India has been engaged into trade since ancient time through its maritime route. There are evidences of Harappan civilization had commercial ties with Mesopotamia and Arabian Gulf region. Many travellers to India had recognised flourishment of coastal Indian states on account of trade in spice, cotton, handicraft and silk via oceanic route in their travelogue.
Access to India via Indian Ocean has been a vital strategic trade route since the early medieval period also, but was substantially exercised by the Europeans in the 16th to 19th century to gain an economic and political foothold within the region. Britishers controlled the entire region by taming the entire ocean through the developing of the well structured maritime rings. However, after 2nd World War when Britishers withdraw from the Indian Ocean, major power of the world tried to occupy it but with interventions of UN, Indian Ocean was declared as the “zone of peace”.
World's third largest water body i.e. Indian Ocean is the only ocean of the world which is named after the Indian sub-continent. This signifies the geospatial & strategic influence of India over the Indian Ocean. India has a vast coast line of 7517 km in the Indian Ocean. Its large geospatial expansion from Gujarat in the west to West Bengal in the east on main Land & Andaman & Nicobar as an island in east provide it a distinguished advantage in geostrategic terms.
Geopolitically, India projects its major significance in the Indian Ocean because of many inter-related factors evolved which include:
Indian Ocean has been proven for its crude oil & natural gas resources. Further the large potential of natural gas on the eastern coast of India and commercial potentialities of tidal energy in the west added strategically significant advantage to India's energy reserves.
The biotic resources as commercially proven category include sea weeds, planktons and pearls; however in the reference to increasing requirement of raw material supplies and diversification, nektonic biotic assets have also been exploited on commercial lines. This has multiplied many folds in the recent past primarily due to deceased harvest of the traditional food fish from the temperate waters. In mineral resources commercially exploitable salt & manganese nodules have been added to the India's resource base.
Geopolitical significance of India because of its maritime position lies in, being on the maritime trade route of the Indian Ocean. Strait of Malacca in the east and Suez canal & Cape of Good Hope in the west as an entry & exit point of this ocean commands more than 70% of the world's seaborne trade in oil transits and more than 50% global container movement through Indian Ocean choke points including Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Bab-el Mandel.
Strategic significance of India also increases because of geographic transitional position in the middle of the inter-connecting Atlantic & Pacific Ocean trade route & its being the only major Naval power to provide the safety & security to the trade in the region.
Strategic & security significance of India's maritime location also increases because of it being a Rimland which have significant technological, economic and military holding capacity. Its possession of nuclear power & locational advantage of launching ballistic missile adds to its importance toward geopolitical sensitivities. India's engagement with regional & extra regional power in joint naval exercise to contain piracy in the Indian ocean, safety of sea lanes and mutual understating to work on a joint operation in the ocean ensure the trust of most of the Indian Ocean Rim Countries in India's capability & future of its being a global power to maintain peace in the region.
To leverage the potential of being present on the oceanic trade route, Indian Government has called for the blue economy development, modernization of its ports, initiative taken for the Sagarmala programme, Industrial parks and logistic parks. This will provide the port led development in the Indian coastal states thus power fuel the Indian economy.
However, India’s has significant concerns of permanent Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean have been validated with the $20 billion dollar 'Maritime Silk Road' project announced by Beijing. For New Delhi, this remains a contentious and complex issue of balancing security engagements with Indo-Pacific neighbours, as well as embracing China economically but simultaneously attempting to restrain their maritime influence, creating a fragile environment in the Indian Ocean. Other challenges include technology capacity build up to leverage on the resource base of Indian Ocean and contain piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Recent efforts of India of its naval diplomacy with the Indian Ocean Rim countries and outer world powers
& modernizing its naval fleet would provide a peaceful solution to the ambitions of India in the Indian Ocean.