Finding Deterrence Strategies Deployed in the Indian Ocean Region

By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke



The Indian Ocean is the third largest water body and covers 20% of earth’s surface after the pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. In current century it has become the most viable sea routes for trade and commerce connecting the US from West to Australia in the East. This vast theatre of water stretches from the Strait of Malacca and Australia’s western coast in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. This region serves as a home to key locations such as Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Straits, Islands of Africa, Islands of India, and surrounded by power players of current global order such as China and India.

Serving livelihoods to around 2.5 billion people, the region’s vastness and diversity speaks of its geostrategic importance. The vital trading and business potential of this region paved way for wars between colonial powers such as British, French, and Portuguese to establish monopoly over this region to reap its luxurious benefits. Furthermore, the end of Cold War era created a new geopolitical framework of ‘Indian Ocean Region.’ Thus, at the heart of geopolitical struggle, different major powers from colonial era till today have constant military presence along with various means of deterrence strategies deployed in the Indian Ocean to maintain a sense of geopolitical stability.

For example, Kanhoji Angaria a Maratha Navy Admiral was famous for his marvellous naval warfare capabilities who deployed excellent sea deterrence strategies and injected the fear of serious punishments in the hearts of British and Portuguese for exploiting India under British era. He was dubbed as the ‘master of Arabian Sea’. Today’s scenario global powers such as India, China, and the US are engaged in the race for dominance in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, this paper attempts to find the various means of deterrence strategies used and can be put to use in the Indian Ocean with special focus to India and China.

Under Sea (Nuclear) Deterrence

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The acronym SSBN representing nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine is considered one of the most destructive weapons currently roaming in the waters of Indian Ocean. These submarines are gone undetected thus being dubbed as invulnerable to attacks. Introduction of these weapons have changed the dynamics of undersea warfare by adding the nuclear (total annihilation) component. Currently the United States have 14 SSBNs, China running with 6 SSBNs and finally India with one and only SSBN called INS Arihant (S3) that was commissioned in 2016. Although the US have higher number of SSBNs serious competition arises since China has much stronger foothold in the Indian Ocean region than the latter democratic giant.

China’s wider strategic activity and 2030 vision of controlling the East Asia has deepened the concerns for many countries, especially those engulfed around the Indian Ocean Region. Despite several warnings from US’ Pentagon, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and other nations’ concerned authorities, China has been increasing its aggressive advancements which has resulted in several obvious flashcards such as territorial disputes in South & East China Sea with Japan and Taiwan and unhealthy competition with India in the Indian Ocean. Many of these flashcards are accompanied by call for nuclear threats from China itself to keep its enemies at bay. One credible explanation which the Chinese administration give us is that they have concerns regarding threats from US’ permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea which create hurdles for China to freely practice trade and sea exploration. Thus, as a means of deterrence China aims to make that region as a SSBNs populated area. Another credible reason China gives is that the nation can possess diplomatic turbulences with India over Maldives’ treatment, as both the nations outlook towards the tiny Island differs.

Another credible reason for China establishing undersea deterrence by willing to increase population of its SSBNs is due to the recent AUKUS (Australia United Kingdom US) pact. Under this new security pact, the US and Britain will provide full assistance to Australia including the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. Although Australian Prime Minister Morrison said the nation is seeking to establish civil nuclear capability, China has delivered its sharp dislike to this pact. Chinese’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the treaty will affect regional stability, intensifies arms race, and downplays international non-proliferation efforts.


Commodore Venugopal Menon (retd) says that AUKUS will keep China busy with Pacific theatre which will result in reduction of threat level posed by China in the Indian Ocean. This creates an ample time for India to revive its Under-Sea warfare capabilities and rise stronger in the coming years.

Given this potential threat of China deploying more SSBNs intersecting with Indian interests, India will be more likely to strengthen its naval capabilities. Apart from INS Arihant, India will commission another SSBN named ‘INS Arighat’ in near future, having sea trials in a completed stage. Although India sees Pakistan as a mere proxy in maritime realm, still the nation does not downplay its (Pakistan) nuclear naval implementation. Pakistan established a Naval Strategic Command Force to implement nuclear powered submarines to develop its sea deterrence doctrine, which is once again fully backed up by China.

Thus, Pakistan ‘First Use’ nuclear doctrine and willingness to develop a sea deterrence made growing concerns for India to speed up the process of deploying a second SSBN in the Indian Ocean. This will further enable India to strengthen its nuclear doctrine- second strike capabilities. Currently India does not possess good land based nuclear deterrence capabilities. In case of China, the communist giant can deploy missiles easily into populated territory close to India’s border across Himalayas whereas in case of India it can barely reach populated territory of eastern part of China with its current nuclear technologies.

Given these constraints, India develops a powerful undersea deterrence and with the given technology it can deploy its SSBN either in Bay of Bengal or deep into the southern parts of Indian Ocean. The US also has significant role in facilitating nuclear stability in this region. In recent times US has shown good signs by supporting India’s maritime nuclear doctrine as well as showing interest towards Pakistan’s attempt to establish nuclear submarines. This sign would be critical in stabilising the India-Pakistan nuclear dynamic. Nevertheless, a potentially more dangerous risk of tensions and escalations awaits in the Indian Ocean in coming days.

Security Dialogues as a form of Seagoing Deterrent

Many international forums and security dialogues were established to promote stability, free & open trade in the Indian Ocean. One such famous security dialogue named QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) which always fall into the hands of critics and commentators calling it an ‘Asian NATO’ and stalemate despite its members having several meetings. The QUAD has been criticised for having its sole purpose to deter China in the Indian & Pacific Oceans, which is indeed true. China’s rapid navy modernisation has made huge concerns for India as the nation feels many parts of its sea routes especially in the Indian Ocean has been breached.


