Indian Ocean Strategic Security Cooperation
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Jun , 2019

This research paper studies the application of India’s foreign policy in Indian Ocean region. It underlines the current framework i.e. economic, strategic, bilateral and multilateral defense arrangements. Taking guidance from legal references and cases between states in that region, this paper recommends strategic cooperation initiatives that can be advanced by India. This is done by providing a comparative analysis of neighboring state’s foreign policy and aligning it with India’s missions in that region. It concludes by ultimately providing a multi dimensional and multi-faceted non-conventional pact between states.

India must have the right to maintain its geo-economic interests and to safeguard its economic security with its partners in the Indian Ocean region.

Strategic assessment

Crucial to global trade, the Indian Ocean is surrounded by world’s fastest growing economies. However, rightly so, the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Australian government[1] points out that regional security environment is becoming a challenge due to non-traditional threats and trade competition. Non-conventional threats such as transnational crime, smuggling, human trafficking, piracy, wildlife, illegal timber trade, irregular maritime migration, terrorism and illegal fishing have become increasingly difficult to tackle. Going beyond the narrow ambit of defense cooperation, India must enhance its relation with regional partners, organizations and forums to vehemently address and advocate measures to engage in prevention.

Concerns of sustainable natural resource development are being overlooked by the pursuit of regional strategic competition under the legal veil of freedom of navigation. Most countries in this region have unsettled boundaries/claims to offshore assets, islands, and seabed resources.[2] To curb this and maintain an objective check the legal institution discussed later in the paper must make a conscious effort to bring about delimitation in over lapping jurisdictions through negotiations and bilateral/ multi-lateral treaty agreements.

Like the Joint Standing committee’s report of Australian government recommends, a renewed and enhanced participation with regional forums such as Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime, Regional Fusion and Law enforcement Centre for Safety and Security at Seacould assist in the direction of effective humanitarian assistance. India may also consider complimenting this strategy with other institutions like the regional anti-piracy forums.

Special Economic Belt

The belt between Vietnam, Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Philippines, being one such area of key economic interest, provides various kinds of economic incentives for India to pursue a joint international maritime research initiative. This would add to incentivize the member states to reasons beyond Indian Ocean security such massive economic development in their own state. This would have no overbearing foreign influence but a mutually beneficial co-operation by neighboring member states in light of the greater mission of sovereign independence and stability of free trade. This also provides a unique opportunity to assist in laying legislations and multi lateral treaty arrangements for the overlapping exclusive economic zones among the neighboring countries thereby ensuring stability and peaceful constant growth. The countries can achieve their respective strategies while also satisfying mutual needs.

India can provide special benefit to this initiative with its advanced marine strength complimenting its creativity and advancement in science and technology thereby increasing the economic power of that corridor. This initiative can direct the attention to a mechanism of unprecedented capacity building rather than the threat building approaches used so far in the corridor by foreign influence. Capacity building can help nurture trust in place of conflict and lead to a stable sustainable growth.

This may include a wide range of technical and legislative assistance in Climate change, pollution reduction and environment protection norms to regulate ecologically sustainable trade development. Developing countries like India can accept its role in the international pursuit towards sustainable development and provide its fellow member states with technology and financial resources that it commands.

The ongoing sea change should include an authoritative and comprehensive national planning of strengthening the exploration of maritime resources and developing a deeper historical and research facilities both public and private. Emphasis should be laid on protecting oversea rights, which should be equipped with reserved forces.

India should make refreshing effort to reshape and renew its ideas in light of modern legal jurisprudential norms to promote national interest and deepen the cognition of other member states in neighboring area to achieve a prosperous and stable security alignment strategy. A platform for mutual reliance needs mutual understanding for which India needs to implement initiatives that opens itself to a more friendly and receptive partnership, which can yield to fruitful cooperation. This demands mandatory attention considering the measures to counter the recent unfolding like in the case of Philippines and in Vietnam and to provide regional security along with promoting sustainable development.

Legal Cooperation

In accordance with Principle 7 of the Rio declaration all states in the Indian Ocean region belt should promote and actively participate in common but differentiated responsibility towards sustainable development of the region as it is most relied trade route for major trade including imports and exports. Some of the countries in the belt depend heavily on import to sustain livelihood.

An inter-governmental panel that which is attributed directly to human activity that alter the ecology of that area, national mitigation and adaptation program should prove to be useful if aligned to not let trade or security get hampered in the process. Laying additional protocols and amendments to ensuring developing countries to work towards responsible market based mechanisms can also be suggested. This may also include pollution control and environment protection norms strictly tuned to the needs and growing demands of the developing nations. 

