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Geopolitical Potential of the Indian Airspace: An Asset as India’s Global Heft Rises

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Ever since the days of the British Empire, when aviation in itself was a novelty, India has lain at the heart of the famous ‘Kangaroo Route’ between Australia and the United Kingdom. From the 1930s, Australia’s Qantas Airlines would fly from Sydney to Singapore, with passengers boarding an Imperial Airways flight there, bound for London.

Geopolitical Potential of the Indian Airspace

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

These flights would travel across the length of the subcontinent, traversing ‘British India’ from Rangoon and Calcutta to Karachi en route to London.

Even after the sunset on the Empire, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai) continued to be important hubs on the lucrative route, eventually being replaced by Bahrain and Singapore as the range of aeroplanes grew longer. India’s geographic location places it uniquely at a crucial focal point for global commercial aviation.

The vast, unending expanse of the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka and the very tall, rugged Himalayas in the north make the Indian airspace an irreplaceable imperative. Although India’s volatile aviation sector currently lags in this regard, many airlines in the wider Middle-Eastern Region and South-east Asia capitalise on the traffic between the EU and Russia towards India, South-east Asia, Australia, and the Far East.

Sanctions on Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia, alongside the heavily restricted airspace of P.R. China makes the utilisation of airspace above India quintessential to commercial aviation.

Permanent restrictions across India’s airspace only include small no-fly zones over the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament House, and other important national offices in New Delhi, along with a few monuments, military installations, and nuclear power plants. These unique circumstances thus empower India to continue being a centre of global air transit. This can be used as soft power, a kind of leverage over regional and global powers.

Article 1 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation's (ICAO) Convention on International Civil Aviation, a.k.a. The Chicago Convention, with regards to sovereignty of airspace states that ‘every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory'.

Further, the territory of any state includes 12 NM of territorial waters off the coast. Airspace that isn’t within any nation’s territorial limit is considered as ‘International Airspace’. Even then, countries have pacts to manage airspace beyond their territorial waters. The US, for example, exercises control over large tracts of the airspace above the Pacific Ocean, far from its territorial limits.

India, for its part, manages airspace over a large part of the Indian Ocean beyond the limits designated by the Convention. Another way of implementing this is by declaring an ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone), which can extend far beyond a nation’s territorial airspace. ADIZs are an important way of projecting power. ADIZs can be used as a way to help a country detect possible incursions into its sovereign airspace in advance by identifying potentially dangerous aircraft.

India, for example, has declared six ADIZs, extending over the international borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar, over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, and two in southern India.

All inbound aircraft are required to notify the relevant ATCs 10 minutes prior to entry, or else the Indian Air Force reserves the right to scramble its combat aircraft to identify and intercept any suspicious aircraft.

Although ADIZs declared by nations don’t usually overlap, those of the PRC do with those declared by their neighbours, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. ADIZs have no legal basis and aren’t enshrined in any convention, but are declared nonetheless.

Thus, as today’s world enters a stage of multipolarism, powers like India must identify their crucial points of leverage on global trade and cooperation. As the aviation sector grows in importance, the Indian geopolitical aviation influence can be demarcated in the following ways:

1. Aerospace Restrictions

In the event of any major unfortunate event that squanders diplomatic ties with either of India’s neighbouring nations, India can use its airspace to make flying into and out of its neighbourhood inconvenient and extremely expensive by simply prohibiting flights into or out of the region from using its airspace.

For example, banning the use of Indian airspace for flights to or from Pakistan will leave it without any connection to the east. In the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, for example, Pakistani aeroplanes had to circle across the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent to get to Dacca, East Pakistan (now Dhaka, Bangladesh), before they lost the battle.

Although not many connections exist between other eastern countries and Pakistan, India can restrict air traffic into or out of the country, threatening sanctions on the usage of Indian airspace by airlines that operate to Pakistan.

Major global airlines like Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and their subsidiaries operate more than 200 flights a week combined, using widebody aircraft like the Boeing B777 and B787, along with Airbus A330s and A350s, alongside the Airbus A320 family aircraft and the Boeing B737. All Pakistani airlines together operate fewer than 100 planes between them, severely hindering their ability to meet demand.

All of these airlines fly to India and numerous other destinations east of India along the Kangaroo Route, as well as to the Far East using India’s airspace. India can threaten to ban their aeroplanes from using India’s airspace, something that will certainly force the closure of some routes and cause the loss of profitability on others. This is not limited to regional geopolitics, though. Banning or restricting European airlines will also have a similar effect.

