Military & Aerospace

The Indian Navy as an Instrument of Foreign Policy
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Issue Vol. 34.3 Jul-Sep 2019 | Date : 25 Oct , 2019

The economic importance of oceans to nations is well known. Nearly 80 percent of the world trade by volume is carried out through ships and this includes the energy needs of the world such as petroleum, both crude oil and its by-products and now increasingly, LNG. Trade and energy security or ensuring the uninterrupted flow of trade and energy needs via the sea route will remain a concern for most nations in the foreseeable future. This would, in turn, lead to bilateral and multi-lateral links at regional and global levels thus impacting foreign policy. It would be appreciated that oceans are also an important repository of energy as well as food resources. Furthermore, with improvement or availability of cheaper technology, nations also look to extract poly metallic nodules or other minerals from the sea for industrial use. Nations attempt to extract the above mentioned resources from the sea on their own from their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or would cooperate with other nations to do so. In either case, such activities would impact bilateral and regional relationships. It is evident that all such activities have a maritime security dimension.

Projection and furtherance of national interests are carried out globally by nations through their foreign policy. National interests would normally consist of security of the country, well-being of its citizens and, of course, trade and commerce to enable economic progress of the nation. There are also nations that use foreign policy as a means to export their political or religious agenda to other parts of the world. In the modern era and more so in a democratic nation, foreign relations also have an impact on their domestic policies as the closeness developed by the ruling dispensation with some nations or power blocs, may not be appreciated by some of the other political parties in that country. This could include commercial favours being shown, be it in import or export to nations or companies. While globalisation has enhanced cooperation between countries moving beyond mere regional bonding, it has also brought with it domination of a different kind such as dumping of cheap goods, loss of jobs in some nations and trade embargos.

Military power has always been a key element in safeguarding national interests of any sovereign state. While sheer military might by itself not be enough, it would still have a major say in furthering economic and political interests of a nation. A question often posed is whether there is any maritime linkage or more specifically, links between the Navy of a nation and its foreign policy. Even though inadequately understood by many, the answer is evident for any nation with maritime frontiers. In case of India, a naturally maritime nation with its peninsular layout and over 7,500 kilometres of coastline, it clearly emerges that her national security and foreign policy have intrinsic links with maritime elements. India’s growing profile politically and economically in the world order and the shift of focus in global politics from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region has made it all the more important to examine the relevance of the Navy as an instrument of foreign policy.

Maritime power has been amplified by strategists as a combination of military, economic and political elements that permit a nation to exploit or use the sea for its benefits and to deny it to those who are inimical to its policies. It would be evident that maritime forces such as the navy and the Coast Guard provide the necessary military element to safeguard maritime interests of a nation. In the late 1970s, Ken Booth in his seminal work “Navies and Foreign Policy” established a comprehensive relationship between navies and the formulation and execution of Foreign Policy. The book examining the functions that navies can perform in war as well as in peace time, showed how the navy is an indispensable instrument of state policy. In Ken Booth’s opinion, “Governments of naval powers have frequently employed their warships in a diplomatic or political mode, hoping to affect the thinking and behaviour of other governments with little or no intention or expectation of using brute force. By diplomatic in this context is meant the use of warships in support of a country’s general bargaining position, particular negotiating stances and influence building tactics…The question of influence is right at the core of international relationships, but conceptual thinking and case studies remain the exception rather than the rule.”

Warships were floating national territory meant to structure thought patterns of observers and to impress them with a nation’s power…

Ken Booth went on to analyse the functions and role of Navies, broadly classifying them into policing, military and diplomatic. The diplomatic role was further expanded to functions enabling a nation to negotiate from a position of strength, manipulation of issues in its favour and to provide prestige or image projection. In his view, warships by their versatility, mobility and symbolism among other capabilities, were highly suitable as instruments of diplomacy. While there were also weaknesses such as inciting hostility or even encouraging unwanted expectations. Warships were floating national territory meant to structure thought patterns of observers and to impress them with a nation’s power. Citing many instances from history, Booth concluded that, when used effectively, naval diplomacy could strengthen relationships between nations, deter inimical actions and increase a country’s political influence.

Over the years, the use of sea power has had close links with economic growth and prosperity of nations. European powers were able to colonise and enhance their prosperity only due to their dominance at sea. This was particularly so in the case of Great Britain, as Pax Britannica could not have been achieved without her maritime strength or to be more specific, the influence of the Royal Navy. While navies may have had no direct role in deciding foreign policies, they have had a major hand in influencing the policy by their very presence and ability to create or change situations. The end of the Cold War saw significant changes in the global security environment. The United States emerged as the predominant global power and a major reason was the reach of its navy to project power in any corner of the world.

The economic importance of oceans to nations is well known. Nearly 80 percent of the world trade by volume is carried out through ships and this includes the energy needs of the world such as petroleum, both crude oil and its by-products and now increasingly, LNG. Trade and energy security or ensuring the uninterrupted flow of trade and energy needs via the sea route will remain a concern for most nations in the foreseeable future. This would, in turn, lead to bilateral and multi-lateral links at regional and global levels thus impacting foreign policy. It would be appreciated that oceans are also an important repository of energy as well as food resources. Furthermore, with improvement or availability of cheaper technology, nations also look to extract poly metallic nodules or other minerals from the sea for industrial use. Nations attempt to extract the above mentioned resources from the sea on their own from their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or would cooperate with other nations to do so. In either case, such activities would impact bilateral and regional relationships. It is evident that all such activities have a maritime security dimension.