As per Article 69 of the UNCLOS, land-locked states shall have the right to participate, on equitable basis, in the exploitation in appropriate part of surplus living resources and of exclusive economic zones of coastal states of the same region while taking into account the economic and geographic circumstances of all states. These modalities can be established by multilateral regional or sub regional agreements.[3] Furthermore, geographically disadvantaged states shall have the right to participate in exploitation of appropriate part of resource in exclusive economic zones[4] as per Article 70 of UNCLOS. This may include states bordering enclosed sea or overlapping exclusive economic zones, which is predominantly visible in the South China Sea belt.

India can collaborate in issues beyond trade and security and actively participate in forming such sub regional organizations which ultimately indirectly affect both trade and security of these states by pushing for amicable peaceful resolutions and arrangements. Regulations on fisheries being another important domain where the states can participate jointly while adhering to individual economic and national interest. This can be pursued in accordance with Article 62 of the UNCLOS while accommodating any reservations that states may have. India and other states in Indian Ocean region belt can also engage other international organizations that can evaluate available scientific evidence and ensure proper conservation and management measures including needs of local communities as per Article 61 of the convention.

The parties with pending or unresolved dispute around issues such as installation structures on artificial island in overlapping exclusive economic zones can resolve to peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms and work on surrounding regulation for enforcement of awards/decision by judicial authority. It is interesting to note here that the UNCLOS, which is the ultimate authority for maritime regulations and is adhered to by 157 nations, is more of legal literature recommending ideal principles of trade and maritime protection.

The language is silent about the mechanism of enforcement. Say for example if two states are to amicably resolve to Article 62 of UNCLOS for regulations on fisheries. UNCLOS doesn’t outline enforcement method of the set of principle regulations and in turn relies heavily on member states to the treaty/ arrangement to figure the next steps. This leaves ample space for powerful states to exert force and exploit resources.

So to that effect, the ideal principles lay down in the UNCLOS are to be followed at the choice and will of the state with overbearing influence. This highlights the relevance of the inter-governmental panel, which should also look into regulations of free, open water corridors and sea space.

As trade will rise so will the need for individual countries to protect their trade routes. In a narrow stretch such as the South China Sea region, this inevitable scenario is likely to cause conflict, which not only hampers the trade of parties in dispute but also creates tension in the surrounding states. Trade regulations should focus on connectivity and integration to improve and better flow of energy, goods and information. It can be further strengthened by developing a consultative mechanisms to address current areas of deficit and challenged faced by countries, working on bilateral trade arrangements and exploring other avenues if multi lateral hampers confidence to start with.

As identified earlier in the course of discussion of this paper, non-conventional terrorism issues, which haven’t been addressed so far and continue to plague the region, need to put in check. This includes human trafficking, piracy and other nefarious activities such as drug trafficking. To effectively counter these activities, India can leverage international partnerships to ensure domestic security checks in the region. India should actively advocate and advance representation on these trivial matters as a part of national security and responsible global governance at large.

In all issues outlined highlighting need for improved regulations and statutory overlook, it is important to establish an effective method to manage and control conflicts, which is absolute in authority in the region. Its jurisdiction should not be challenged and its decision should be respected as binding. The effectiveness of international courts bears a heavy disadvantage in this pursuit. The intergovernmental organization should ensure fair and impartial treatment of all, which includes the smaller economies. That shall be the resolute symbol of this establishment. Unity can be promoted by a mutual exchange of cultural understanding. This would aid in resolving policy divergence to an extent between different countries.

In playing a supportive role, while also taking responsibility and contributing to new rules in the region, this initiative will set an example in the global stage allowing Indian foreign policy to advocate for its successful philosophy. Issues of human rights, climate change and security of food and water must also be reviewed in the dynamic perspective of globalization.

Concluding on positive anticipation

The unique opportunity that lies on India’s feet is blessed with overlapping historic and cultural ties with member nations. Together as a partnership one can achieve to prevent any further conflict or obstruction that debilitates individual or collective goals and lays the stone to a tolerant cooperation. From this perspective the idea of bolstering a stable regional pattern based on mutual and joint capability promotion would be able to skillfully tackle and resolve threats and avoid conflicts in the corridor as well as the neighboring areas around the circumference of the corridor.

The idea of risk sharing towards threat deterrence goes a long way towards a reliable structure where partner can place their trust rather than pursuing self-serving agendas that eventually cripples the partnership. The paradigm alignment of neighboring nations such and their influence has accompanied with it changes in the global economic order that compels us, to say the least, to rethink and what our relationship with states.


[1]Submission 12, Joint Standing Committee, National Capital and External Territories,Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian government, January 2017

[2] G.V.C. Naidu, ‘Southeast Asian Security Dynamics’ in N.S. Sisodia and Sreeradha Datta(eds.), Chinaging Security dynamics in Southeast Asia,95

[3] Article 69 United Nations Convention on Law Of Sea

[4] Article 70 United Nations Convention on Law Of Sea

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