Currently, counter-sanctions by Russia over the conflict in Ukraine mean all western airlines use a longer, more southerly route to fly to India, Australia, and south-eastern Asia. US-based airlines like United Airlines have hence temporarily axed routes from San Francisco to New Delhi and New york to Mumbai owing to reduced profitability, while Air India freely uses Russian airspace to operate on the same 2 routes due to India’s unique geopolitical position. Although this has caused consternation in the US, the geopolitical impact on aviation is nonetheless significant.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, banned Qatari flag carrier Qatar Airways from flying across its airspace alongside flights into the Kingdom in 2017 over allegations that Qatar supported terrorism in the region—a move swiftly followed by the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.

Thus, all Qatar Airways flights to Africa hence needed to turn across the tip of the Arabian Peninsula above the Strait of Hormuz and then fly south-east towards Africa rather than simply use the Saudi and Omani/Yemeni airspace to reach Africa. Qatar Airways sued the three nations for USD 5 billion in losses due to airspace restrictions in 2020.

Qatar Airways reported loss-making operations after 2018. The crisis was finally resolved in 2021 when the 3 nations agreed to restore ties with Qatar amid negotiations brokered by the US and Kuwait, and the restricted airspace was reopened for Qatar Airways.

Similarly, India possesses a great advantage over most of its neighbours due to its large land area, and its archipelagos of the Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Indian airspace is divided into 4 Flight Information Regions (FIRs) based out of Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. Coordination between all 4 FIRs is essential if India ever decides to use its might in the South Asia region owing to some major geopolitical expediency.

The most extreme form of conflict due to airspace restrictions occurred when a KoreanAir Boeing 747-200 flying from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska, was shot down by Soviets after the Jumbo Jet entered Soviet airspace, which was closed to Western carriers at the time.

Confusion and misidentification by the Soviets over the civilian/military nature of the aircraft and the deviation of the aircraft from its planned flight path thus led to the deaths of 269 innocent passengers and crew in 1983. Of course, India can be expected to never take such an extreme stance against civilian aviation, but the restrictions can certainly have a lasting impact on all major players.

2. Overflight Fees and Taxation

All nations charge overflight fees in the form of Route Navigation Facilities charges, which are made up of varying factors like the Service Unit Rate (R), the Distance Factor (D) that corresponds to the number of nautical miles of a country the aircraft flies over, and also the Aircraft Weight Factor (W).

There is also a fixed charge that is applicable, which varies from country to country. As of 2020, any international flight overflying India must pay INR 5080 as a fixed charge alongside the (RxDxW) calculation.

Thus, a transcontinental flight overflying India from the MENA region to the Far East or a Kangaroo Route service typically earns India thousands of rupees every day. For example, the YTO Cargo Airlines flight YG 9067 from Kunming to Karachi travels for more than 50% of its Great Circle Distance (GCD) of 3600 NM inside Indian Airspace.

Imposing additional tax regimes upon aeroplanes registered in or airlines based in nations ‘unfriendly’ to India can also be a possible way to register India’s protest to certain unfriendly actions or decisions.

With actions, come reactions, and sanctions are often followed by counter-sanctions. After the Balakot airstrikes inside Pakistani territory by the Indian Air Force in February 2019, Pakistan closed its airspace for all international flights overflying the nation.

This meant that almost all Air India flights from Delhi to the US and Europe had to be re-routed southward, skipping Pakistani airspace before flying northwest. Air India thus suffered losses of around INR 491 crores in those 6 months. Hence, India must be mindful of the economic and geopolitical repercussions involved in the process.

India’s foreign policy has changed from passively non-aligned to actively multi-aligned in recent years, calling for greater engagement on the global stage. Thus, any actions India takes that can potentially affect global trade and connectivity will draw the attention of nations worldwide, thus requiring prudent use of its power.

Alongside its massive airspace, India can also derive soft power through other aspects of aviation. Members of the Indian diaspora, NRIs, and Indian students seeking education, along with tourists of various kinds, use airlines in the Middle East and Europe to reach destinations in North America and Canada, as well as Western and Central Europe.

As Air India and its peers grow in size and improve their performance, India can slowly reduce the chunk of the international flight market share currently held by European and Middle Eastern Airlines. Explicit or implicit government support can go a long way towards ensuring that India's airlines establish global India-centred hub-and-spoke business models in the coming future, thus enabling an appreciation of India's influence on the global travel and hospitality industries.





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