India as a mature and responsible nation has always looked at its relationships with other nations based on principles of mutually beneficial prosperity and security…

Threats in the maritime arena could arise from a number of traditional and non-traditional areas. Traditional threats would be in the form of conflicts between nation states in the region through which Sea Lanes Of Communication (SLOC) pass. Economic and political instability in littoral states also affects trade and shipping activities. Natural disasters too impact on mercantile trade. The emergence of unconventional threats such as piracy and terrorism at sea, with non-state actors controlling these activities, has enhanced threats that impact vital strategic and economic interests of nations. Navies are, therefore, indispensable elements of foreign policy to safeguard security of maritime nations.

As brought out earlier, India is a maritime nation. It is almost an island as regards trade, with sea on three sides and the absence of good rail/road connectivity for bulk trade for a variety of reasons on its landward side. Hence, like the rest of the world, a major share of India’s trade is also through the SLOC and accounts for 90 percent of her trade by volume and 70 percent by value. The value of Indian exports by sea is worth $300 billion and imports are worth $450 billion. Crude oil and LNG are imported in large quantities to meet the growing energy needs of India. As the Indian economy and industry grows further, its energy needs would also grow.

As a growing economic and industrial power, apart from the Indian Ocean Region, India’s maritime interests now extend into the Pacific and Atlantic regions. Ensuring security of the SLOC to enable unhindered movement of ships and cargo is, therefore, vital for the economic growth of the nation. The Indian Navy (IN), therefore, has a major role in safeguarding India’s economic interests across the oceans.

As the then Minister of External Affairs, Pranab Mukherjee, while speaking at a Navy Foundation function in Kolkata in June 2007, spoke of the linkages between maritime affairs, international relations and the role of the Indian Navy. He said “The simple geographical fact that two-thirds of the surface of our planet is covered with water, gives rise to a peculiarly intimate relationship between international relations and maritime affairs. Yet, for too many centuries of our history, India has either neglected or devoted insufficient attention to this relationship. Fortunately, after almost a millennia of inward and landward focus, we are once again turning our gaze outwards and seawards, which is the natural direction of view for a nation seeking to re-establish itself not simply as a continental power, but even more so as a maritime power and consequently, as one that is of significance upon the global stage.” Recalling India’s rich maritime legacy of active trade links and cultural exchanges with the then known civilisations, he also brought out that it was only when the ruling elite forgot imperatives of maritime security that the country lost its domination in world trade and eventually, her independence.

India as a mature and responsible nation has always looked at its relationships with other nations based on principles of mutually beneficial prosperity and security. It has friendly relations with almost all states in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. India’s maritime diplomacy expands from immediate maritime neighbourhood to the entire Indo-Pacific and beyond. India cooperates actively with all of them to tackle threats from non-state actors, Search and Rescue, and in providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Ships of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, regularly conduct exercises with ships of many of these nations and with the navies of major maritime powers such as the US, Russia, France, the UK, and Japan.

At the time of independence, the Indian Navy, that virtually was a coastal force, developed with well-thought out long term plans into a Navy operating an aircraft carrier by early 1960s, and was operating submarines by the end of that decade. It was, however, not fully appreciated as a potent power till the 1971 war with Pakistan. On the diplomatic front, the deployment of two Indian Naval ships in 1988 to assist the Maldivian government and the subsequent capture of the fleeing rebels after the failed coup attempt highlighted the flexibility and capabilities of the Indian Navy to prominence. Nearly a decade later, the MV Alondra Rainbow incident, where a hijacked Japanese merchant vessel was rescued by the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, once again brought into world focus India’s maritime capabilities and the role the Indian Navy could play in providing security to the vessels of all nations operating in the region. Since then, the Indian Navy has played an increasing role in furthering India’s diplomatic initiatives by a number of activities such as seaward security to the African Union summit in Mozambique in 2003, UN missions off Somalia, HADR operations on a number of occasions including a major operation post the 2004 tsunami, anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden and evacuation of civilians from war-ravaged Lebanon.

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The Indian Navy has also been active in many multi-lateral initiatives that have linkages to India’s foreign policy, most prominent being the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a cooperative maritime security initiative with the naval Chiefs of nearly all littoral countries of the Indian Ocean Region as Members and Observers from countries outside the region. The IONS is a forum to develop a cooperative security framework pooling resources, exchanging information and building capacities as needed. While the IONS is a ten-year old initiative, the MILAN series of exercises have been conducted by the Indian Navy from 1995 biennially with participation from ARF nations. The Indian Coast Guard has been involved in the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy (ReCAPP), a government to government agreement to enhance cooperation against piracy. The Indian Navy has also been conducting exercises with many navies and undertaking regular port visits all over the world. Mission based deployments of the Indian Navy across the oceans apart from safeguarding economic interests of the nation, have also been an assuring security presence to many nations whose trade ply across the SLOCs in the Indo-Pacific region.

Ken Booth had effectively summed up the aspect of use of Navies for diplomacy by saying, “In short, effectively employed naval diplomacy can be used (usually incrementally) to maintain or increase a country’s political influence over allies, associates and third parties.” In the Indian context, Pranab Mukherjee had so aptly put the role of the Indian Navy as a tool of foreign policy by stating, “….that within the larger maritime canvas, it is our nation’s military maritime power as embodied by the Indian Navy, supported by the Indian Coast Guard, that is the enabling instrument that allows all other components of maritime power to be exercised. It is these enabling functions that provide centrality to the Indian Navy within the country’s overall maritime strategy and allow it to act as a versatile and effective instrument of our foreign policy.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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