Maritime security and linked issues are important elements of India’s foreign policy architecture. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are closely associated with many of the initiatives and have contributed towards expanding India’s diplomatic engagement in the IOR and beyond. This includes periodic bilateral and multi-lateral exercises, information exchanges through maritime domain awareness, working together in areas such as search and rescue, maritime safety, pollution control, maritime law enforcement which would include countering narcotics and piracy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) as well as exchange of ideas and views through seminars/dialogues on promoting maritime security and awareness. Long term engagement has also been initiated with several countries in capacity building, training assistance, refits of ships, joint exercises, coordinated patrols, supply of hardware and product support.
In an increasingly interdependent world, developments outside the country irrespective of whether it is in the immediate neighbourhood or in any corner of the world could have a profound impact on the economy and overall growth of a nation. This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than by the current global crisis caused by COVID-19. Indications are that the pandemic may change the world order, concepts of national security, balance of power and international trading patterns as we know today. While it may be a little early to analyse the full impact of the changes in post-COVID-19 world order, there is no doubt that Foreign Policy would remain as the major instrument available to any nation to promote and safeguard its national interests across the world. While there are several different facets of external relations that a country has to manage, over the past few decades, maritime domain has become a critical factor in the economic well-being of most nations. This is essentially due to the fact that nearly 90 percent of world trade including energy resources and other critical commodities are transported across the oceans. It is even more so for a predominantly maritime nation like India which can, therefore, ill afford to ignore the maritime dimension of its foreign policy.
The quintessential maritime character and geostrategic location of India are factors that had defined her growth as a nation over the centuries. Looking back into history, it can be seen that India always had a legacy of rich and sophisticated tradition of statecraft and diplomatic practices on how a state can promote and protect its interests. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise, states the need for an active foreign policy and covers inter-state relations extensively. Bulk of trade for India from time immemorial has been across the seas with the then-known world of Greece, Rome, SE Asia and China with a smaller element by land to Central Asia. There were cultural, political, economic and religious linkages across the seas. Surely, there was a broad strategy in the foreign relations that India has had with nations even in those days to advance her national interests.
Sardar KM Panikkar had foreseen the importance of maritime affairs in India’s destiny even before independence. He wrote, “In fact it may truly be said that India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the sixteenth century.” He had further concluded, “India’s security lies on the Indian Ocean; that without a well-considered and effective naval policy, India’s position will be weak, dependent on others and her freedom at the mercy of any country capable of controlling the Indian Ocean.” His words are even more relevant today, with the growing importance of the seas for trade, commerce and economic growth. Similar views were echoed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, when he said, “Oceans had an important place in Indian thinking since pre-Vedic times… In ancient Puranas, written thousands of years ago, the geographical definition of India is with reference to the seas… The Indian Ocean has shaped much of India’s history. It now holds the key to our future. The ocean carries 90 percent of India’s trade and our energy sources. It is also the lifeline of global commerce. The Indian Ocean connects regions of diverse cultures and different levels of peace and prosperity. It also now bears ships of major powers. Both raise concerns of stability and contest.”
Over the years, dominance at sea has directly impacted the economic growth and prosperity of nations. Globalisation and integration of economies has made maritime sphere even more important today. 50,000 ships transport 11 billion tonne of cargo worth $19.5 trillion annually, constituting nearly 90 percent of the world trade. This includes energy needs of the world such as petroleum, both crude and its by-products and now increasingly LNG. Ensuring the uninterrupted flow of trade and energy needs across the sea would, therefore, remain a concern for most nations in the foreseeable future. It implies that nations with significant maritime capabilities will always be more influential. European powers were able to colonise and enhance their prosperity only through their dominance of the seas. In the latter half of the 20th century, a major reason for the emergence of the United States as the predominant global power was the reach of its Navy to project power in any corner of the world. While Navies may have had no direct role in deciding foreign policy, they have had a major hand in influencing the policy by their very presence and ability to create or change situations.
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 pass. Economic and political instability in littoral states could also affect trade and shipping activities. Natural disasters could also 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. Such threats would in turn, lead to bilateral and multi-lateral links at regional and global level, impacting foreign policies. Maritime forces would, therefore, be indispensable elements of foreign policy to safeguard the maritime security of nations.
India has a vision of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) unshackled from historical divisions and bound together in collective pursuit of peace and prosperity. As a major and responsible nation, one of our foreign policy interests is to evolve a regional architecture based on the principles of shared security and prosperity. India is already playing and is poised to play an even more substantive role in this regard. We have friendly and useful bilateral relations with almost all the states in the IOR. India’s bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mauritius, Maldives, Myanmar, Seychelles, Oman, Mozambique, South Africa and others, facilitate access to all across the Indian Ocean. We also have close relations with the ASEAN countries, in particular Singapore and Vietnam. While some of these nations are India’s territorial neighbours, all are the nation’s maritime neighbours. India has had historical and civilisational ties with many of these countries with some of them having large Indian communities. Ties with these countries are, therefore, economic as well as cultural.