Originally this security dialogue born instantly out of 2004 Indian tsunami disaster that occurred in Tamil Nadu in a notion of countering natural calamities, today QUAD’s goal has changed due to change in dynamics of the geopolitical framework in Indian Ocean Region. Thus, returning in form QUAD 2.0 in 2017, the members re-framed their goals and objectives given the military modernisation challenges posed by China. Today QUAD’s objectives include regular military exercises with the recent example, being Malabar military exercise and long-term goal- to upgrade this security dialogue as a fully functional alternative to China’s Belt Road Initiative.

The QUAD grouping has met bi-annually since their realignment of goals to discuss connectivity, sustainable development, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, maritime and cybersecurity with a view of promoting peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, QUAD members set out to challenge China in its own game, creating a self-reliant atmosphere to cut off heavy Chinese exports to other countries. US has shown improved sign in setting up its market in India thereby making China to cut off its debt trap diplomacy to BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and its child initiatives.

This counter strategy has not yet fully evolved, but each of the QUAD member countries have shown good cooperation and coordination in their responses to execute the proposed plans, for example US coordination in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region with India. The QUAD never downplays the notion of military dimension. India has further strengthened its naval ties with other QUAD members and there have been more interactions on political and military level including both formal and informal dialogues.

Another kind of security dialogue, more of regional perspective meant only for the Indian Ocean named ‘The Colombo Security Conclave’ (CSC) has been once again pumped back into life by New Delhi early August this year. Analysts see this as a crucial move for India to secure its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. As of present date the CSC is the only active sub-regional forum in the Indian Ocean Region. The Deputy National Security Advisors (DNSAs) from India, Sri Lanka, and tiny island nation- Maldives met virtually at a conference hosted by Sri Lanka along with Bangladesh, Mauritius, and the Seychelles in an observer status. The DNSAs discussed about the four pillars namely cyber security, maritime security, counterterrorism, and human trafficking in the Indian Ocean. Desk experts see China as a significant driver for India’s motive to revitalise the Colombo Security Conclave back into form.

One among the outcome of the conclave was to upgrade observer nations’ status into permanent members. The logic in this move is that by joining more members India can have support to balance its stiff competition with China in the Indian Ocean. Indian government has constant worries due to a report stating that China’s navy (PLAN) is on the process to establish a ‘special naval fleet for the Indian Ocean‘. On the other hand, China through its BRI project has constantly attempting to gain hands of every other country in the Indian Ocean except India. China’s one and only operational (foreign) military base in Djibouti has given such a strategic advantage. The communist nation gets full access into backyard of Arabian Sea and its functional port in Gwadar, Pakistan makes it a complete civil-military balance (presence) for China in the Indian Ocean. Also, China has been sending its warships inside the Indian waters of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is located near Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This reminds India to further heighten its military in its own backyard- Indian Ocean.


Thus, China debate being an important agenda for India, the democratic Asian power under Prime Minister Modi’s administration show full resistance to China by growing the framework of the CSC. India also has been constantly improving its diplomatic relationship with each of the CSC members individually to further strengthen its success parameters. In the race to gain hands of the tiny island nations such as Mauritius and Seychelles, India once again overtakes China by providing them aids, human and material capacities.

Thus, upon close probing into the international & regional security dialogues, India and its allies has been trying to create a conventional form of sea deterrence. This would result in outcome being reliable than nuclear deterrence. The latter one is considered as a lender of last resort and since most of the nation’s having interests in the Indian Ocean Region such as US, India, China, and Pakistan are all nuclear capable countries with developed nuclear doctrines. Moreover, these countries have realised going for nuclear attacks would totally disable them since nuclear is a weapon of total annihilation. So, countries have adopted the method of mounting nuclear weapons in navy and preferring security dialogues for more reliable source of Seagoing deterrence.

China’s Economic & Military Deterrence in the Indian Ocean

Scholars trace roots of Chinese non-combat operations in the Indian Ocean starting long back into 1991 when the concerned authorities sent state owned rescue vessels to bring back stranded Chinese citizens in Somalia. That is where when world saw the capabilities of China conducting non-combat operations in deep seas. The 2006 Chinese white papers show that the nation has rising concerns over security related issues pertaining to trade & commerce routes it had in the Indian Ocean. The 2008 defence white paper of China showed the world that given rising competition in the Indian Ocean, need raised for China to establish PLAN’s capabilities to establish permanent military presence in the waters of Indian Ocean.

During that time, China possessed 13.71% of global market shares for commercial purposes. Thus, through five meta missions China developed an economic deterrence strategy that was executed which is having long term impacts now in the Indian Ocean Region. Those are;

  • Conduct non-combat activities focused on securing Chinese interests elsewhere other than Mainland China which included investments and bolstering of the nation’s soft power.
  • Undertake counterterrorism activities, unilaterally and bilaterally against organisation that is deemed as threat to China.
  • Collect intelligence against its key adversaries.
  • Give economic aids to small island countries in the Indian Ocean Region.
  • Enable functional operational bodies having the ability to deter, mitigate, or terminate state sponsored interdiction trade bound towards China. For example, to hold crucial assets of US & India in an event of massive conflict.

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All the views and opinions expressed are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled “Research Papers on Defence and Strategic Studies Vol. 1”. Image Credit, Click here.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the founding-editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He currently works for an International Law Enforcement Organisation based in Singapore. He can be reached out via email at

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