India’s Indo-Pacific expansion highlights Southeast Asia’s utmost importance as a region. Most countries in the region actively embrace the principle of ASEAN-centrality in their strategies, considering Southeast Asia as the heart of the Indo-Pacific. This dynamic maritime region, stretching from the Andaman Sea in the West to the South China Sea in the East, acts as a critical link connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. Vital maritime chokepoints within this extensive area play a significant role.
India has consistently recognized Southeast Asia’s immense economic and strategic significance throughout history. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, K.M. Panikkar, and India’s Maritime Doctrine emphasize the region’s relevance. Several factors contribute to the strong connection between India and Southeast Asian countries, including shared cultural, religious ties and geographical proximity.
Strategic Importance of Southeast Asia
Geographically, Southeast Asia positions itself as a gateway between the Indian and Pacific oceans, connecting major shipping routes and facilitating trade flows between East Asia, South Asia, and the rest of the world. The region’s proximity to major global markets and vital sea lanes makes it an essential maritime trade and commerce hub. Southeast Asia holds crucial maritime chokepoints, such as the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Makassar, and Lombok, which play a vital role in naval transportation as they provide the shortest and most efficient routes for ships travelling between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Control over these chokepoints enables nations to exert influence over global trade and maintain security in the maritime domain. The economies of Southeast Asian countries heavily rely on maritime trade, as they possess rich natural resources and thriving industries, including manufacturing, agriculture, and fisheries. Ensuring the safe and secure movement of goods through sea routes and accessing marine resources are crucial for the economic growth and development of Southeast Asian nations and countries reliant on trade with the region. Southeast Asia’s maritime domain holds importance for trade and carries strategic implications for regional security. The South China Sea, a part of Southeast Asia, remains contentious, with overlapping territorial claims and ongoing disputes. The region’s strategic significance further underscores the presence of significant powers, including China and the United States. Safeguarding national interests and maintaining peace in the Indo-Pacific necessitate ensuring stability and security in the maritime realm of Southeast Asia.
India’s maritime expansion towards Southeast Asia
India has expanded its naval presence in Southeast Asia to enhance defense cooperation with ASEAN. The Indian Navy, in collaboration with the Republic of Singapore Navy, successfully co-hosted the first-ever Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) from 2nd to 8th May 2023. The primary objective of this exercise was to foster stronger ties between India and ASEAN nations in the realm of maritime defense. The ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) comprised two distinct phases. The first phase, known as the Harbour Phase, occurred in Singapore from 2nd to 4th May 2023. During this phase, participating navies engaged in various professional and social interactions, including cross-deck visits, Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEE), and planning meetings. The second phase, known as the Sea Phase, took place from 7th to 8th of May 2023 in the South China Sea. This phase provided a valuable opportunity for the participating navies to strengthen their coordination and operational capabilities in the maritime domain. The ships participating in the exercise actively monitored the movements of simulated vessels of interest, which were identified and communicated through alerts provided by the liaison officers from ASEAN member states stationed at Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC). The exercise also implemented the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), serving as a confidence-building measure to foster trust and minimize the risk of accidents and misunderstandings at sea. The event witnessed the participation of nine ships, six aircraft, and more than 1,800 personnel from both ASEAN member states and India.
In addition to the ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME), Indian naval warships undertook coordinated patrols with Thailand(Indo-Thai CORPAT), conducted a port visit to Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and engaged in exercises with the Indonesian navy during the same month this year. The coordinated patrols between India and Thailand since 2005 and the bilateral naval exercises between India and Indonesia, known as ‘Samudra Shakti,’ which have been held since 2018, have gained heightened significance due to the evolving regional strategic landscape. The India-Thailand patrol primarily focused on the Andaman Sea, while the India-Indonesia exercises took place in the South China Sea. India deployed Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, recognizing the strategic importance of the South China Sea. The Indian Navy’s official statement regarding the India-Indonesia exercises emphasizes the shared commitment of both countries toward peace and stability in the region.
Southeast Asia holds immense strategic significance for India in the maritime domain. The region is a vital gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, facilitating trade and connectivity. India’s increased naval presence in Southeast Asia underscores its commitment to safeguarding its maritime interests, ensuring freedom of navigation, and contributing to regional stability. Strengthening maritime cooperation with Southeast Asian nations is essential for India to enhance security, promote economic growth, and foster a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region for all stakeholders involved.