In addition to bilateral relations, India has undertaken a significant number of multilateral initiatives with almost all the regional bodies in the IOR to build a web of cooperative relations that bring together all the stakeholders based on mutual interest and benefit. These range from SAARC, BIMSTEC, EAS, ARF, ASEAN, GCC and SADC to the AU. The MILAN series of exercises hosted biennially by the Indian Navy is another multi-lateral initiative for building friendship and understanding among the participating navies. First conducted in 1995, with navies from four neighbouring nations in Andaman and Nicobar islands, it has grown over the years in scope and size. 41 nations were invited for the 2020 edition which was scheduled in March but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the other major initiatives with maritime linkages where India is actively involved are given in succeeding paragraphs.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) initially established as the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative, was formally launched in March 1997 and has 22 members and ten dialogue partners. It is aimed to promote regional co-operation and sustainable development of the region. Priority areas include maritime security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk management, science and technology, tourism and cultural exchanges, blue economy and women’s economic empowerment.
The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) was launched in February 2008 as a cooperative maritime security initiative following a meeting in New Delhi of the Chiefs of the Navies of nearly all littoral states of the Indian Ocean. The IONS provides a framework to promote shared understanding of maritime issues facing littoral states of the region so as to enhance regional maritime security and stability, establish and promote variety of cooperative mechanisms as well as develop inter-operability in terms of doctrines and procedures. It is to be a consultative regional forum for all IOR littoral Navies to periodically and regularly discuss issues that bear upon regional maritime security. It has 24 Members in four sub-regional littoral groups (South Asia, West Asia, East Africa, SE Asia and Australia) and eight Observers.
The Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM) provides an apex level platform for meeting of all major Coast Guard agencies in the Asian region. The first meeting was held in Tokyo in June 2004 to discuss ways to combat piracy and armed robbery in the region. It has since been expanded to include aspects of maritime security, law enforcement, search and rescue, environmental protection, capacity building and exchange of information and experiences on Coast Guard functions.
The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) set up in 2006 was the first regional Government-to-Government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery at sea in Asia. Initiatives by ReCAAP have significantly contributed to the enhancement of maritime security in the region and it was recognised as a model organisation by IMO. India was a founding member and contributed in setting up of the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) of RECAAP. India was also a founder member of the Contract Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) established in January 2009. It has been fully engaged in the efforts of the group to share information, coordinate actions of navies in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, raising public and merchant marine awareness and examining legal and criminal justice issues in respect of apprehended pirates. Further, the Indian Navy has been active in anti-piracy operations in the area and has also operated with other navies through the Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE) mechanism.
Expanding its vision beyond the IOR, India has also been a participant in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), a series of biennial meetings of the Pacific nations to discuss naval matters held on even numbered years. A WPNS workshop is held in odd numbered years in between the symposium. First held in 1988, it has 21 Member countries and eight Observer nations including India. The WPNS aims to enhance cooperation and confidence building between navies and exchange information on a broad range of maritime matters.
The ASEAN+ eight Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM Plus) is a significant milestone in the evolving security architecture in the Asia Pacific region. The ADMM Plus has identified maritime security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), military medicine, counter terrorism and peace keeping operations as areas for cooperation. India is seen as an important stakeholder in the ADMM+ activities.
In March 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled India’s strategic vision for the IOR as one of Security and Growth for All in the Region more popularly known as SAGAR. It was an assurance of a cooperative approach to littorals involving maritime security and economic cooperation for overall development of the region. This possibly was a key factor in admitting India in March 2020, as the fifth observer with China, Malta, EU and International Organisation of La Francophonie being others in the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), an intergovernmental organisation of five island nations (Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Seychelles) in the Western Indian Ocean. Apart from helping India in expanding its footprint and influence in the strategically important Western Indian Ocean, it will also give greater significance to SAGAR. Linking up with Madagascar-based Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre of IOC could help India enhance maritime domain awareness in the area.
Maritime security and linked issues, as would be evident from the above are important elements of India’s foreign policy architecture. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are closely associated with many of the initiatives and have contributed towards expanding India’s diplomatic engagement in the IOR and beyond. This includes periodic bilateral and multi-lateral exercises, information exchange through maritime domain awareness, working together in areas such as search and rescue, maritime safety, pollution control, maritime law enforcement which would include countering narcotics and piracy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) as well as exchange of ideas and views through seminars/dialogues on promoting maritime security and awareness. Long term engagement has also been initiated with several countries in capacity building, training assistance, refits of ships, joint exercises, coordinated patrols, supply of hardware and product support.
Oceanic routes are the global commons for trade and commerce. Dependence on maritime trade will only increase as movement of energy and other strategic commodities would be across the seas in the foreseeable future. Any threats to the free movement of ships could have catastrophic effects on the world economy. With growing globalisation, maritime domain will therefore become an increasingly critical factor from the point of economy as well as security of nations. The way ahead clearly lies in cooperative security and closer understanding between nations to ensure maritime security as no nation alone would be able to tackle all the challenges. Maritime forces with their attributes of mobility, reach and versatility, can substantially contribute to trans-national cooperation and bring in peace and stability. IOR and the larger Asia-Pacific offers a wonderful opportunity to exploit these attributes.
India has emerged and will remain an influential player in the maritime arena for a variety of reasons. It is already a maritime power with global reach. India’s soft power attributes gives her an advantage that few countries have. But India needs to devise a long term strategic plan and recast her foreign policy towards utilising her maritime capabilities to its full potential. India also needs to look at Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific as one region as urged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018. He expressed the view that, “The human kind now looks to the rising East, with the hope to see the promise this 21st century beholds for the whole world, because the destiny of the world will be deeply influenced by the course of developments in the Indo-Pacific region.”