- India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership by David Brewster
Is the Indian Ocean India’s Ocean? If not, will it inevitably become so? To advance its national interests in the Indian Ocean, will India replace its current “mish mash” of ideas, instincts and prejudices? Or, as the author of India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership suspects, will India “continue along at its own civilizational pace without any overarching or coordinated strategic plan, seeking to expand its power and influence here and there on an ad hoc basis, as and when opportunities present themselves?” (p. 206).
After decades in the shadows, the Indian Ocean has recently attracted renewed attention. Initially, governments, pundits and scholars often exaggerated both rivalry between India and China in the Indian Ocean and the improvement in relations between India and the United States. The high water mark of speculation about great power rivalry was probably reached with Robert Kaplan’s 2009 “Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean”, though popular but unsupportable myths such as a Chinese “string of pearls” (naval facilities) across the Indian Ocean live on.
It is with regret that David Brewster’s new book was not available a few years ago. The book has three strengths. First, Brewster provides a sophisticated analysis of the drivers and constraints on Indian policies, as New Delhi slowly and hesitantly tries to increase its influence. Second, the book is comprehensive. Because individual chapters address specific parts of the Indian Ocean, this book serves as a primer on India’s interests and policies in distinct parts of the Indian Ocean, from maritime South Asia to Australia. The reader, therefore, can compare India’s reach in different areas. Sweeping generalizations are thus minimized. Third, the chapter on the United States demonstrates an excellent understanding of the opportunities and challenges in aligning US and Indian policies in the Indian Ocean.
An underlying problem in India’s approach is a tendency to see international relations as hierarchical. Indian elites assume their country is a global power destined to dominate the Indian Ocean and expect recognition of India’s self-ascribed status and self-described benign intentions not in the future, but now. However, India is often [End Page 486] quite hesitant to act and reluctant to work with others. Brewster identifies several problems that flow from apparent disconnects within the Indian mindset and between India and other states. These include: a gap between India’s rhetoric and capabilities; an insistence on “strategic autonomy” when India can best advance its security interests in cooperation with others; an instinct to seek the exclusion of other major powers such as the United States and China — without regard to the costs and benefits to India — from the Indian Ocean; and good ties with smaller, more dependent countries but weak and awkward relationships with middle powers, such as Australia and South Africa, along the Indian Ocean littoral. Consequently, India is positioned as a natural “centre of gravity” in the Indian Ocean, but it has a long way to go — both in terms of power and policy development — before it achieves the regional dominance, albeit for benign or other reasons, to which it believes it is entitled.
Brewster’s discussion of the problems aligning Indian and US policies in the Indian Ocean is also on the mark. As the United States has “rebalanced” to Asia, it has sought to construct a modern security partnership with India and looked to India to fill security vacuums in the Indian Ocean. However, many in India continue to fear that cooperation with the United States will somehow entrap India as a dependent in the partnership. Thus, as Brewster notes, “India’s objective of strategic autonomy will likely constrain or delay the growth of Indian strategic influence in the Indian Ocean” (p. 179).
Of particular interest to readers of Contemporary Southeast Asia is Brewster’s take on India–Southeast Asia relations in the Indian Ocean and along its...