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Signalling to China on the Might of India-US in Sea – Was This Built Overnight?

south china sea

There were reports and tweets from the people who cover defence and strategic affairs spheres claiming that the navy ships of the US and India will conduct a passage exercise in the Indian Ocean.

By the evening, the social media handle of Indian Navy posted this video confirming such an exercise.

Earlier in the day Hindustan Times reported, “A US Navy carrier strike group, led by USS Nimitz, will conduct basic maritime drills with Indian warships while on its way from South China Sea to deployment in the Middle East. Called “Passex” in naval parlance, the basic manoeuvre comes at a time when Indian and China are locked in a tense border confrontation in Ladakh, people familiar with the developments said on Monday.”

PM Modi’s Delicate Craft Adding Strategic Depth

It would be too simplistic to interpret it as temporary show of solidarity since the US also sees this tense time as an opportunity to signal to its rival China. Though the reality of strategic rivalry between the US and China is well-known, PM Modi invested time and energy over the years to shape a narrative and make the US aware of the fact that India is a key player in the Indo-Pacific affairs. This seems to be coming to add up to India’s strength in a crucial time like this. Besides, the very nomenclature – Indo-Pacific – hints at India’s key role.

It is to be noted that the Modi administration evolved this mutually beneficial oceanic narrative with the US irrespective of which party is in power in the US.

Though China’s effort to contain India’s advantage in the Indo-Pacific region by acquiring naval bases in the neighbourhood was a much-discussed topic, India never attempted to leverage the maritime security debate against China by highlighting its excesses in South China Sea earlier.

But in October 2014, India officially joined the US in raising the voice after the Modi-Obama meet, as this report documented.

Then onwards, the reference to the South China Sea and raising concerns over maritime boundary disputes and maritime security have become increasingly a talking point in numerous discussions between the US and India. Needless to say, those communications were targeted at China while trying to consolidate many littoral countries that were facing a security threat from China.

This consistent weaving of a maritime security narrative from India in partnership with the US can be seen in the recent visit of President Donald Trump to India as well. As mentioned earlier, India has been consistent and vocal on this strategic narrative under the Modi government, irrespective of who is leading the US.

So, when we read about the US quickly dispatching its warships to the Indian Ocean amidst China’s aggression on India at the Ladakh border, or the US administration putting out a tweet declaring that it will stand by its friends against China’s aggression whether in Himalayas or in the South China Sea, all these are happening because the Modi administration carefully crafted such a bond with the US.

Scripting Strategy on Ocean

Much before European powers came sailing to the shores of India and colonised it subsequently, history tells us that 3rd century onwards India actually used to rule the maritime trade for centuries. There are examples of Cholas conducting many naval raids on South-east Asian empires. India under Modi government arguably exhibited the sparks that it may revert to that legacy in the long-run, not of naval raids but of being the preeminent naval power in the region.

India under Modi government entered into agreements with many countries in the Indian Ocean region that provided the nation an access to various naval bases. Changi Naval Base, Singapore; Sabang Port, Indonesia; Duqm Port, Oman; Assumption Island, Seychelles; Chabahar Port, Iran are the new access points India gained post-2014. You may read the interesting details in our previous article India’s Necklace of Diamonds – Garlanding China.

With Andaman & Nicobar Islands providing a strategic base to choke the Malacca strait that facilitates all the shipping movement to China in a war situation, the recent strategic partnership with Australia further strengthened India’s position.

Shaping Conversations

India under the Modi government has taken the lead role in shaping the discourse on maritime security.

Back in 2018, PM Narendra Modi delivered a key note address at Shangri La dialogue in which he highlighted the rich legacy of India in Oceanic trade and cooperation and also explained India’s stand at present. He said: “We are advancing a comprehensive agenda of regional co-operation through Indian Ocean Rim Association. And, we also work with partners beyond the Indian Ocean Region to ensure that the global transit routes remain peaceful and free for all.

The idea of an Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue (IPRD) was first conceptualised and conducted in 2018, as the apex level conference of the Indian Navy. It saw a second edition in 2019. This annual dialogue aims to provide a platform for substantive and insightful discussions pertaining to the geopolitical developments affecting the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific, and provide policy-relevant inputs to the policy-makers and the public at large.


The support India is getting from the US and other world powers against China’s aggressive postures is not by chance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team crafted a partnership in the last few years. It convinced the world powers that it has built the capacity to manage affairs in the Indo-Pacific region. Many media critics, echoing Rahul Gandhi, often claim that “PM Modi drives personality-centric foreign policy.” This argument becomes pointless as we see in this article how PM Modi built a consistent narrative regarding Indo-Pacific both in times of Obama and Trump, which now seems a major force in cornering China. It also illustrates that PM Modi while having informal meetings with the Chinese President never put the strategic capacity building against China on hold. Both the border roads and maritime security apparatus testify this.