It was 500 years ago that the Portuguese captured the Malacca Strait, establishing supremacy in the East Indies. Despite limited military might, Portugal set up active sea-trading outposts in Asia such as Goa, Malacca, Kochi, Macau and Nagasaki and controlled trade between Europe and Asia.
The region between the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden is now hailed as the "centrestage of the 21st century". If India has to graduate from being a regional power to a great power in Asia-Pacific, it needs to control these vital links in the Indian Ocean.
India shows both continental and maritime country characteristics. With a growing economy, it can re-link its historical maritime and cultural contacts politically through naval diplomacy.
For example, India's 'Look East' policy boosted its trade relations with Southeast Asia, complemented by naval diplomacy which involved regular visits of Indian Navy officers to Southeast Asia. However, there's a need to extend India's Look East policy till the South Pacific by utilizing its peninsular characteristic for its strategic objective. For this, one must draw lessons from history.
India's relations with countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are historically interlinked. So far, India hasn't fully understood the strategic dimensions of its winding coastline as other great powers did in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Countries such as Britain, the US and Japan (naval powers) and the Soviet Union, Germany and France (continental powers) maximized their geographic position to exert maximum strategic maneuvering when they were considered Great Powers.
Though India has failed to tap these long lost relations, it's now the time to revisit the cultural ties with the atolls and island nations from the west of the Indian Ocean till South Pacific. This can act as a counter-weight to China's String of Pearls strategy which involves building bases around India's peninsular region.
China started this by building a deep sea port in the southern coast of Sri Lanka, at Hambantota. Second, China has helped Pakistan build a deep sea port in Gadara in Balochistan. Third, China has started to court the littoral states in the Indian Ocean such as the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles through what is called yuan diplomacy in exchange for naval bases.
To counter China's encircling in the Indian Ocean, India's naval diplomacy should mean sending naval officers on routine trips to atolls and having regular exchanges at the naval officers' level.
Second, India should initiate more bilateral trade pacts and multilateral initiative in the Indian Ocean region by strengthening the regional multilateral organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
If India wishes to graduate itself from being a regional power to a great power, it will need to counter China's influence in its own sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean.
(28-08-2011- The author is Asia editor for World Security Network. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)