy of the Indian Ocean region’s littoral states, including Pakistan and China. The largest part of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East and Africa, making the Indian Ocean a key waterway for Beijing. Indian hegemony will force China to secure its vital interests. Infrus will thus be seen as a further challenge to Chinese interests in the region.

The objective of making the Indian Ocean “free and open” can only be achieved by equal and undiminished security for all states, not just one. The new security arrangements will have the opposite effect. It is imperative to demilitarise rather than further militarise the region.

The Indian Ocean is home to vital trade hubs and key choke points such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz. A hegemon in the region could disrupt these valuable maritime channels.

Also, an arms race in the Indian Ocean could disrupt the trade routes vital for the needs of regional states. Building India as a net security provider in the region is a recipe for instability and makes it a battleground for major powers.

With sources of advanced military technology open to India, Infrus will boost its false sense of security and nuclear pre-emption in a future crisis. If India receives cutting-edge submarine technology, it will increase strategic instability and push the region towards the brink of a larger conflict.

Abdul Moiz Khan and Amna Saqib are research officers at the Centre for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan